Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The NextGeneration: How Millenials do Wine Competitions

 Wine: the final frontier. These are the voyages of a group of Millenials. Our continuing mission: to explore, seek out and declare our tastes in wine. To go boldly where no one has gone before. Ok, well maybe it's not totally unexplored territory. Last week, I judged in the NextGeneration Wine Competition at the beautiful Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm in Santa Rosa. The competition was marketed as a way for wineries to gain exposure through the various social channels that we younguns use. And guess what, it is working. Somewhat. I'll mention the few wines that impressed me from the sweepstakes tasting.

While I (and the judges as a group) found some wines that impressed us, overall I thought the competition showed mediocrity. Just as Joe Roberts found out at the Lake County Wine Awards, most of the wines submitted were just ok. However, most of the judging was also just ok. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus, and the event was setup beautifully. I greatly appreciated having one organizer lead each of the five three or four person panels. Everything behind the curtain seemed to go off without a hitch (except for the occasional sound of glass shattering). The organization was top-notch. However, I would be willing to bet that less that half of the Millenial judges had ever been involved with a wine competition before. This might also be seen as an advantageous trait. While I have been a part of the Colorado State Winemaking Competition the past two years, I was not an official judge (although I did fill in a few empty spots from time to time). Due to this inexperience and maybe prejudiced palates (see Matt Kramer's recent piece in the Wine Spectator), I think the medal results should be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, I think all wine competition medal results should be taken with a whole salt shaker.

Some judges decided that wines did not deserve any medal because they didn't like them. There was nothing wrong with the wine other than not suiting personal preferences. All of the judges were in the wine industry and have been drinking (quality) wine perhaps daily for the past few years. This industry experience perhaps skewed our perception of what "decent" wine is. As one judge said, "we know what excellent wine tastes like and many of these wines were not there." Perhaps, but does the general wine consumer know what a 15-yr old Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like? Also, all but two judges were from California, yet there was a disclaimer at the morning meeting that many of the wines were from the East Coast and we were not to bring a California palate to the tables. I don't know how much this was an issue as two of the final five were from New York, but I'd be willing to bet few of the judges had ever tasted concord, muscadine or vignoles wines before.

Both organizers, judges and consumers need to be aware of what competition medals actually mean. When I think of medals I think that bronze medal-winning wines are commercially viable wines that I would likely drink if given a glass at a party. I would actually by a bottle of silver medal-winning wines, and I would buy multiple bottles of gold-medal winning wines and recommend them to my friends. Awarding these medals can be difficult. Take for example the sweet red wine that was in my red blend (mostly meritage blends). While it was a good sweet red, my panel had a difficult time judging it on its merits when it might be a poorly made meritage or a misclassified entry. In a flight of like wines, it might have received a gold, but in the flight of 11 other big reds all we could muster was a bronze.

With this being only the second year of the competition (and the first managed by Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine), I am confident that the competition will only improve. Judges will get more experience and (hopefully) come from more diverse wine regions. As wineries realize that younger consumers will comprise more of their customer base, more wineries will send their wines to be evaluated by Millenials. I think that this competition has the potential to yield greater publicity for the top wines because of my cohort's propensity to use social networks to share wine recommendations. I know that I found a few wines that I will definitely seek out and share here.

At the top of my list from the competition was the 2008 Bokisch Lodi Tempranillo. This blend of tempranillo and graciano could easily be confused for a Reserva Rioja. This wine stood out on the nose and palate for me as the best of the competition. The eventual Best of Show wine was no slouch either. The 2007 Cougar Crest Anniversary Cuvée Red Wine tasted like third or fourth growth Bordeaux from a good but unheralded vintage and was the near unanimous winner. Smooth, supple and complex, this wine will please those that are turning away from the Bordelais producers and do not want the big, bold cabernets from Napa. My third favorite red was the 2008 Pietra Santa Sassolino, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot from Cienega Valley. If you're looking for a cheaper version of a Super Tuscan, this is it. Finally, I think that some of the judges were put off by my favorite white being a Chardonnay, but the 2010 Windsor Vineyards Sonoma County Chardonnay was one of the most balanced California chardonnays I've tasted. Fruit and acidity dominate this wine instead of oak and butter. If I can find these in Colorado, I'm buying. If not, I'm going to the wineries' websites to figure out how to get some!

Full disclosure: The competition paid my expenses for the event, including air fare, car rental, some meals and lodging.

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