The Judging Circuit

6 05 2009

img_7465Judging season is upon us and I have been busy judging wines, but wine competitions have come under fire lately.  LA Times writer Jerry Hirsch helped propogate the bad press by calling attention to a study conducted by retired Humboldt State professor Robert Hodgson .  It’s not new to challenge the process, but this recent four year study claims that only 10% of judges could consistently judge a wine when tasted multiple times.  This is not unusual information, most of us know that if you are presented three samples of which two are identical, but you are told that there is a difference among all three that it is almost unheard of to call out that two are the same.  Your brain creates distinction amongst the samples.  I have not seen the proof created to validate Hodgson’s claims, but I wonder about the parameters, were all the wines identical in temperature?  Were all judges tested in this way?  Were other competitions evaluated?  What time of day were the samples presented?  What about order error or the wines placed before the identical samples, this can have a dramatic effect on how that sample might taste.  There are many variables to be considered.

Frankly I am not convinced about this study until I can read the brief and fully understand the methodology.  I am saddened that at a time where so many in this industry are struggling an attack on judgings would hit.  Judgings can really help sell wine.   While Professor Hodgson says, “Consumers should have a healthy skepticism about the medals awarded to wines from the various competitions,”  I believe there is nothing about a competition that makes it less useful or less accurate than the recommendations of a retailer, magazine or other wine critic. In fact I believe panels of judges can actually be more fair than one individual’s palate no matter how critically acclaimed. 

Most critics judge open label while almost all competitions are 100 percent blind, ie the judges may have information as to the variety or the vintage and in rare instances price or origin, but they are not swayed by the label or by the reputation of the producer. Judging panels are usually diverse including winemakers, educators, retail and restaurant buyers, salespeople, writers and sometimes even consumers. The diversity of the panel allows for checks and balances while a writer that tastes for a review gives you only the impression of one palate.

Granted, judgings are varied in the quality of the judges and their prestige, so I generally try to evaluate which judgings are worth doing.  Consumers might think to do the same thing, just as Parker may appeal to some while Tanzer appeals to others, perhaps consumers can gauge the competitions that seem to fit with their general palate preferences. 

On a personal level I gauge which competitions are most enjoyable and that is usually a reflection of the calibre of judges and the sense of camaraderie amongst them. That said there are judgings that are of course well respected that I have not been invited to. Not only do judgings offer a source of information for consumer buying and give wineries medals to tout and display, but they are a great resource for wine buyers- many use them to find out what wines they like without prejudice.  One of the ways I became more versed in wines of the world was wine competitions.  Sometimes you might get a chance to try wines you would never choose to open like fruit wines, hybrids or varieties you might not normally gravitate towards.  Judging with more experienced tasters is the best way to hone your palate, especially if you have the benefit of trying a type of wine that is their specialty.  It is extremely eye-opening to evaluate wines fairly even if they are of a style of which you are not normally fond. 

Most competitions treat the wines as a group amongst themselves, for example a gold medal Syrah doesn’t need to be the best Syrah you have ever had, it’s more like a county fair judging of livestock, how does the wine match up compared to the other wines entered.  I have never tasted the wines he makes, but Hodgson claims that he conducted this study because wines he entered into competitions sometimes won gold medals and other times won nothing.  All I can say is a girl might win a crown at her home town beauty pageant but that doesn’t make her Miss America.  It all depends on the competition. img_4640




Dallas Morning News Competition (February)

When time allows I like to take in some of the local culture.  The days I was in Dallas the King Tut exhibition was in town so I was able to visit that with my friend Joel Butler, MW.  Over thew weekend we were comfortably housed at the lovely Hotel Adolphus.

Dining experiences included York Street, an amazing but tiny restaurant in an unusual location (6047 Lewis) with my friends Dr. Bob Small (he makes Dr. Bob’s Handcrafted Ice Cream try the Strawberries with Sour Cream & Brown Sugar) and Drew Hendricks of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.  The next night was a walkaround tasting of last year’s winning wines with some of the area’s top restaurants.  Particularly notable was the White Seaweed Salad from Tei-An, so I joined Drew and our friends Meghan and Brandan there.  We had the Omakase (tasting) menu including the phenomenal pairing of buckwheat tea with a truffled risotto.  I also thought the soba course with egg was incredible.  Tei-An 1722 Routh Street, Suite 110 Dallas, TX 75201 214 220-2828

National Women’s Wine Competition (March)

In Santa Rosa the National Women’s Wine Competition offered a unique opportunity to interact with some of the most amazing women in the industry.  We hit some local dining spots such as Syrah Bistro 205 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401 707 568-4002 and of course Willi’s Wine Bar 4404 Old Redwood Highway Santa Rosa, CA 95403 707 526-3096

San Diego International Wine Competition

Part of my love of competitions is visiting fun places!  The luxury of staying at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego can’t be beat.  Add to that a visit to Old Town San Diego (missed that this time).  I did make it to the amazing San Diego Zoo ( where I had the chance to see BABY meerkats.  That’s right BABY MEERKATS!!  (I love meerkats almost as much as wine.)  Let me tell you though, the pandas were pretty BORING.  I also ate at El Indio a fun Mexican restaurant and tortilla factory near the airport just off N I-5 (exit Washington Street and proceed north) at 3685 India Street (619) 299-0333.  It was founded in 1940.  Really good chips and taquitos (they claim they first coined the word taquito.)  We also enjoyed two meals at the Yard House, one of the better chain restaurants with an unending selection of beers on tap.  They carded me too, twice!  Made me feel great.  The gala dinner was a blast as Robert Whitley was kind enough to allow me to sing two of my songs acapella for the group to raise cash donations for Camp Oliver.   Hmm, maybe they were paying me to STOP singing?!  One of the highlights of this judging was an amazing little day glow pink wine that I thought tasted EXACTLY like Tootsie Rolls.  While fruit wines are a unique and often scoffed at judging category there was also an amazing little strawberry wine (Saint James Winery $8.99), but this “Tootsie Roll” wine was astounding.  Let’s just say that I would have been able to suck that stuff down as a Freshman in college.  It was from Trout Springs Winery and called Afternoon Delight ($19.99).  We sent it to sweepstakes so that everyone could taste it!

Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition (formerly called Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World Competition) Wine Judging May 27-29, 2009/Spirits June 1-2, 2009

Held in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Fair Association I have to admit this is my favorite competition of all.  The number and calibre of judges is amazing.  We also all know how to have a really great time.  I may hold some bias as I am the Chair of the spirits side of the competition.  The ability to judge with such an esteemed group cannot be beat.  I learned my judging skills due to the amazing help and guidance from the best on the circuit, Don Galleano, Gary Eberle, Mitch Cosentino, Darrell Corti, Dan Berger and many others.  Plus judges are often invited back to attend the Los Angeles County Fair in September where they teach consumers directly about the products they judged.  This cannot be beat, plus you get to eat fried twinkies and sno cones and watch pig races and see baby animals.  And Dr. Bob runs it so there is always ice cream!  And Tequila!  YAY!

San Francisco International (June)

The San Francisco International judging is another fun event held annually by Anthony Dias Blue.  There is a friendly rivalry between the SF competition and the LA, but Andy still keeps inviting me back, I am honored.  He and his crew of judges are some of the funnest (I know that is not a word) in the biz.  We have been known to judge hard and party hard!  There has been occasional karaoke…enough said.

Las Vegas Bar Show: Innovative Product Awards and Honorable Mentions

1 05 2009

Yes, granted, my job is kinda weird.  I do all sorts of random things but even I concede that the weirdest of them all is the Vegas Bar Show.  The Show is run by Nightclub and Bar Magazine in Las Vegas annually in conjunction with the Restaurant Show and Hotel Show.  The Vegas Bar Show is to my knowledge the largest in the United States.  I have not been to any of the other shows, but this show is really unique.

At this show you not only find great spirits producers, interesting innovations but also craziness, craziness to put other spiritous events to shame.  The event is fun of course as you get to run around and taste new spirits but at the same time there are a slew of wristband vendors, glassware vendors, disc jockey suppliers, urinal cake vendors, exterminators, etc.  So if you are in fact a bar or restaurant owner this show has some very real merit to you.  Add to that energy drinks, costume salespeople (do you remember that CSI about Las Vegas’ Furries that dress up in animal costumes?  They had these there in case you need them), and stripper pole salespeople.  Spirits companies have realized that the majority of attendees are male and as a result have numerous “models” on hand to promote their products, dancing, sliding down plastic slides into pools of energy drinks and the like.  Ironically the show has a disclaimer that says “Attendees would avoid wearing any clothing that may be interpreted as promiscuous, provacative or overly suggestive.”  but no one seemed to be cited.

The bar show is not all about fun and games and “micro” wrestling, it also offers many seminars, mix offs, parties and event that make it educational.  While the scene was very crazy I was able to glean some interesting information about new trends and some interesting products!

Great Products (REALLY!)

Amarula Cream

This was an exciting spirit from Africa made from the Marula tree.  Technically known as teh “Sclerocarya Birrea” this tree produces a fruit with white flesh around a large stone.  Elephants are known to be drawn to the fragrant ripening fruit and come from miles away to eat from the tree, so it’s also known as the “Elephant Tree”.    This liqueur is made from this Marula fruit and has a really unique flavor.  Texturally it is of course creamy, but it is not as sweet as you would expect.  I can think of some really interesting applications for it and have to say I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it as I am not usually a fan of cream liqueurs!  Imported by A.V. Brands, Columbia, MD.

Mekhong The Spirit of Thailand mekhong

Mekhong was something I had never tried and I really liked it.  It comes from Thailand and is really unique, like nothing I have ever tasted.  It is distilled from cane and about 5% rice.  They have created a recipe book with the team at Employees Only in Manhattan and I expect that once tasted by more bartenders this will be a bit hit across the country.  Somewhat spiced, strong yet not overly so and very mixable with citrus or tropical fruits it was exotic and intriguing.  I can’t wait to get a bottle in my hands to see what else it’s capable of!

Mejor Tequila

Mejor offers some really flavorful and correct tequilas.  They had a silver, Reposado and Anejo but I have to say I was also intrigued by the appearance and packaging of their pink tequila.  I guess I am a girl after all.  What I liked about it was that it was a pretty shade of pink but was pure and agave flavored like the silver.  No added energy enhancements, supplements, bitterness, flavoring etc., just pink!

Firestarter Vodka

Although it was late in the day and I had no desire to taste another vodka, the package for this product was truly exceptional.  The vodka is made of wheat and comes from Moldova which is interesting, but the draw is that it resembles an actual fire extinguisher and has a really cool box that houses it.  The only thing I would worry about is that if I got too drunk and there was a fire, I might grab the bottle and make the fire worse.  That’s just me though I guess.

Questionable products, but perhaps useful:

Urine Off by Bio-Pro Research urine-off

I took notice of this due to the very fancy rolling “briefcases” they were doling out and did some research.  The catalog says “Urine Off uses green technology to permanently remove the toughest urine odors and stains, even old stains.”  “Urine Off also works on other body fluids such as semen, blood, etc. and many organic deposits…an effective weapon to solve the toughest hospitality issues.”  This product makes me never want to stay in a hotel again.  Did you know that the remote control is the dirtiest thing in the hotel room?  Think about it. 

The Booze Belly by P&P Imports

This handy plastic “belly” holds your favorite beverage against your belly so that you can sneak it into a sporting event.  I was surprised that they didn’t have booze boobies, and a bit disappointed.  I would think that most folks that are desparate to smuggle their beer into a game against their belly where it gets all warm and steamy may not have that much extra room for the Booze Belly, but the boobies would be useful don’t you think?  Except that whether or not your team wins at the end of the game you’d be feeling a bit deflated.  They also sell floating beer pong holders.  Can someone tell me how you play beer pong in the pool?


You know this company for their very useful cards that work (sometimes) on hotel room doors allowing you access to your room.  That is unless you happen to be like me who shorts the magnetic cards out all the time.  The good news is that they have exciting new technology that should allow you to use what usually shorts those cards out, your PHONE to get into your room.  I didn’t get a chance to check it out but it sounded convenient to me.  On a side note, I stayed at the Flamingo, one of the Harrah’s casino chain and was dismayed that my room key card looked exactly like my Harrah’s Casino players card, whose brilliant idea was that?  I was giving my room key to the pit boss and trying to open my door with points.

Noah’s Ark Resort 801 785 3680

Seems that this company sells the right for sale for 300 lovely animal motif rooms that look like Noah’s Ark.  “All features are Noah and the Flood related.”  Computer generated rainstorms and rainbow in the Rainbow Restaurant and best of all Mt Ararat ballroom.  I think if you have a hankering to open a business franchise screw Dunkin’ Donuts, this is what you’ve been waiting for.

And the winners for NOT such a good idea:

Agwa de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liquor coca-leaf-liqueur

Sorry, but anything that says “Warning No More Than 3!” is not for me, but perhaps you would really enjoy it.  This liqueur contains 40 grams of coca leaf extract per liter and is made, where else, Amsterdam.  It happens to be 100% Natural and also contains Guarana and Ginseng, talk about a buzz.  They suggest serving with a bite of fresh lime before which “activates the alkaloids of the coca leaf to produce a powerful oxygen buzz.”  I opted to skip this one. 

Smokeless Cigarettes (multiple booths)

Pure nicotine straight to your lungs!  You don’t even need matches!  Apparently it’s better for you since you don’t have to get all the carbon monoxide, just pure nicotine.  YUM!

The DraftMaster by ESS Ellickson Software Systems 866 503-0578

“The 21st century pitcher!”  “Allow your customers to pour their own draft beer AT THEIR TABLE while you control How much they consume… Get paid for every drop!”  How in the world is this legal?  Does this tap card them too?  Although I think I see a place for this in airport bars where it seems the waitresses don’t realize that EVERYONE in there has places to go.  Except them.  Ok, now I see.

Off the strip

Laura Herbert, my good friend from grammar school who happens to now be on the Board of Trustees of the Burlesque Hall of Fame has shown me that there is more to Vegas than the strip.  First, Frankie’s Tiki Bar is a great place, not too far from the strip, to indulge in your inner tiki.  Be aware that it tends to be pretty smoky but the cocktails are great and the new owner has created a crazy tiki vibe.  The way Vegas should be!

Forever locals have been telling me about the infamous Lotus of Siam restaurant, 953 E Sahara Ave #A-5, 702 735-3033  Hard to get into but worth it and their Tom Ka Gai might just burn a hole in your stomach or make you cry, so be CAREFUL!  But it’s well worth the pain.  The food is incredible and the wine list is something Riesling and Gruner Veltliner afficionados would die for, and well priced.  I am sure that after saying this that my Vegas friends will give me the “what for” for telling you about it and this may need to come off my site soon, so take down the info and GO!

Laura and I hit a party for Hendrick’s Gin at the Artisan Hotel, (1501 W Sahara Avenue, Las Vegas, NV 89102 one of the nicer properties off the strip.  Comfortable bar, cozy atmosphere and apparently a great place to stay.  Maybe I was swayed by the Hendrick’s cocktails?  But I had a great time.  Sometimes you just need to get away, even in Vegas.  Try also the Green Valley Ranch and the Red Rock Hotel, two nice off strip casino hotels that let you escape the strip mania.



I was able to get a $56 rate at the Flamingo Hotel, very decent accomodations, because I am a gamber.  If you gamble at all please be sure to get a players card at each location at which you spend money because you can get great discounts!