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What Were the Judges Thinking?
By Robert Whitley
Jun 14, 2011
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It was just about a month ago that a number of trusted colleagues joined me in San Diego for the eighth annual Critics Challenge. By now you may know that we selected a brut rose from the Champagne house of G.H. Mumm as wine of the year, appropriate recognition for a stellar showing that dazzled the assembled critics.

Hundreds of other wines received an array of awards and were issued medal certificates recognizing the honors. Medals or certificates are the standard fare of wine competitions, but the Critics Challenge adds an unusual twist.

Excerpts from the judges’ tasting notes are posted on the competition website for all to see. You no longer have to wonder what the judges were thinking when they handed a wine a silver or gold medal. To be sure, some of the comments are more detailed than others, but generally the excerpts convey a sense of the judges’ enthusiasm for the wine being medaled.

As Director, I often only taste the wines awarded platinum, which means they have been evaluated and sent forward into the championship rounds, where best of class, best of show and wine of the year winners are determined.

This year, however, I had the opportunity to judge one afternoon session of white wines on the first day of the competition. We taste the wines blind, of course, so we have no idea who made the wines before us. It’s always fascinating in such a setting to learn later what you liked.

In the comments below I have shared my award-winning wines and, more importantly, my excerpted tasting notes from this year’s Critics Challenge. The notes are also posted on the Critics Challenge website, where you will also find the tasting notes from other judges, such as Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle or Mary Ewing-Mulligan of Wine for Dummies fame.

Bracey Vineyards
Critics Silver: 2009 Chardonnay, Split Rock Vineyard, Sonoma Coast $38. Balanced and refreshing, with a note of baked apple and pear.

Chateau Ste. Michelle
Critics Gold: 2008 Chardonnay, Canoe Ridge Estate, Horse Heaven Hills $24. Ripe, mouth-filling and spicy, with notes of pear and lemon oil.
Darcie Kent
Critics Silver: 2009 Chardonnay, DeMayo Vineyard, Livermore Valley $30. Well balanced and elegant, with notes of pear, apple and spice.

David Bruce Winery
Critics Gold: 2008 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains $55. Rich without being overdone, this creamy chardonnay exhibits pretty aromas of pear and apple, with a hint of oak vanillin.

Davis Bynum Winery
Critics Gold: 2008 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley $25. Rich and full-bodied, with an underpinning of fresh acidity and a lovely dollop of lemon cräme and pear aroma.

Dry Creek Vineyard
Critics Silver: 2008 Chardonnay, Foggy Oaks, Russian River Valley $20. Elegant, with delicate aromas of pear, baked apple and spice.

Francis Ford Coppola
Critics Gold: 2009 Chardonnay, Director's Cut, Russian River Valley $21. Well balanced, showing lovely notes of pear and apple and judiciously restrained oak.

Frank Family Vineyards
Critics Gold: 2009 Chardonnay, Carneros $32.50 Well balanced, exhibiting a note of ripe pear and lemon cräme, with firm acidity and a crisp, clean finish.

Godwin Family Vineyards
Critics Silver: 2008 Chardonnay, Floral Clone, Russian River Valley $28. Good ripeness and richness without being cloying, showing hints of pear and tropical fruit against a backdrop of sweet brown spices.

Handley Cellars
Critics Silver: 2009 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard, Anderson Valley $20. Restrained and elegant, showing notes of green apple and pear, with good balance.
Critics Gold: 2010 Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley $18. Spicy, with a hint of rose petal and juicy acidity.

Husch Vineyards
Critics Gold: 2010 Chenin Blanc, La Ribera Vineyards, Mendocino $11. Lovely pear and melon notes, beautifully balanced with juicy acidity.

J. Lohr
Critics Silver: 2008 Chardonnay, Arroyo Vista, Arroyo Seco $25. Crisp and refreshing, showing hints of citrus, pear and oak vanillin.

Jefferson Vineyards
Critics Gold: 2010 Chardonnay Reserve, Monticello $21.95 Ripe pear and lemon oil nuance, with fresh acidity and a gentle whiff of oak vanillin.

Kiona Vineyards
Critics Silver: 2010 Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley $14.99 Very fruity with pear and melon notes and good balance.

Lafond Winery
Critics Gold: 2007 Chardonnay, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills $38. Creamy and long on the palate, with notes of lemon oil and ripe pear, finishing with a hint of spice.

Critics Silver: 2009 Albarino, Rias Baixas DDO, Spain $30. This fresh albarino exhibits pretty lime/citrus aroma with good acidity.

Most Wanted Wine Co.
Critics Gold: 2009 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley $35. Elegant and balanced, exhibiting flavors of ripe pear and apple, with good length.

Navarro Vineyards
Critics Silver: 2009 Chardonnay, Premiere Reserve, Anderson Valley $25. Very attractive pear fruit, with good balance and judicious restraint.

Paco & Lola
Critics Gold: 2010 Albarino, Rias Baixas DDO, Spain $20. Nicely structured, with excellent richness and persistence of flavor.

Penley Estate
Critics Silver: 2009 Chardonnay, Aradia, Coonawarra, Australia $20. Mouth-filling ripe pear fruit, with length and richness on the palate.

Rodney Strong Vineyards
Critics Gold: 2009 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyards, Chalk Hill $20. Gorgeous pear and apple aroma with a hint of lemon creme and spice. Richly layered but well balanced and elegant.

Rosemount Estate
Critics Silver: 2007 Chardonnay, Show Reserve, Hunter Valley $21. The toasty, charred oak will please some, annoy others, but for me it's an attractive accent that complements the ripe pear aroma without making it all about the barrel.

Critics Silver: 2009 Verdejo, Tierra de Castilla, Spain $10. Bright and clean, this wine shows good acid and ripe tropical notes.

Zina Hyde Cunningham Winery
Critics Gold: 2009 Chardonnay, North Coast $28. Notes of pineapple and other tropical, with good length through the mid-palate and a spicy, juicy finish.