Thursday, July 12, 2007

$2 Chuck, State Fairs, and More From the High Blood Pressure Department

As of today, it's official. There's a new best chardonnay in the state of California.

In case you've been vacationing in Tierra del Fuego and not heard, the 2005 Charles Shaw California Chardonnay ($2 Chuck to most of us) won best of the varietal at the California State Fair recently and those results will be announced today. The result was leaked a few weeks ago, in case you think you've already heard this.

Mr. Shaw's wine came up the winner against 350 competitors from all price ranges in a blind tasting competition of chardonnays. Since that time, print media and the blogosphere have been busy working overtime on the meager details that accompanied the leaked story. (*ps. I do realize there is no Charles Shaw, but I thought I'd try to treat it as if there were for effect. Sorry if this has confused anybody). Alder Yarrow worked himself into an uncharacteristic lather about it over at Vinography, Jeff Stai at Twisted Oak's El Bloggo Torcido provided a lucid counterblast (along with a run-down of relative postings), and the story even made NPR. Brand-new blogger Jim Gordon over at Wine Enthusaists's UnReserved points out that the large volume of wine made under this label is bound to make my $2 Chuck different from his $2 Chuck. Others are attributing the win to the triumph of the "people's palate" and "Charles Shaw" (Fred Franzia) is chalking it up to the high quality of his wine.

I personally do not like Mr. Shaw's chardonnay. Despite this, and though I am a huge fan of Vinography and all that Alder Yarrow has done to increase wine knowledge in this country, I cannot agree with him that because of this award all state fair medals are worthless indications of a wine's merits. I cannot speak for all state fairs, but the California State Fair wine competition is a tightly run ship. Joe Drinker and Wanda Winelover can't just walk off the street and start judging wine at the California State Fair.

How do I know this? I know because ten years ago I couldn't get passing marks on the test given at the advanced seminar in wine tasting at UC Davis taught by John Buechsenstein (former winemaker at Fife and one of the founders of Sauvignon Republic) that since 1998 has helped to certify state fair judges. I was pretty new to wine, but it's not an easy test to pass. Maybe I should retake the test now that I've had some more experience, but ten years ago it was completely overwhelming even though I'd successfully completed the preliminary coursework and beginner tasting seminars.

Here are a few other things to know about the California State Fair judging.

1. Contrary to popular opinion, the State Fair doesn't break down wines by price categories. That's the SF Chronicle competition, folks, not the Fair. So Mr. Shaw's wine was not in fact tasted against chardonnays under $5, but against all chardonnays entered.

2. All Fair wines are tasted blind. In coded glasses. There isn't a bottle shape or screwcap thread in sight to influence the tasters. Not all critics taste wine blind, FYI. Wine & Spirits does, and so does Wine Spectator, Steve Tanzer at International Wine Cellar, and Wine Enthusiast. Wine Advocate does not, at least not across the board. Nor, in the normal course of things, do I.

3. All Fair wines are given a numeric score based on a 100-point scale that is agreed upon in advance and is loosely based on the UC Davis 20-point scale. To get a double gold (like $2 Chuck 2005 Chard) you have to get 98-100 point scores. Then, the gold and double gold wines are tasted again to pick the best of the varietal.

4. The Fair accepts submissions from wineries for judging. This does not necessarily imply bias, a bad pool of wines for consideration, or an inside job. As far as I can make out, nearly every wine publication, blog, and critic accepts wine that is sent to her or him from wineries for review. They also buy wine. The only holdout on this issue may well be Jerry Hall over at Winewaves. (note: I reviewed the tasting guidelines for the 5 major wine mags in the US, and gleaned what I could about tasting policies and press samples from the top 30 wine blogs on If I am in error about this, please do let me know and I will make a correction here in the body of the post. )

5. You have to QUALIFY as a wine judge and it is not an easy business. The qualification exam was designed by professors at UC Davis. You can either take the test, or take the UC Davis seminar in Advanced Tasting and then take the test for an additional fee. The seminar and exam are only offered once a year, and if you pass you get put in the pool of potential judges. This year's seminar is on July 28, if you are interested. It costs $325 (lunch and wine included), lasts from 9-4, and getting the test graded and submitted to the Fair is an extra $50.

6. The identity of Fair wine judges is not a secret, as some in the comments section on Vinography imply. The list of 2006 wine judges included winemakers, masters of wine, professors of enology, wine writers, and other wine professionals as well as qualified (see #5) tasters. The list of 2007 wine judges has yet to be published, but when it is, I will hotlink it here.

So here's the bottom line.

Palates vary enormously. In 2005, the winner of the best chard over $30 at the SF Chronicle wine competition was a 2002 Grgich Hills that Wine Spectator rated 76 points. Enough said.

Everything you read about wine should just be one factor in your decision to purchase a bottle.

ALL competitions and wine ratings are subject to being monkeyed around with, and (more likely) are subject to completely groundless charges of fraud and deception. For those of us old enough to do so, remember the hysteria surrounding the 1976 Judgment of Paris?

ALL judges, critics, and bloggers have varied degrees of competence. Some are hacks. But I don't think we should tar and feather an entire segment of wine critics based on that. If so, there would be no wine blogs--that's for sure.

As a consumer, find judges and critics you trust whose palate seems to coincide with yours and follow their recommendations. If you like the 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay, chances are you will like the other California State Fair judges' picks for this varietal. And if you don't like $2 Chuck? Look somewhere else.

I write this with full knowledge that nothing I say here will convince state fair skeptics, or serve as a cautionary tale to those who are already racing out the door with their car keys to buy Mr. Shaw's wine. Drive safely.


Wilf G.K said...

Well done! and sensible. No need to get all hysterical about this win. If you like Chuck's wine great and if you don't, no sense getting all riled up and loosing sleep over it.

Anonymous said...

Agree on virtually every point -- especially the 'find a palate you trust' comment. This is key. Of course people need some sort of guidance in choosing wine, whether State Fair gold medals, critics' scores, or the recommendation from a buyer for their local store. Saying that one source is more legitimate than another is not really fair (no pun intended, really) or democratic.

Also, some legit critics, wine writers, bloggers, or others might be hacks without a great palate; some may have a great palate but lack writing skills; some may write fantastic wine prose but have minimal knowledge of wine; and so on, and so forth. Style and craft of writing varies as widely as scores do...

I'm not sure what my point is here, except that maybe some people are getting emotional in response to the implication that their writing is being undervalued compared to the gold medal sticker that gets slapped on a bottle.j

Orion Slayer said...

I was surprised to see each one of the Vinography points about fair medals countered in your post. After reading the Vinography post I was ready to write off all fair medals as a way to judge a wine. Now it looks as though I'll have to get more information about the judging, amount of wines submitted, etc. before considering a medal or ignoring it. Rats! I thought this was going to be easy. Thanks for a great post.

Dr. Debs said...

Welcome, Wilf. And thanks. I agree: it's just one assessment. No need to jump around. And JB, this is what was so odd about it all. Suddenly, the wine blogging community (all about your palate and my palate are all different and that's ok) went ballistic. Very strange. Maybe we need neon green "blogger approved" stickers?? And thanks, too, OrionSlayer. I wrote this post to prompt exactly the reaction you had. Maybe there's a state fair somewhere that's as bad as Alder suggested. It's just not the California State Fair.