If you were to go behind closed doors and witness a round of tasting at the North Coast Wine Challenge, you might be perplexed.
After listening to a bruising debate about a single wine, with some judges calling it nectar of the gods and others deeming it the devil incarnate, you would think there could be no other explanation; the wine must have a split personality.
With the judging to begin next Wednesday, we offer you a window into these heated conversations, a figurative seat on the panel of the regional wine competition focused exclusively on North Coast wines. That way you can understand why a format that embraces discussion ensures only the best wines rise to the top.
Chief Wine Judge Daryl Groom, who coordinates the competition, is a proponent of heady arguments when it comes to deciding the fate of a wine. That’s why he creates tasting panels with built-in controversy, selecting a trio of judges with different backgrounds to vet wine from different angles. One of the judges is a winemaker, another is a wine buyer, with the third is either a sommelier or a wine writer.
“If three people evaluating a wine from completely different perspectives agree, and it’s a gold, the wine is a real winner,” Groom said. “I think more so than if you had three winemakers on a panel or three sommeliers who all have similar preferences of style.”
Debates typically don’t involve quality in this contest, Groom explained, because it draws entries from six reputable North Coast counties – Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino, Lake and parts of Solano.
“The disagreement often is style-oriented,” Groom said. “I know judges that just don’t like some particular style and therefore don’t give the wine an award. This may be that they feel the wine is too big and alcoholic or too oaky or too over the top or too tannic, for example
“Yes, we do get judges disagreeing 100 percent on a wine and this is OK,” he added. “This is part of the process.”
Fred Dame, a Master Sommelier from San Francisco, has been a sparring judge in three of the past five competitions, and he’s back for another round this year.
“It’s like being in a jury trial,” he said. “You make your case.”
Dame, along with 26 other judges, will taste about 120 wines each on both Wednesday and Thursday, selecting the best and the brightest from a pool of 900-plus entries.
Now in its sixth year, the blind tasting selects winning wines that can be tasted by the public at the North Coast Food & Wine Festival on June 9 at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park.
While the Master Sommelier said he’s an unabashed combatant, he also knows the virtue of détente.
“What you hope for in a tasting panel is that the wisdom of Solomon prevails, so you don’t kill the baby to make your case.”
Dame, 64, is one of only 236 people in the world to hold the title of Master Sommelier. He earned it in 1984 when he passed a grueling exam, which includes tasting, theory and service. It takes most people four to seven years to earn the title, but it only took Dame one.