'We lost our director," lamented Don Galleano, owner of Galleano Winery up in Mira Loma. Galleano was attending the San Diego Wine Competition, but he was talking about the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition held every year in San Bernardino as part of the National Orange Show. His lament was aimed at Bob Foster, co-founder of the San Diego Wine Competition, senior judge at the Riverside Wine Competition, and veteran presence for at least seven others.
"You're a year early," joked Foster. "I'm going to retire from the Attorney General's office, and if I were retired, I'd love to do it." Galleano wasn't so easily put off. Help was offered, wives were consulted, and this year, Foster will take over as director at Pacific Rim.
A wine competition has to sell itself at both ends -- it needs to attract wineries, and it needs consumers to pay attention to the results. "There are more and more competitions," says Foster, so many that "a single medal at a single competition" is not going to have much of an impact. "If a winery pulls five golds and four silvers in the course of a judging season, that can have an impact. And the wineries have to make choices about which competitions they're going to enter."
When measuring a competition against its fellows, says Foster, you look at two things. One, "how the results of any one competition compare to the others. If you have a Cabernet that's gotten seven gold medals at seven competitions, and at the eighth, it gets a bronze, that kind of raises an eyebrow." Still, "a single wine like that, no big deal. It could have been an off bottle. But if you see a competition where, time and time again, it's not happening" when compared to other competitions, "you get a little concerned."
The second factor is who's judging. "What makes a good wine judge is the ability to put away personal preferences and take a broader perspective. I've given gold medals to wines that I would never buy for my personal consumption, because they're made in a style that I personally don't care for. But for that style and that varietal, they're fabulous." Foster wants judges who can understand that "power is not enough" in a wine, even though it's what gets noticed most easily when you're plowing through hundreds of samples. He wants judges who will take an extra minute over a light-bodied Cabernet that might be overlooked even though it was "impeccably made, with great balance."
Assembling the team "was abundantly easy for me. I'd been a professional wine judge for 20 years, and I knew the people I wanted." Some were already regulars at the Pacific Rim. Some, like Renay Santoro -- "she's a wine buyer for a chain of markets in Sonoma County" -- and Doug Frost, Kansas City's rare master sommelier/master of wine, are Foster's picks.
And, adds Foster with not a little excitement, "For the first time since 1982, I've got myself, Dan Berger, Darrell Corti, and Bob Thompson at the same competition." Berger and Corti are known stars in the wine-god's firmament, but "what I'm most happy about is that I got Bob to come out of retirement to judge for me. Bob was the San Francisco Examiner wine columnist for years, and he's written a number of books." (This is a delightfully understated account; Thompson is one of the giants of the old guard, the early-'60s champions of California wine. He wrote The Sunset Books Guide to California Wine Country, collaborated with English wine writer Hugh Johnson on a second book about California wine, and hung around long enough to be allowed to write Notes on a California Cellarbook: Reflections on Memorable Wines. )
Thompson prefers a slower tasting pace than most competitions allow. Foster lured him to San Bernardino with the promise that he could spend his energies on the sparklers, a smaller category that demands more attention than some. "I think sparkling wines are the toughest to judge," says Foster, "because you have to go beyond the bubbles to the wine, but you also have to acknowledge the bubbles." He also set him up with an old friend on the judging panel. "It's kind of an experiment. Bob may still end up saying, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'" Even sitting around and yakking about wine may lose its luster after 40 years or so.
After gathering the judges, Foster has to assign them to tasting panels. "I'm trying to balance experience with less experience, balance personalities, and balance skills. Jeremy Oliver, who's coming up from Australia, has lots of experience with Shiraz and Syrah," so he'll be judging those wines.
After the competition, Foster needs to publicize the results. (If you win a medal for your wine and nobody knows it, then what's the point?) He cites the "dream situation" enjoyed by the San Francisco Chronicle's wine competition. "The paper publishes the results, and they hold a huge tasting at Fort Mason. Scads of publicity -- in Northern California. We have to work a little harder to get the word out. We make it a point to invite two or three wine writers, people we know will write a story after the competition. Mike Dunn, my chief judge, is wine columnist for the Sacramento Bee. David Jones is out of San Francisco. And Doug Frost writes a wine column in Kansas City. We also do a couple of public events in San Bernardino."
Finally, it's Foster's job to keep the competition's nose clean. A competition is only as good as its reputation. He's heard stories and mentions directors and chief judges "trying to manipulate results. If a wine doesn't do well with one panel, they'll take it to another panel and say, 'Would you taste this? I think the panel missed it. '"
It's a tricky business, even with good judges and an honest director. It's not necessarily like Sundance, where you at least know that the judge and the public are seeing the same movie. "Every winemaker I've talked to, if they've got ten barrels of a wine, they know which one is the richest barrel. I've never seen any proof, but what always worries me is: 'Do they bottle that one barrel separately, and that's what goes to the wine competitions and the wine newsletters?' But there's no way to resolve the question. One competition sent off a bottle of a wine that was entered and another bottle of the same wine that came off the store shelf. The lab said, 'They're different, but we can't rule out simple bottle variation.' And I know that happens. I've bought cases of wine and found that ten of the bottles are terrific, while two are just duds. It's a mystery."