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Wine Judge on a Mission

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I am often met with a raised eyebrow when I mention that I am off to judge at a wine competition. It seems many do not connect the concept of a so-called "award-winning" wine with the fact that the wine must have been subjected to critical evaluation in a competitive environment to make the "award" claim.

I am aware of more than 60 wine competitions in the United States, and at least an equal number around the globe. As I write this, I am about to join a panel of three other wine professionals — wine journalists, winemakers, wine marketers, wine educators and such — at the Dallas Morning News TexSomm wine competition in Dallas.

At this rather large competition, with more than 3,000 wines entered, there will be dozens of panels just like mine. Each panel will taste approximately 100 wines a day for two days and render a verdict on every wine. I will repeat this exercise when I judge at the Sunset Magazine wine competition in April, and again in May when I join the tasting evaluations at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Bratislava, Slovakia, the world's largest wine competition.

In addition, I operate four major international wine competitions myself — the upcoming San Diego International in March and the three "Challenges" — Winemaker, Critics and Sommelier.

The role of the judges in these events is critical. I know I make every effort to see each wine in its best light. That said, no professional wine judge wants to convey an award on an underserving wine.

The first thing we look for is an obvious flaw. You can smell many defects in wine, thus nosing it and considering the aroma profile is usually the first order of business when tasting during a critical evaluation. Many wines are disqualified simply because they smell bad. These are "NIMMy" wines, for "not in my mouth."

If a wine passes the smell test, we move on to the taste test. I first analyze structure, balance and flavor, always on the lookout for flaws that might weaken the wine's score. If a wine is sound, then a judge must determine whether it has the personality and character to be considered for a medal.

If the answer is yes, then the question becomes one of degrees. Truly exceptional wines stand out from the crowd. In a tasting flight of 10 wines or so, they are clearly the most distinctive and impressive. Having a benchmark standout then helps a wine judge work backward to sort out lesser awards for the other wines up for medal consideration.

This rigorous evaluation has but one purpose, and that is to identify outstanding wines so that you, the ultimate end user, don't have to take the time nor go to the expense of tasting 100 cabernet sauvignons to find the dozen or so you might like.

The system isn't perfect. Good wines are sometimes overlooked by the judges. Not every wine that fails to win a medal is necessarily a flawed or bad wine. Wine is a living thing inside the bottle, ever changing and evolving. There are days when even good wines simply fail to shine.

But rest assured, when you pick up a medal-winning wine from the shelf in the grocery story, that wine has been vetted by experienced professionals who care only that the wines they commend to you on the basis of their medal awards are absent of flaws and taste very, very good.

Over the next two days of the Dallas Morning News TexSomm wine competition, that is my job, and I am a wine judge on a mission.

BEST VALUE

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Clayhouse 2010 Malbec, Paso Robles ($14) — Clayhouse has a remarkable track record in the winery's brief history. It consistently delivers exceptional quality at modest prices across a broad range of grape varieties. The malbec is a good example. This is a grape usually used for blending, although it has been used to make successful stand-alone wines in places like Argentina and southwest France. It's rare to see one from California, so this is an exception to the rule as well as an exceptional expression of this once-obscure Bordeaux grape variety. The Clayhouse exhibits layers of red and black fruits, smooth, supple tannins and outstanding balance. Perfect with grilled meats, so an inexpensive value red to stock up on as the barbecue season nears. Rating: 90.

Eberle 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon 'Vineyard Selection,' Paso Robles ($19) — The Eberle Winery has a longstanding reputation for its age-worthy cabernet sauvignon, but the kudos are usually reserved for the consistently outstanding estate cab and the always remarkable reserve cab. The best-kept secret in Paso, however, is the 'Vineyard Selection' cabernet that relies upon grapes from throughout the Paso region as well as a portion from the Eberle property. This wine is made in a fruit-driven style and is always reasonably priced, and it's delicious vintage after vintage. Proof of that fact is its track record at major wine competitions, where it usually does well. This vintage took a gold medal at the 2013 Winemaker Challenge in January, and it's a pure delight, particularly at an attractive price point below $20. Rating: 90.

TASTING NOTES

Cakebread Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Dancing Bear Ranch, Howell Mountain ($110) — This massive mountain cabernet from Cakebread's Dancing Bear Ranch on Howell Mountain was voted best-of-class cabernet sauvignon at Winemaker Challenge IV, where it also narrowly lost the vote for Best of Show red wine to another great Napa Valley wine, the 2009 V. Sattui Paradiso, a superb blended red Bordeaux-style wine. The Cakebread is rich and powerful, with exceptional intensity on the palate and weight without overbearing heft. This is a wine that will need another three to five years to fully mature and show its best, but even today the layers of dark fruit clearly demonstrate the promise of the future. This is a warm wine with subtle wood notes and hints of spice and mocha. Very powerful, very complex, very good. Rating: 96.

Baileyana 2009 Pinot Noir, Grand Firepeak Vineyard, Edna Valley ($30) — Winemaker Christian Roguenant scored a rare double at the 2012 Winemaker Challenge when both his chardonnay and pinot noir from Baileyana earned platinum awards and advanced to the championship rounds of this unique wine competition, where all of the judges are accomplished winemakers. The chardonnay went on to take the vote for Wine of the Year, but that shouldn't diminish the accomplishment of the pinot noir in any way. This lovely pinot from the Grand Firepeak Vineyard in the cool Edna Valley is exquisitely balanced, exhibits excellent flavor intensity and beautifully integrated tannins. The wine shows layers of red fruits and spice and has the structure to improve in the bottle over the next several years. Rating: 94.

Flora Springs 2011 Chardonnay 'Barrel Fermented,' Napa Valley ($35) — The fear that usually grips me when I see the term "barrel fermented" on a chardonnay label is that the wine will taste of wood, with strong aromas of vanilla and buttered popcorn. And I realize many wine enthusiasts enjoy this particular style, but I find it a bit heavy and cloying. So imagine your surprise if you expect that from a bottle of Flora Springs "Barrel Fermented" Chardonnay. To be sure, this is an excellent example of a rich Napa chardonnay, but it is anything but heavy and cloying. Flora Springs strikes a wonderful balance between richness and structure, crafting a chardonnay that exhibits tension between those two competing characteristics. You will find intense aromas and flavors, with loads of pear, apple and tropical fruit, balanced with good acidity and a mere hint of the flavors and aromas you might expect from a chardonnay that proudly proclaims it is fermented in barrels. Kudos to Flora Springs. Rating: 92.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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