Summer is officially here, and that means it is time for the California State Fair. It’s time to enjoy rides on the Farris Wheel and Tilt-a-Whirl, celebrate the 4H and FFA competitions and awards, and of course nibble on corn dogs, giant pretzels and deep-fried everything. The California State Fair is also home to the oldest (beginning in 1855), and maybe most influential, California wines competition in Northern America. According to industry leaders, it is the most meaningful of the major competitions restricted to California wines. The judges at the California State Fair Wine Competition come from a variety of backgrounds including wine educators, wine makers, wine journalists, retailers and wholesalers and members of the restaurant community. Now, although not everyone can secure a place on the panel, who’s to say you can’t hold your own wine judging competition at home? In this blog, we will give tips and tricks for hosting a wine judging party.
Gather the panel. Invite 8-12 of your best wine drinking friends over for a friendly and fun evening of judging (and drinking) wine. To keep the palate fresh while judging, we suggest you provide simple hors d’oeuvres such as mild cheeses, unsalted crackers and plenty of water for rinsing glasses and sipping between wines.
To give variety to the wines being judged, include your guests in the selection process by asking that they bring a bottle to be judged. 6-8 different wines is a great place to start when judging. Too few and the competition is over quickly, too many and the tasting may be compromised by a dull palate.
Also, choose one variety to judge (i.e. Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.). You can break this down a little further by selecting a particular varietal from a specific region (i.e. Zinfandel from Amador County, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Pinot Noir from Sonoma County, etc.). To keep things fair, set a minimum and maximum price range for the wines, for instance, not less than $20.00 per bottle but not more than $40.00 per bottle.
THE SET UP
Provide your panel with a comfortable sitting area. This may be the dining room table, the living room or on the patio. Wherever you hold your event, make sure to avoid a few things that could interfere with your judging. Scented candles and potpourri should be far away from your judging area, as their aromas can be distracting to the nose. Food in the oven, on the stove or on the grill can also hamper the ability to smell and taste the wine.
A tricky part of the judging may be the number of glasses needed. Not every household is stocked like a wine bar, and if you are, we’re coming to your house for the first competition. It is recommended that you have at least one glass per wine, per person (i.e. 60 glasses total for 10 judges and 6 wines). You can always ask your guests to bring 6 or 8 of their favorite glasses, just so long as you're willing to wash them.
In order for this to be a “blind” competition, we recommend that each bottle of wine be wrapped in a paper bag or aluminum foil, and number written on each one. Before wrapping, write down which wine corresponds with which number. This will come in handy at the end of the competition. For those who may know a little more about wine packaging, removing the foil from the neck of the bottle may not be a bad idea either.
Here comes the fun part! Pour each judge about 2 ounces of each wine in each glass. Even though a Double Gold or Best of Region is not on the line, the power of suggestion may sway some of the votes, and it may be best to encourage a quiet setting.
Once each wine has been judged, gather the scorecards and tally the votes. Unwrap each bottle and share the results of the judging with the panel. Now, pour everyone a glass of his or her favorite wine and toast to a spectacular event.
To help keep score, we have created an easy to use scorecard to give your panel. Each person will need one scorecard and a writing utensil.
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