Have you ever attended an International Wine Competition?
Well I have, and this my story. As always with wine, this is a story of sharing – through judging in this instance.
Just a few weeks ago, I was judging at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, one of the world’s most respected wine award competitions.
This is the story of a former winemaker, turned blogger tasting and judging wines from all around the world with illustrious world-of-wine personalities, and more simply, amazing wine people.
A brief History of the L.A. Int’l Wine Comp
I guess Los Angeles is not that young a city! (in fact, it was claimed by the Spanish in 1542).
But with my European background, I guess I didn’t think of L.A. as old wine-centered city like Bordeaux, Florence, or Oporto could be.
When I first received an invitation to judge at the 2016 L.A. International Wine Competition, I was therefore surprised to learn that the 2016 edition was going to be the 77th.
In fact, the competition’s history simply began shortly after the end of prohibition in the early 1930s, when the annual L.A. County Fair started awarding medals to the finest wines in California.
Despite achieving ‘word-class status’ on the American continent, attracting wines from North and South America, the L.A. competition wasn’t open to worldwide international wines until 2002.
Since 1968, the L.A. County Fair has hosted public wine tastings and to this day, it provides the opportunity to nearly 100 world wine experts to judge.
I felt honored to be one of these judges at the 2016 edition of THE L.A. International Wine Competition.
From the French Mediterranean Coast I call home, to the West Coast of the United States, a long transatlantic flight via Ireland took me from my Languedoc-Roussillon wine country I now call home to California.
From the dry vineyards of Roussillon To Ireland in 30 seconds – Video:
The Judges of the 2016 L.A. Int’l Wine Competition:
The 77th edition of the L.A. Wine Comp was judged by around 70 illustrious judges from all sides of the mainly-US wine industry, including:
- Sommeliers: Cassandra Brown, Paul Coker, Joy Cushing, Fred Dame MS, Michael Madrigale, Spreti Valente,Eiji Mori
- Winemakers: Michael McCay, Adam LaZarre, Keith Mabry, Jon C. McPherson, Laely Heron, Gary Eberle
- Marketers & Communicators: Wilfred Wong, Chris Braun, Paul Wagner, Kimberly Charles
- Trade people: Brian Weitzman, Rob Holder, Andrew Turner
- Journalists: Stacie Hunt, Bernard Burtschy
- & Many More… (sorry for everyone I missed ) 🙂
Find the full list of judges at 2016 Los Angeles International Wine Competition Judges.
Leading the judging panel as the Honorary Chairman since 2012 was Michael A. Jordan, MS, CWE, one of only fifteen in the world to hold both the Master Sommelier and the Certified Wine Educator Diplomas.
Judging the L.A. Int’l Wine Competition:
The judging at the LA Wine Competition takes place over two full days at the Fairplex facilities in Pomona, California.
Judges are grouped into panels of four.
Each 4-judge panel sits at a table, and gets assigned wines to judge, about 100 wines for each day gathered into categories.
In each panel, the four judges taste all the wines in the category, assessing their quality. Once all judges have tasted all wines of a given category, comes a deliberation to select the best wines and assign them medals.
3 out of the 4 judges of each panel have to had assigned the same medal for a wine to be awarded with that medal. For a gold medal to be awarded for example, at least 3 of the four judges at the table have to have assessed the wine as deserving to be a ‘Gold’.
Because of the quality of the judges, and because there has to be a consensus for medals to be awarded, needless to say that the awarded wines are truly outstanding.
To illustrate more practically how the judging process goes, let me elaborate on my experience and the judging panel I was part of.
My Judging Panel:
My judging table was composed of highly-experienced wine professionals, all of them with many years of experience tasting and assessing wines.
To give you an idea of their skills, here is who they are (descriptions quoted from the List of 2016 Los Angeles International Wine Competition Judges):
- Laely Heron‘s unconventional upbringing in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the US may explain the wanderlust which has led to her passion for international wine studies and winemaking. She began at the Institute of Enology in Bordeaux, and worked with wines in the US, Australia, and Scandinavia before starting Heron Wines 22 years ago. Laely has made wine in France, Spain, and Napa. Last year was busy-she launched a new Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon called LAELY, and realized a dream when she became the proud owner of 2 small vineyards; one in Chateau-Neuf de Pape, and the other in Gigondas. These wines will be available in 2017. Laely is also the owner Heron Wines.
- Michael McCay, owner/winemaker of McCay Cellars, says he has a simple goal: to make wine with a sense of presence and character that expresses the trueness of the vineyard. He has farmed wine grapes in Lodi for 25 years. He came to Lodi in the early 1980s, planted a vineyard, started making wine in 1994, and launched his own family label McCay Cellars in 2007. Sometimes in life, if we are really, really blessed we get to follow our passion. Wine and everything about it has been a passion of Michael for decades. In the early 1980’s Linda (Michael’s wife) and Michael spent time exploring Northern California Wine Country. Michael tasted, watched and learned everything he could about the art of winemaking. Right from the beginning, he fell in love with a wine which has a tremendous sense of “presence and character”… ZINFANDEL. Zinfandel ha.
- Andrew Turner is the National Sales/Brand Manager for Clos Pepe Estate in the Sta Rita Hills. He is a Certified Sommelier and previously was the sommelier at Michael’s Restaurant for 7 years.
It was somehow daunting to be surrounded and to be judging with such experienced wine people.
A serious wine taster should always question his own tasting abilities. So I did!
Was I good enough to be judging among these highly-qualified professionals? What if I too were judged during the competition?
The friendliness of the panel was outstanding, and helped me relax. It reminded me why I chose to work in the wine industry in the first place, beyond the fact that wine is an amazing product: the wine industry is full of great friendly people!
Such a warm welcome put me in a confident mood to make the most of my tasting abilities. Being in the right state of mind for tasting and a positive environment is essential to a good judging panel, just as important as being composed of good taster!
The wines we were given to taste were as follows, in short:
Day 1 of Judging:
- Pinot Noirs from 2012 and earlier
- Cabernet Sauvignons 0-$19.99
- Bordeaux blends above $30
- Chardonnays $15-$29.99
- A large bunch of Rosé wines (see video below)
Day 2 of Judging:
- Quite a few French wines from various areas (Bordeaux, mainly, but also Loire and Languedoc)
- More Chardonnays $15-$29.99 (see video below)
- Non-Vintage Merlots
- Ice Wines (Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Other Varietals)
Tasting through these different wine categories, my doubts around my tasting abilities quickly dissipated.
I may not have had as many years of tasting experience as many of the other judges (Masters of Wine, Masters Sommelier and outstanding winemakers), but I guess my years of making high-end wines around the world, and the two years of intense studies of the world of wine for passing the WSET Diploma gave my palate some solid basis!
I was happily surprised to find out that many of my favorite wines, the ones that stood out in quality for me, were also the ones that other judges had identified as strong potential medalists.
Our panel worked in a remarkable collaborative and open-minded spirit making the medals-assigning a rather straight-forward process. The awarded wines simply were the bests of the lots, the ones we all found were the outstandingly-good ones.
Having 4 judges to agree on the quality of the wines give the awards a feel of consensus. The awarded wines not only have to be good for one person, but they also have to satisfy with the expectations of a variety of palates. It is therefore somewhat of a guarantee that they should also satisfy the demands of many consumers out there.
These are probably some of the strengths of the L.A. Int’l Wine Competition: quality judges, positive attitude, respect, skills, and collaborative decisions for the awards.
Because tasting wine all day is hard work, and because if you put a bunch of wine lovers together there has to be some enjoyment happening, the 2016 L.A. Int’l Wine Competition also provided its judges with relaxing sharing-times around food and wine.
Day 1: Santa Barbara County Wine and Food Pairing
Day 2: Grand Dinner at The Farm at Fairplex
On the immense Pomona Fairplex Complex (that hosts the annual L.A. County Fair) is a nice quiet spot where vegetables are grown, and good food and wine are enjoyed: The Farm at Fairplex.
It was the scene for a grand dinner for the L.A. wine judges, exhausted after a long day of judging.
Who knew salmon could pair so well with California Zinfandel!?!
So long as it’s dressed with a creamy hazelnut sauce (see image on the right below). And so long as the Zin is good and refined. It was certainly the case with this 2012 Beekeeper, wine of the night for me.
Day 3: Texan Barbecue with Medal-Winning Wines
The opportunity to try many of the 2015 Gold Medal winning wines gave us, on day 3, the demonstration that the awarded wines are consistently good.
It also showcased how much American food (in the form of a Texan Barbecue here) is wine-friendly!
Did you know that very old Port wines can also win medals? Of course, because those were outstanding (see picture on the right below).
I hope this humble insight into one of the world’s most respected international wine competition has been interesting to you. If that’s the case, or not, I’d love to hear your comments in the comments section below.
In any way, I hope I will get a chance to participate to this competition again, and to many more, and share further thoughts and understanding of them as I keep learning, with you.
What do I Love about judging wine competitions? The sharing:
- Sharing views on wines and good times with fellow wine professionals
- And even more importantly, sharing expertise with wine consumers through identifying the best wines out there and highlighting them with medals, for everyone to enjoy… better wines.