By Mac McCarthy/SavvyTaste
I had the opportunity and pleasure to join SavvyTaste founder Lew Perdue in my third year of judging at the San Joaquin Valley 2013 Wine Competition, which was held at the Ramos Torres Winery tasting room in Kingsburg, south of Fresno, in the Central Valley of California.
This warm, flat, sunny land is the heart of California’s enormous productive farmland producing rice, fruit, vegetables, most of the almonds grown in the world, and is also the center of grape production. Most of these grapes go into cheap jug wines and box wines (and eating grapes), but also popular volume wines from Turning Leaf, Barefoot Cellars, Carlo Rossi, Weibel, and Naked Grape, among many others. The wineries in this area also offer, as it happens, some finer wines a considerable step up from the mass-market high-volume wines, and the annual San Ramon Valley Wine Competition is intended to highlight and publicize these efforts. I get a big kick out of driving out from the San Francisco Bay Area to see what their efforts are producing.
In previous years I've judged, the process was long tables with the judges sitting side-by-side tasting flights in unison and judging on their own, with little or no discussion or kibitzing. I have to say, it tended to be a bit boring, especially since you start tasting and spitting before 9 AM, finishing up at noon. The tastiness of the wines varies a lot; occasionally you taste a really good one but you don’t know whose it is because it’s a blind tasting – all you have is an ID number.
This year they have a new head of the competition and he made a radical change – and I like the change a lot.
We were seated around tables, four or six judges at each. Our orders were to reach a consensus of the table as to the wines we were tasting – to discuss each flight and decide what we thought. This turned the judging from a lone slog into an interesting, even educational social event.
The judging process was much simpler than in years past – instead of a 20-point scale of several dimensions, this time things were reduced to their simplest: We were to decide whether each wine we tasted deserved a medal – Gold, Silver, or Bronze – or no medal at all. Couldn't be simpler.
Our table included wine journalist and marketing consultant Mike Stepanovich; Jessica, a young woman who works in the Ramos Torres tasting room (I didn't get her last name; apologies); and a young winemaker, Nick DeHart, of Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, a tiny town in the foothills outside of Fresno.
Nick’s expert commentary on the wines as we tasted them was invaluable: He’d point out aspects and elements of the wines that helped us focus and form our opinions – especially when it came to the “balance” of the wine, a key aspect that really summarizes the whole wine. Nick’s quiet guidance was much appreciated; he didn't push his opinion or his expertise, he just pointed out this or that feature of the wines, giving us things to think about.
It was also interesting to see Jessica’s reactions. She often had a different take on the wines from the rest of us, liking some much more than we did, disliking others that we liked. Just as interesting was seeing how entirely self-assured she was in her tastes: She might have been considerably younger than two of us, and she wasn’t a winemaker, but she knew exactly what she liked, and was unfazed when her opinion varied from ours. I liked that about her, especially since our slogan here at SavvyTaste is “Drink what you like.”
To my disappointment, we got few whites and no Roses to taste. But we did get and appreciated the ’10 Alicante Bouschet from Cedar View Winery (which got a Gold), and the NV Alicante Bouschet from Silkwood Wines (Best of Class), the ’11 Chenin Blanc-Viognier Blend from Pepi (Gold), and the ‘09 Petit Verdot from Cardella (Gold).
So a good time was had by all. Though I could see that the approach in this competition would tend to yield more medal winners than a complex 20-point scale might, it was a lot more fun. And we didn’t give medals to any sub-par wines. I also recognize that this approach helps the competition hand out more medals, which the winemakers love, of course, because it helps move the merchandise, since so many casual wine buyers are much impressed by medals (as by 90-point labels).
Another purpose of this competition is a dual one: To persuade the public, over time, that the San Joaquin Valley is capable of producing fine wines in addition to jug wines and eating grapes – and to reward Valley winemakers who stretch to produce fine wines even when that’s not where the volume or big money is.
So how are they doing? The first competition I judged, four years ago, there were not many truly fine wines in the tasting; almost all were drinkable, but only a couple of Syrahs and a really fine Chenin Blanc were truly fine wines. The following year, the quality of the entries overall had noticeably risen. I missed last year’s event. This year I only tasted two wines I thought sub-par and a few that, while fun to drink, could not be considered high level. The majority were quite good; many were better than quite good; and a few were indeed fine wines.
The San Joaquin Valley is heading in the right direction. They aren’t Napa yet and, given their environment probably never will be; they aren’t even Lodi yet. But they are good enough that if you find yourself in the Valley it would be worth your time to search out a few tasting rooms and checking them out. I’d especially like to point out Nick’s Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, Saviez Family Estates in Fresno, Pepi in Parlier (near Fresno), and Cardella in Mendota (smack in the Central Valley between Interstate 5 and State 99). And especially Cedar View Winery in Sanger, just east of Fresno: their Syrah, Grenache, and Tempranillo are delicious.