© 1996 JDM Enterprises
STATE FAIR AWARDSby Jerry D. Mead
This is going to be one of those "pats on the back" before the "kick in the pants" kind of columns. The California State Fair Wine Competition gets an "A" for effort.
It also gets an "A-plus" for creating the greatest looking awards book ever, and, if possible, an even higher score for marketing itself. But for having created the most dynamic awards book ever (it is so special because it doesn't look at all like an awards book), there is room for improvement.
The new awards book sells for $4.95, and instead of the usual black and white, pocket-size affair most competitions issue, this looks like a new glossy wine magazine, and, in fact, it is titled "California Wine," in bold headlines, with a subtitle of "The Best of the Best 1996." You have to go to the really small type to discover "A Publication of the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition."
A beautiful 4-color vineyard scene is depicted, along with such additional headlines as "The Best Wines in California" and "How to taste wines like a judge." There is no mention that this is primarily an awards book.
Why all this glamour? The Fair has made a sponsorship deal with Lucky Stores, and the books are being sold in all its locations. In previous years, few people bought the previously drab looking awards book. Now they will be attracted to what looks like a glossy magazine, with all the results, plus stories on many of the top wines and winemakers and lots of pretty color pictures too.
(If you don't have a Lucky's near you, send $4.95 to: State Fair Wine Winners, Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702 1-800-845-9463.)
My major criticism with the book is that for a judging that emphasizes growing regions, none of the profiles of the best wines of each varietal type, nor of the best regional wines, lists the appellation (where the grapes were grown). Yes, the information is available elsewhere in the book, but having to go elsewhere is a bother.
And the judging still has a screwy system of determining its overall "Best of Show" that makes it possible for a bronze medal winner to be named over wines that have received Double Gold medals. It has never happened, but the fact that it's a possibility is ludicrous.
The book does its best to explain the system, but never to my satisfaction.
A look at the judges list, however, says most of the chosen are recognizable and qualified experts and the top winning wines are examples of the "cream rising to the top." There's no doubt that the California State Fair judging is one of the nation's best.
For those of you who wish to go shopping immediately, here's some of the top winners:
Best Gewurztraminer title goes to Fetzer 1995 "California" ($5), the wildly popular and widely available white wine with spicy fruit and a touch of sweetness. If your merchant doesn't have it, it can be ordered.
Decidedly less available (fewer than 1000 cases were made) is the top Chardonnay, Byington 1994 "Santa Cruz-Special Reserve" ($22.50). Rich with vanilla, but with a lean, firm backbone, this is a solid wine that may actually improve in the bottle.
There was a tie for Best Sauvignon Blanc, with two wineries which have always been more famous for other varieties sharing the honors. Kendall-Jackson 1995 "Vintner's Reserve" and J. Rochioli 1995 "Russian River" ($12) were the winning duo. The K-J should be widely available, the Rochioli virtually impossible to find.
A tie again for Best Johannisberg Riesling, with both wines in the very sweet "late harvest" style and both from famous Sonoma County wineries. Chateau St. Jean has been famous for this type of nectar for years, but be aware that a 1/2 bottle of 1992 "Bel Terre-Special Select Late Harvest" goes for $22.50. Geyser Peak will soon catch up reputation-wise if it keeps producing wines like 1995 "Russian River-Reserve Late Harvest" ($16 the half bottle). Both of these wines are dessert in a glass...so sweet that only a couple of ounces make a portion, and with flavors of honey, apricot, peach and pear.
The Best White Zinfandel, Alas!, is sold only at the winery, V. Sattui 1995 "California" ($8). The winery is in Napa Valley.
Best Pinot Noir honors go to Buena Vista 1994 "Carneros Grand Reserve ($22), a wine reviewed in this column a few months back and scored 90-plus. It is interesting to note that it's the first Buena Vista Pinot to be so highly praised (this is not its first gold medal) and the first for which management provided new French oak casks. Here's hoping the connection has sunk in. (Don't be confused by the winery's other "Carneros" Pinot that doesn't say "Reserve" and that sells for nearly half the price...no French oak and it isn't half as good.)
I'm very pleased to tell you that the Best Merlot is affordable, has good availability and is just downright delicious. Benziger 1994 "Sonoma" ($15) is what most folks expect a Merlot to be. Lots of cherry fruit, soft tannic structure for a friendly mouthfeel, and a wine that doesn't need to be aged or cellared before drinking.
A pair of powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignons made for the third tie for "Best" at this year's State Fair. Grgich Hills 1992 "Napa Valley" ($26) shares the honor with Whitehall Lane 1993 "Napa Valley" ($16). Both are classic Cabernet styles with enough backbone to improve in the bottle for many years to come, but that have enough fruit and roundness to be enjoyed now.
Best Zinfandel is Cartlidge & Browne 1995 "California" ($9.50), from a small, but not tiny production.
Remember, any wines you can't locate, call my office at (800) 845-9463 and we'll help you track down the winery or importer, which should be able to suggest a retailer.
The "Wine of the Week" will be back next week.