November 4, 2014 – I wasn’t looking for this assignment, it found me. The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association Grand Pro Tasting was coming up and I asked to sit in on a couple of lectures by vineyard guru Prudy Foxx and winemaker extraordinaire Jim Shultz of Windy Oaks.
The event—in its second year—aims to improve the quality of Santa Cruz Mountains wine through professional judging and also to better acquaint wine experts with what the appellation has to offer.
“In being a premium winegrowing region, we find value in sharing our wines and experiences with members of the trade and media with this type of event. It helps us to keep competitive in the marketplace,” said Megan Metz, executive director of the association.
When they asked me to join the judging panel, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. “But I’m not a professional wine judge and I’ve never done this before,” I warned, adding unhelpfully, “I’ve got an awfully big cork collection!”
I felt like a kid in a candy store until the instructions arrived a few days later “The panel will taste 150 wines between 10am and 2pm,” it read. How do you prepare for such an Olympian feat, I wondered. By abstaining for a few days? By building up to it by drinking a little more everyday?
I also love visiting wineries and writing about the people behind the wines for Edible Monterey Bay, as I’ve done recently with Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Wine, Ian Brand of P’tit Paysan and Dennis Hoey of Odonata. But sitting in judgement of their wines, that’s a different story.
Fortunately, there were certified sommeliers, wine buyers, winemakers and specialized writers on the panel. Real pros, including: James McPhail of McPhail Winery; Randy Caparoso of The Somm Journal; Elaine Brown of wakawakawinereviews; sommelier Christopher Sawyer; New Leaf Market wine buyer Oliver Carter; Whole Foods Los Gatos wine buyer Jay Trenchard and many others.
Inside the historic Sesnon House at Cabrillo College, we sat down around three tables with dangerously white tablecloths and students from the culinary program began serving flights of wine.
I knew about spitting, and it was 10am, but swallowed the first sip anyway out of habit. We rated the wines using the 100 point system, jotted down a couple of words, then discussed each wine and compared notes. Since it was a blind tasting, each glass was identified by a number and we didn’t know which winery had produced it.
My teammates were awesome. As quickly as he could spit out a sip of wine, Chris Sawyer could spit out a complete tasting profile. “Roast almonds, apricots, baked apples,” he said about some of the chardonnays. Heirloom tomatoes, wet bark, Mexican baking chocolate, and blood orange were some of the flavors he immediately identified in the reds we tasted.
In comparison, my notes were infantile. “Mmmm…nice, smooth finish.” “Wow juicy!” “Too much acid!” I felt like a student just beginning to learn a foreign language. But after a few flights I began to get the hang of it and was surprised to find that my scores were usually right in line with others on the panel.
My spitting technique also improved as the day wore on, but after we finished an epic flight of nine cabernets the tablecloth in front of me looked like a bloody butcher’s apron. I’m grateful for the steady supply of napkins provided by my teammate Laura Ness—who also writes for EMB.
In the end, each of the three panels tasted 66 wines—still a formidable job. I was able to drive home without problem, but it took some time to scrub the purple stains off my teeth and I didn’t feel much like drinking wine for a few days afterwards.
Another side effect was that after tasting so many exceptional wines, the ones in my wine rack didn’t seem quite as appealing.
A few days after the judging, we received the results and found out which wines we had tasted. While the other two tasting panels seemed to be a bit more critical than ours, the biggest winners overall were Big Basin Vineyards and Savannah Chanelle, with Bargetto and Beauregard also racking up very good scores. You can view full results here.
Here are my top five favorites, including our tasting notes:
1. Domaine Eden 2012 Chardonnay – elegant, full-bodied, complex with hints of apple, peach and apricots and a citrus finish. 91 points. $25.
2. Big Basin 2012 Estate Roussane – lush stone fruit and pumpkin spices, intoxicating with dry finish. 90 points. $48.
3. House Family 2011 Estate Merlot – deep dark seductive, earthy, blueberry, leather in very well balanced wine. 88 points. $49.
4. Martella 2010 Camel Hill Syrah – beautiful, vanilla and dark berries, bitter sweet chocolate, great on the palate. 91 points. $50.
5. Savannah Chanelle 2012 Estate Zinfandel – old style zin with berry and pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and a spicy finish. $50.
There were dozens of other excellent wines in the tasting, all made with grapes grown in the various microclimates of the Santa Cruz Mountains and all expressing very different characteristics.
Tasting 66 of them in one sitting is an experience I’ll not soon forget and it only made me want to learn more about the beautiful wine region where I’m so lucky to live.
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.