Would you call this heaven or hell for a wine lover? Getting forty-three Cabernets to taste but not drink, 27 Viogniers to sample and spit out — and so on, through some 3,200 entries in this year's Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
More than 70 judges willing to take on the challenge gathered last week in the gold-striped Vineyard Ballroom of the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel and Conference Center in Pomona. The behind-the-scenes action was as fierce as the judging, given the logistics of storing, transporting, labeling and pouring so much wine, then washing thousands of glasses a day.
No musings over the ethereal qualities of a wine, no discussions, no pleasantries — just swirl, sniff, taste, spit and score. And get it all done in two days. But these were pros: winery owners, winemakers, sommeliers, wine educators, wine brokers and reps, some with decades of experience.
The wines came from all over the world, even Ethiopia. Yes, they're making wine there, not just the traditional honey wine tej but Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.
Aside from varietal names and geographic designations — Spanish Garnacha and Australian Shiraz, for example — the judges did not know the identity of the wines they tasted.
We'll all know the winners, though, when they're announced June 3. And not every entry will get a prize (bronze, silver, gold and best of class). At my table — I was an observer, not a judge — a few wound up with zero points and, even worse, double zeros, including a white Rhone blend that I loved and thought deserved a gold. The four judges on that panel tasted 93 wines the first day and 100 the next, not counting re-tastes of spoiled and corked wines.
The mark of a judge was purple-stained teeth (flossing helps, they say). But there were rewards too. Lunch in the Sheraton garden on the first day included roast lamb leg with mint and black garlic pesto, arctic char with artichoke and lemon confit, yellowfin tuna poke, Chinese broccoli with squash blossoms and pumpkin seeds, chilled farro with tomatoes cured in olive oil, farm greens with ricotta salata and roasted peaches, herb-roasted cauliflower and carrots, a mammoth cheese plate and chocolate ganache cupcakes topped with berries.
The chef was David Teig of McKinley's Grille at the Sheraton, who cooks with seasonal crops from McKinley's Farm, which is part of the Fairplex complex.
In the evening, the judges went to an equally lavish outdoor dinner at the farm. There, Teig served such dishes as an heirloom tomato salad with cheese and microgreens, spicy octopus with Anaheim chiles, peaches and mint, and king salmon with farm-raised squash and bacon. Now the judges could drink as much as they wanted, selecting wines from last year's award winners.
These sumptuous goings-on aren't only for the wine elite, however. Everyone can taste the 2013 award winning wines, as well as spirits, beers and olive oils, June 22 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Fairplex. There will be food trucks, music and a silent auction too. Tickets are $50.
If you can't make that event, you'll have to wait until the L.A. County Fair August 30 to September 29, when winning wines will be poured at the Wine & Spirits Marketplace on the fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, you can dine just like the judges did at McKinley's Farm, a third of an acre densely planted with tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, more varieties of mint than you can probably find anywhere, and many other crops. There, Teig stages farm-to-table dinners with beverage pairings. And you'll be able to watch him cook at the outdoor kitchen just as the judges did. Check with McKinley's Grille for the schedule.
Read more from Barbara Hansen at TableConversation.com, EatMx.com, @foodandwinegal and Facebook. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.