April 14, 2020 – The 27th annual Monterey Wine Competition will forever stick in my memory, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the last wine competition in CA to sneak in before California’s lockdown order. It was also the first one I’ve judged where we tasted wine-based seltzers, and yikes, that was strange: it was even worse than it sounded, although they did remind me of fizzies, those bizarre carbonated drinks of yore.
It was also the first such competition I’ve judged that Hahn didn’t enter, which came as a bit of a surprise. But Scheid and J Lohr showed up, along with other local wineries. As always, it took place in King City, where the raindrops turned the already beginning to brown eastern Gabilans back to their proper state of verdancy for March. The views of the Santa Lucia Highlands bench on the way home on a showery Sunday were shimmering with every shade of green, enough to make me forget, at least for a moment, about the mounting viral crisis that has since taken over every inch of our electronic device screens and every last remnant of our fevered brain cells. Thinking back on it brings a smile: especially when I recall the judge’s dinner served up by the Fair Staff, featuring emerald forests of freshly picked broccoli accompanied by several steer’s worth of succulent tri tip. It was a very bad night to be a vegetarian. But it was delicious.
When we started the judging day with a dozen Merlots, I knew it was going to be a wild ride. Chief Judge and organizer, Rich Cook, is one of the few competition organizers who subscribes to the theory that you don’t start the day with whites, stripping all the enamel off your teeth for a few hours, then knocking your palate silly after lunch with a slew of heavy reds. Instead, he likes to mix it up, and I applaud that. Our morning agenda included Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Primitivo and Blended Reds, after which came lunch, followed by many Rosés, Gruner, hybrids, a plethora of Chardonnay, a smattering of Pinot Grigios, some interesting Albariño’s and those aforementioned tutti frutti seltzers.
So, to make matters even more interesting, I was on a panel with arguably one of the biggest characters in the Central Coast wine world, Adam LaZarre, which is an easy name to remember, because he used to be VP of Winemaking at Hahn Estate, back when they created superstar wines like Rex-Goliath and Cycles-Gladiator. He’s unforgettable also for his unpredictable antics that can definitely fall right into the attention-getting category. Today, his winery is in Paso, where he makes wines with wife, Angie, (who you might recall used to be Hospitality Manager at Hahn and Smith & Hook.) Although it began as an ode to single vineyard Pinots, the label also focuses on varieties like Merlot, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Gris, and Chardonnay. (He also makes lots of wine under different labels for Costco and Trader Joe’s. He keeps busy.)
Joining us on the panel was another Paso Robles area winemaker, Leon Takitt, of Takitt Family Wines in San Miguel, who was judging his first wine competition, and who happens to be a friend of Adam’s. Great, I thought: I’m surrounded by way too much cowboy testosterone too early in the morning. Oh, and they were both in the Navy. I’m doomed.
Not knowing what to expect, I was blown away by the first wine in our very first flight. Apparently, we all were. In fact, we immediately awarded it a Platinum, which is the highest award at this particular competition. Upon initially tasting it, Adam said, “F—k yeah, this is a great Merlot! I wonder who made that?” Well, it turned out it was his, and nobody was more bowled over than he. A fortuitous way to start the day, indeed. That wine, a 2017 from Paso Robles, went on to be crowned Best Merlot of Show.
Of Merlot, of which LaZarre is fond, he observed that a winemaker either nails it or produces something sadly underwhelming. There are no “styles” like in Pinot, which is what makes the tragedy of the ill-begotten film “Sideways” all the more poignant: a brilliant Merlot shines like the North Star with a gleam of reassuring familiarity that any wine drinker can appreciate, while Pinot takes you down all manner of individual ratholes of preference. There’s no flag to rally around with Pinot, which may explain why a 2018 Russian River Valley Pinot from V. Sattui, far better known for its big bold Bordeaux style reds, took Best Pinot at this competition. You’d really think our local Monterey wineries would easily outshine RRV.
Big winners at the 2020 Monterey Wine Competition included Cru Winery, that took Best of Monterey for its 2017 Arroyo Seco “Montage” Chardonnay, and ZD Winery, named Winery of the Year, with the 2016 ZD Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($230), scoring 100 points and taking Best of Show Red.
Best of Show White went to superstar Carol Shelton for her 2018 Coquille Blanc (Paso) and Best Rosé went to Navarro Vineyards for their 2018 Pinot Noir Rosé from Anderson Valley. They also took Best Barbera for their 2018 Mendocino, and it was excellent, if you are looking for one for a mere $25.
Congratulations to our local hero De Tierra Winery, who took Best Dessert for their 2009 Ekem Late Harvest Riesling from Monterey. Shoutouts to the supremely talented Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars, who took Best Sparkling for her client, McBride Sisters, with a Sparkling Brut Rosé, and to Charlie Kidd of Cooper Ridge Vineyards in Umpqua Valley, Oregon, for taking Best Riesling. Local Pierce Ranch Vineyards, from San Antonio Valley (southern Monterey), took Best Tempranillo. And Best Pinot Grigio went to a 2019 Noble Vines PG from Monterey, made by Delicato Family Vineyards.
Other local wineries who showed well include Bargetto, who scored Gold for both the 2018 Monterey Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, and Cru, which brought in Gold for the 2018 Library Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2018 Jose’s Rosé, both from Monterey. De Tierra scored Gold for their 2014 2016 Russell Estate Merlot, and Silver for the 2016 Syrah. Scheid’s 2018 Hive & Honey Gewurztraminer scored Gold, while Indiginé Cellars scored Gold for their 2017 Carmel Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Silver for their 2017 Philanthropist Blend, also from Carmel Valley.
Integrity Cellars from Watsonville scored Gold for its 2018 Late Harvest Riesling, and Silvers for their 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet, 2018 SLH Riesling and 2018 Santa Cruz Mountains Rosé. J.Lohr had an impressive showing with a Platinum for its 2017 Pure Paso blend (Cab and Petite Sirah), and Golds for the 2019 Flume Crossing Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir, 2018 Riverstone Chardonnay, 2018 Wildflower Valdiguie and 2017 Arroyo Vista Chardonnay, bringing home Silver for the 2018 Bay Mist White Riesling and 2017 October Night Chardonnay.
Marin’s Vineyard scored Gold for both the 2017 Malbec and 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon (Monterey County).
Scheid also scored a Silver for their 2017 Fog & Light Vintage Reserve Estate Grown Pinot Noir and 2017 Longford Estate Cabernet, Monterey County, with Silvers for both the 2017 Metz Road Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Riverview Estate Vineyard.
McIlroy Cellars, out of Sonoma, scored Silver for their 2018 Pinot Noir from Chock Rock Vineyards in Arroyo Seco. This vineyard, you’ll recall, is owned by the venerable Dan Karlsen, who once had a Chock Rock Vineyards tasting room in Carmel Valley, and was formerly winemaker at Talbott.
Neely Wines, in the hills of Portola Valley, scored Platinum for their 2017
Hidden Block Estate Pinot from the Spring Ridge Vineyard, and a Silver for their 2017 Picnic Block Estate Pinot Noir, from the same vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Pierce Ranch Vineyards, in addition to their Best of Tempranillo, scored Silver for their 2017 Malbec, Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Touriga, all from the San Antonio Valley.
Under the Scheid label, Scheid Family Wines scored four solid Golds for their 2017 Merlot (Monterey), 2017 Escolle Road Vineyard Chardonnay (SLH), 2017 Odd Lot White (Monterey) and 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir, Estate, Monterey.
Talbott scored Gold for the 2018 Kali Hart Chardonnay and Silver for the 2017 Kali Hart Pinot Noir.
Congratulations to the all the winners! Now, go out and buy some. That LaZarre Merlot ($48) is really worth a splurge for a renegade lockdown steak dinner. And it was really great judging with two guys from Paso who really know their wines.