Judge not!

The eight judges arrived at Keswick Hall at 9am on a beautiful day last week and, except for lunch and two small breaks, didn’t stop tasting wine until around 3:40pm. This year’s Monticello Wine Cup competition featured 95 wines—soon to adorn tasting rooms and be bragged about in newsletters—from the Monticello AVA (the American Viticultural Area centered on Charlottesville), all but five of which received medals. There were eight gold medal winners and of those, the King Family 2006 Petit Verdot was anointed the top dog. Is it the best wine in the area? I don’t know. But it’s very, very good.

After the sixth and seventh flights of wines, the judges had to pause and utter a collective “Damn!” The quality of the red wines was staggering. Virginia whites used to outshine the reds, if only because it was easier to mask their flaws. But in the past 10 years, a combination of successive good vintages, maturing vines and rapidly growing knowledge has resulted in a real red wine renaissance in our state.

The aftermath: Of the 95 bottles of wine featured at the Keswick Vineyards Monticello Wine Cup, only five didn’t win a medal of some kind.

When the judging was over, a small group of winemakers and assorted industry folks gathered around a long wooden table covered with 20′ of open wine bottles; an all-you-can-taste display of the 95 entrants. As we greedily stained our teeth purple, I asked Jefferson Vineyards’ young winemaker, Andy Reagan, what he thought of competitions. “They’re inherently flawed,” he replied.

I agree. There are a million reasons why a wine might not do well at a competition, which means that 90 percent of what happens at a competition is bullshit. Many worthy wines get silver, but only worthy wines win gold. I tasted the eight gold medalists and the judges got it right. But there is undoubtedly some gold hidden in the mountain of silver.

Then there’s the question of the people doing the judging. “It’s just too hard to have people taste so many wines,” Andy said. Ninety five wines is a lot; at wine 50 you start to forget the subtle nuances of wine number one. At wine 70 your mouth starts to feel like you’ve been chewing on clay. Not that subtle nuances get noticed. Competitions favor big, showy wines with lots of fruit; wines that have the power to override palate fatigue and boredom. Elegance is not rewarded.

Neither, generally, is age. “It’s almost a shame to taste these wines,” Chad Zakaib, Jefferson’s general manager, said about the 2005 and 2006 reds in the competition. Mark Golub, the organizer of this year’s Monticello Cup, says much the same thing. Eighty to 90 percent of the wines are excellent, he told me, but in two or three years they’ll be perfect. (Continuing what they started with last year’s Governor’s cup, Barboursville entered an older wine, the 2001 Octagon, winning a gold.)

But the biggest problem with wine competitions is that, unlike a tennis player or a basketball team, wines are generally not made with direct comparison to others in mind. Wines are unique and solitary creatures; forced combat seems almost sinful.

Still, it’s a cab eat cab world, and competitions are not all bad.

“The best wines in the state are made in Charlottesville,” Reagan told me, “so to have your wines go up against the best in the state will show you where you stack up.” He pauses. “Plus, I won a gold medal.”

The 2008 Monticello Cup Gold Medal winners; an excellent snapshot of the wine being made right now in our town:

  • King Family Petit Verdot 2006 (overall winner)
  • Barboursville Octagon 2001
  • Jefferson Petit Verdot Reserve 2005
  • Veritas Cabernet Franc Reserve 2006
  • King Family Meritage 2006

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