Jul 292013
 
Colorado Wine

Photo Credit: Michael Wangbickler

Last week I visited The Centennial State as a judge at the Best of Fest Wine Competition. Hosted by the Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE), Best of Fest is Colorado’s “most prestigious local wine competition” for Colorado wine.

I can pretty confidently state that I’m probably (is that enough hedging?) the most knowledgeable California blogger on Colorado wine now. In the past two years, I’ve visited the state three times (once on the Front Range and twice in the Grand Valley).  I can tell you that it is one of the most unique growing areas anywhere in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful and the people are exceptionally welcoming.

Colorado Wine: A Rockies Road

And how is Colorado wine? Well, to be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve tasted hundreds of examples from the past several vintage. There are some very GOOD wines being produced, but there are also some very BAD wines as well. Colorado’s not unique in that regard. Any wine growing region is going to have its stinkers (including California). In Colorado’s case, however, it’s probably more pronounced. Since they only have about 1,000 planted grapevine acres and around 60 producers, the bad apples tend to float to the top. Which, in my opinion, is a great disservice to the  truly great winemakers of the area. The good gets lumped in with the bad and the whole industry suffers.

This disparity in wine quality is one of the reasons that competitions like Best of Fest are so important. It’s a validation for the better producers and a way for consumers to know which Colorado wine they should pick up for dinner this evening.

Best of Colorado

This was the second year the competition took place in Colorado, though it was held for years back east before that. The one main difference with this year’s Best of Fest, which I wholeheartedly applaud, is that they added an important element in judging criteria: Only wines that are Colorado Appellation or from one of Colorado’s AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) were able to enter. Simply stated, this means wines must be made from 75 percent Colorado grapes.

Wait, what? You read that right. Before this year, Colorado wineries could enter wines they made from fruit sourced outside the state. Several of the larger producers import wines and grapes from California and make or bottle them in Colorado. It makes economic sense. It’s basically an insurance policy for an area known for winterkill and frost damage. It’s a bit confusing (or misleading) for the consumer, however, and doesn’t really support local growers. So, the fact that the competition made this change is a very good thing for Colorado wine.

“Our winemakers have always been the stars of the industry and now we are elevating our amazing grape-growing industry, too,” says Cassidee Shull, executive director of the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE).

This was no fanboy lovefest. All the judges evaluated these wines critically and rigorously. Using a stringent judging standard designed to reward wines for shining in quality, not just passing minimum standards, 44 percent, or 73, of the 165 entries received medals.

Fruit Basket

It’s not all grapes though. The state is also known for it’s fruit wines and meads. Now, many wine ‘experts’ tend to poo-poo wines made with anything other than grapes. They shouldn’t. When well made, these wines are the very essence of the fruit they’re made from and very popular with consumers. Most are sweet, which appeals to a broad audience. In addition, there are several winemakers making excellent dessert wines. In fact, a third of all medal wines from the competition were fruit, mead or dessert wines, with ports a very strong category.

Diversity is the Key

The breadth of the wines offered in Colorado makes the area pretty unique.

“Colorado is an impressively diverse, emerging wine region,” says Richard Leahy, Best of Fest Competition Chair. “Its two AVAs (West Elks and Grand Valley) provide a range of varietals from cool climate classics to red Bordeaux and Rhone varieties and blends. In addition, fruit wines and meads are very strong as are ports. Colorado may statistically be the state (not growing hybrid grapes) offering the most diversity of any in the country, not just in grape varieties but in fruit and non-fruit wines.”

“I like the originality and experimentation in Colorado wine,” Leahy continues. “Graystone Vineyards only produces port wines, St. Kathyrn’s specializes in mead and fruit wines, and they produce a lavender wine (made in a riesling base) that flies out of the winery, and got a silver medal in this competition. This shows the diversity possible in Colorado wine but also the spirit of pioneer individualism that is part of the Western character and a refreshing change from the herd mentality of the corporate wine world.”

The Results

So, here are the category winners of the competition:

Best of Fest winners:
Best of Category Red Wine
Turquoise Mesa Winery Crimson 2011

Best of Category White Wine
Plum Creek Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Best of Fest Fruit, Berry and Mead
St. Kathryn Cellars Blueberry Bliss

Best of Fest Dessert Wines
Graystone Winery Port V 2005

* “Best of Fest” wines are recognized as best in a category and received no less than a gold medal. “Best of Category” is the highest scoring wine in a category where there were no gold or double gold medals. 

A list of the remaining medal winners is posted on the CAVE website. I enjoyed my time in Colorado and look forward visiting again.

Disclaimer: CAVE paid my expenses to participate as a judge in the Best of Fest wine competition.

Jun 132013
 

More than 70 top  judges were assembled in Sacramento for the California State Fair Wine Competition, which ran for three days. Exhausting work, but somebody’s got to do it.

California State Fair Wine Competition - Dinner

There were, of course, a few perks.  And one of them was to have dinner at the Glorious Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento.  We were given a tour  of the mansion, complete with ballroom and billiards salon, and then seated out in the garden for an evening of great food and even better camaraderie.  Look closely at the photo, and you will recognize some of the best palates in the state!

California State Fair Wine Competition - Mansion

Mar 092012
 

Monterey Wine CompetitionThe Monterey Wine Competition began in 1994, and I have judged all but two years of that run, making me one of the real old timers in the crew. And it’s the one competition that I really try to make every year. Held not in Monterey or even Salinas, this one is in King City, which is miles from everything except some of the more memorable vineyards in the state. The whole town shows up to make the judges feel welcome, and it must be one of the high points of the social season there. In some ways, it is for us, too!

And the judges are wonderful–dear friends who share wine, food, jokes and stories from year to year. This year I was on a panel with Ron Rawlinson, who has been a retailer, winery sales manager, Cal Poly marketing instructor, and great friend for nearly 20 years; and Traci Dutton, the remarkable and wonderful wine buyer and sommelier for the Culinary Institute of America for years. She is the one who buys the wines for the classes I teach there—and makes that a pleasure every single time.

So what did we like? Well, like all judges, we disagreed on some wines. But there were at least ten wines in the sweepstakes round alone that really got my attention:

I loved the:

  • Best Blanc De Blanc – Baileyana Winery Cuvee 1909, Firepeak Vineyard Edna Valley

Made by Christian Roguenant—a dear friend who has judged this competition for years. He is often asked to judge the sparkling wines, and his wines often wine awards. So this year the sparkling panel did not include Christian. And his wines won again. But even more impressive were the Gloria Ferrer sparklers. I love these wines, and four of them were either platinum medals or Best of Show. Not bad, eh?

Navarro Winery continues to make consistently great Gewurztraminer, and so it was no surprise theirs won this category

But the best white wine award went to Zocker’s new Gruner Veltliner….made by that same Christian Roguenant

  • Zocker 2010 Gruner Veltliner, Paragon Vineyards Edna Valley

 

This was a lovely Bordeaux blend wine, and I voted for it as the best red wine of the competition. Yummy fruit, great balance, delightful wine.

And for pure Cabernet, the V Sattui was also nice. Dario and his crew consistently wine medals at major competitions…much to the surprise of many of his Napa Valley neighbors. They also got a platinum medal for their Petite Sirah.

In the dessert wine category, I loved two of the wines:

Delicious, with enough grip to be serious, although I do regret their decision to call it Port. It does not come from Portugal

And even better was this wine from New York State…how great is it that we are seeing such wonderful wines from other states?

And one that got a platinum medal but somehow didn’t make it into the sweepstakes round:

Year in and year out, one of the most consistently good bottles of wine you can buy