Jim Natsis, chairman of the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi, needed a favor Saturday.
“Hey, do you want to be a judge? We're a little short-handed. And you could write about the experience. What do you say?”
“I’m washing glasses with JoEllen’s crew,” I replied. But I confess, judging wines is the plum job at the Lodi-Tokay Rotary Club’s annual wine competition at Hutchins Street Square.
Some volunteers pour wine; others serve it to the amateur judges. Still others compile results, clean tables and take out the trash. And of course all 1,200 of the rented wine glasses have to be washed and dried twice during the day.
But what wine lover wouldn’t want to “volunteer” to taste two dozen or so different wines?
When JoEllen Flemmer released me from working in the steamy kitchen to become a judge, I pumped my fist and took off my apron.
“You made The Show, man,” said Kelly Brown, giving me a high five.
Well, CWAL is not the major league of wine judging. That's by definition. The whole point is to have the wines judged by everyday people, not a bunch of trained professionals. I sat down and listened to judging coordinator “Pooch” Pucilowski instruct us in amateur wine tasting.
Don’t swirl the wine and gaze at the “legs” like a wine snob, he said. Just sip it like you would at home or a party.
Then spit it out.
“Really? I have to spit?” I said to myself.
“Let me repeat. You can’t drink 20 or 30 wines this afternoon. You have to spit.”
Pooch explained that not only does the alcohol dull your sense of taste, CWAL can’t afford to call taxis for 120 drunk wine judges. This is a fund raiser, after all.
Spitting or not, the wines were entrancing as they were wheeled into Kirst Hall on several kitchen carts. I thought the instructions would never end.
There’s a mat with numbers 0 to 7. Zero is where you place a bad wine — something you wouldn’t drink or serve. Seven is for “wow” — this is a wine you’d buy a case of.
Don’t taste until told to, said Pooch. It takes three minutes for your palate to clear and the announcer sets that pace.
Co-coordinator and Master of Wine Tim Hanni took over the instructing:
“After tasting — did Pooch tell you to spit? You have to spit, people — put the wine on one of the numbers on the mat.” Then Hanni said to sip a bit of flavorless palate cleanser inexplicably called “bug juice.” We could also take a bite of cracker or a swig of water while we waited for a clerk to note the spot between 1 and 7 that we covered with the wine glass.
Don’t judge too harshly.
“We’re here to celebrate wine. Give some 7s,” said Hanni.
So there I was, facing the rating mat, a bowl of crackers, a glass of bug juice, a bottle of water, 12 glasses of deliciously bright chardonnay and a spit bucket.
Each glass had a tag with a four-digit number but no other clue as to its creator.
“Taste the first wine,” said the announcer.
Pooch and others were prowling for cheaters who weren’t spitting.
I smelled. (I always do, even at a party).
Oops. I swallowed.
I sipped again and spit this time. I looked around. Pooch didn't spot my transgression.
I thought: not much smell; the acid is alright, but it's pretty bitter; there's another unpleasant something. I didn’t think much of that first one, but I didn’t want to be too critical. I awarded a 3. It was a forgettable chardonnay.
The next one was only a little better. I gave it a 4.
The next was as disappointing as the first — 3.
Was I judging too harshly?
The fourth chard was much better. Relieved, I gave it a 6. I followed with several 5s and a sprinkling of 6s and 4s.
On my left was another wine consumer, grocery sales rep Bonnie Barr from Livermore. She was sipping her way through a dozen glasses of deep red cabernet sauvignon and awarding points about the same way I was — very few 6s, no 7s. And she loves cabs.
After tasting 21 “unoaked” chardonnays — not my favorite style of chardonnay — I had awarded six 6s but not one 7. None of these had a notable fragrance or anything beyond a hint of fruit or buttery smoothness, the qualities I love in chardonnays that spend time in oak barrels.
Then came six viogniers. At last — some fruit! The fourth viognier earned a 7 — it had a flowery aroma, a wonderful taste of apricot, a little buttery character and no bitterness. I wanted to find out more about 2035.
It all came together that night at the After Party.
There were hundreds of bottles and even a few boxes and cartons of wine. Many came from Lodi, but many more came from Napa, Paso Robles, New York, Argentina — all over.
They were arrayed on four tables corresponding to four Taste Sensitivity Quotients, a wine grouping system invented by Hanni. There was a table marked "sweet" that was full of sweet and sparkling wines, A second had wines that appeal to people with "hyper sensitive" palates.
Bonnie's cabernets were placed on the table for "tolerant" palates.
My chardonnays and viogniers were on the "sensitive" table.
I spotted 2035. It is a from Paso Robles' Eberle Winery. This particular viognier was harvested in Eberle's Mill Road vineyard.
I felt good that Rad Bartlam agreed with me about this wine. He’s not only Lodi’s city manager, he grows zinfandel grapes in Acampo and is very enthusiastic about wine. He took notes as he tasted!
I also found two cabs that Bonnie awarded 7s, but I forgot to write them down. Sorry, that’s an amateur mistake.
All in all, I got a great wine education tasting 27 wines in an afternoon. And I only swallowed once. Honest.
I’m just a rookie, but I enjoyed my day in the — uhm. You can't call this the major league. Call it a wine lover's fantasy league.