Story and photos by Dwight Casimere
Chicago-Anthony Dias Blue is one of the most influential wine writers, food critics and lifestyle personalities in the United States. The James Beard Foundation Award-winner is sought after as a commentator on both TV and radio and in cyberspace. His best-selling books (Anthony Dias Blue’s Pocket Guide to Wine, Fireside, $13.50), Anthony Dias Blue’s Complete Book of Spirits, Quill, $24.50) are read by thousands of wine and spirits consumers around the globe. As Executive Director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, he serves as the leader of the largest and most influential wine judging event in the United States and is the Founding Director of its sister event, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Some 15 years ago, I had the privilege of serving on the Wine Judging Panel of the San Francisco International Wine Competition. The tasting sessions were held at the University of San Francisco. I can attest to the rigorous tasting standards and the esteemed character of the tasting panel members that, at the time, included such august names in the food and wine industry as Jeremiah Tower, Harvey Steinman, Stanley Eichelbaum, Patricia Unterman and Ruth Reichl.
This year’s judges were equally as prestigious. Arriving from all points across the United States, 45 wine industry professionals convened June 18th, 19th and 20th to evaluate 3,897 wines from 1,290 wineries during the San Francisco International Wine Competition held at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. In its 30th anniversary year, the San Francisco International Wine Competition examined wines from 28 states and 27 countries. The medal count included 160 Double Gold awards (a wine is elevated to Double Gold status when all judges on a particular panel agree that a wine deserves a Gold medal), 276 Gold medals, 1,118 Silver and 1,343 Bronze.
“Best in Show” awards went to: Whitecliff Vineyard 2009 Riesling, New York, $15, for Best White Wine; Sequana 2008 Pinot Noir, Sarmento Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, $32, for Best Red Wine; Piper Sonoma NV Blanc de Blancs, Sonoma Coast, $17, for Best Sparkling Wine and Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2007 Vidal Ice Wine, Proprietor’s Reserve, Niagara Peninsula, Canada, $40, for Best Dessert Wine.
Hess Family Estates, Napa, California, was recognized with the “Portfolio Award” for excellence across a spectrum of brands. Winemaker Amanda Cramer, Niner Wine Estates, Paso Robles, California, won the coveted Andre Tchelistcheff “Winemaker of the Year” award. The Tasting Panel Magazine “Winery of the Year” award went to De Tierra Vineyard of Salinas, California.
Best of Varietal” winners were awarded in eighteen different categories in 2010: Brancott Vineyards, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, B, Marlborough, New Zealand, $26, won Best Sauvignon Blanc; Church & State Wines, 2008 Chardonnay, Gravelbourg Vineyard, Okanagan Valley, Canada, $25, won Best Chardonnay; Clavo Cellars, 2007 Petite Sirah, Dreamer, Catherine’s Vineyard, Paso Robles, $30, won Best Petite Sirah; Consensio Cellars, 2008 Tempranillo, Symphony of Wine Series, Amador County, $30, won Best Tempranillo; Elk Run Vineyards, 2008 Cabernet Franc, Cold Friday Vineyard, Maryland, $28, won Best Cabernet Franc; Gonzalez Bayass, NV Nectar, Superior Selection, Jerez, Spain, $18, won Best Sherry; Goose Watch Winery, 2009 Diamond, Finger Lakes, $10, won Best Native American Varietal; Hahn SLH Estate, 2007 Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands, $27, won Best Syrah; Jeff Runquist Wines, 2008 Barbera, Amador County, $24, won Best Barbera; Kavaklidere, 2009 Egeo Roze, Aegean, Turkey, $19, won Best Rose; Maple Creek Winery, 2007 Zinfandel, Artevino, Largo Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino County, $26, won Best Zinfandel; Montevina Wines, 2009 Pinot Grigio, California, $10, won Best Pinot Grigio; Niner Wine Estates, 2007 Fog Catcher, Paso Robles, $58, won Best Bordeaux Blend; Okunomatsu, 2009 Shizukuzake Juhachidai Sake, Fukushima, Japan, $50, won Best Sake; Paradise View, 2006 Malbec, Sonoma Coast, $32, won Best Malbec; Quinta do Vesuvio, 2007 Port, Douro Portugal, $73, won Best Port; Robert Hall Winery, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, $18, won Best Cabernet Sauvignon and Still Waters Vineyards, 2006 Merlot, Estate, Paso Robles, $22, won Best Merlot.
Looking at the expansive field of candidates and the breadth and scope of the wines before me, I could see instantly how both the competition and the industry has grown since the reference point of my involvement in the competition 15 years ago.
Fast forward to 2010 and we once again encounter Anthony Dias Blue holding center court in the upstairs private dining hall of the EPIC restaurant and wine bar in Chicago’s hot River North dining Mecca where he is presenting the ‘best of the best’ of the competition’s 2010 Double Gold Winners.
“These truly are some of the best wines and spirits to be had anywhere. I have to really give our panel of judges their props for taking the time to give all of the entries the serious consideration they deserved. The surprising contrast between what’s being offered to consumers now and what you may have experienced when you were a judge all those years ago, is the quality of the wines. Overall, what we’re seeing in the marketplace is a dramatic increase in not only the quality of the wine, but the variety of expressions by the individual winemakers. No longer are we seeing producers developing wines in a lock step as to how a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir should taste, but we’re now seeing the distinctive mark of the winemakers come through. We’re also seeing some surprising developments in some ‘newer’ areas of the wine-growing world that were totally unfamiliar to wine drinkers on these shores as little as a decade ago.”
Recalling the exacting standards imposed in the judging of the wine and spirits entries, Blue offered promising prospects for the future of wine and some insights into how they are judged.
“There’s really a lot of common sense involved in addition to the technical knowledge and expertise. The judges look for the same things in the wine as the consumer does and they ask themselves a lot of the same questions. First of all, is it a good wine? Does it taste good? Does it have body and character? What are some of the flavor components and do they work well together? It involves more than just looking for acid balance or the presence of tannins or taking a bunch of tasting notes. The overall impression is that all of the factors come together to give a complete and satisfying tasting experience. That’s what the judges look for and that’s what wine drinkers who will ultimately buy these wines are looking for as well.”
Words well said from the Maestro! After posing for a few pictures, Blue led me through a tasting of some of the wines that especially drew his attention. One of the distinct favorites and the wine that was judge Best Cabernet Sauvignon was the 2007 Robert Hall Winery Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles. This was a surprising value-priced $18 a bottle.
This was truly a Cab lover’s cabernet in every way. It had a long, deep finish with rich flavors of blackberry and smooth tannins. There was a rich mouth-feel that revealed hints of lavender and smoke as it reached the back of the throat. There was a selection of gourmet goats’ milk cheeses, including a ripe Mobier and a Humboldt Fog chevre from Sonoma County. They proved to be a rich counterpoint to the lavish notes of the wine.
Jules Taylor 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand was another favorite that brought me back several times. This was another entry that made the statement with resounding resonance that a great wine need not be also expensive. At a mere $15, it is on par with the great Sav Blancs of the world.
Italy brought forth the ultimate value of the Double Gold winners with its $12 2008 Corvina-Ripasso, IGT from Veneto (Venice). Crisp and fruity, it is a wine intended to stand up to good food, but it can also be offered as an aperitif. Chilled and served with an array of fruits and cheeses, it is the perfect introduction to any great garden party.
To close things out, I turned to an old friend I’d recognized from my recent trip to Sonoma for the Wine Country Weekend and Auction. Just one week prior, I had been in the grape fields of Gloria Ferrer Sparkling Wine Caves in the Carneros District, where workers were busily harvesting the Pinot Noir grapes for next year’s release.Double Gold Medal winner Gloria Ferrer 2005 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine, Carneros ($24).
Fun became the operative word as Blue, ever the event planner and fun-lover, ushered everyone to the lower level dining room for a blind tasting of a dozen rums that were entered into the International Spirits Competition. “This time, YOU be the judge,” Blue challenged the assembled tasters. This promises to be a tasting tour like none other. The Double Gold winners are scheduled to travel to New York, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Kansas City, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, Las Vegas, Seattle, Miami, and Beaver Creek, Colorado. I plan to catch up to the tour in New York to see what surprises he has in store then. Sante’!