Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

EVENT: LA Wine Competition Preview and Tasting

The other day, I was invited to a preview tasting and showcase for the winners of the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition. The competition for wine takes place over three days, during which time a panel of 75 judges from all over the world tasted 3400 different wines. They were judged in three different categories this year based on price: $14.99 and under; $15-$29.99; and $30 and up.

In each price category there were "best in class" winners for each type of wine and from each group of "best in class" wines was chosen a "best in show" winner in each price category in red and white wines.

For the first time, electronic voting was implemented so that each judge placed their vote completely unaware of what others were voting. In previous years it was a hand-raising system, which could have influenced the votes, by others being allowed to see what the most prestigious judges were voting for. Not so anymore!

When I arrived, I had the opportunity to first take part in a fun little game. We were all sat at a table and each given tastes of the five "best in show" red wines. Two of them were in the low price category, one in the mid-price category, and two in the high category. (There were two ties).

I didn't do so well with the guessing. I was able to get the low price categories due to guesswork based on the grapes involved (I've only seen a very few Malbecs over $15; likewise, I figured a blend would be less expensive), but wasn't able to tell with the mid- and high categories.

When the answers were revealed, we noticed something very interesting. One of the best in show wines was a box wine. Not just a box wine, the "Target Wine Cube." Yup. It's a box of wine you can purchase at Target. And enough of the 75 judges voted it for it to be best in show. As for how I liked it, well, it was definitely a drinkable wine. It was very light for a cabernet blend and had a delicate spicy smell, although some people said it had almost no smell to them.

My personal favorite was the mid-range wine, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. To me it had the nicest flavor - I'm terrible at describing wine the way some people do, but my notes say "cinnamon."

After the tasting I wandered around to each table, where the best in show whites and the other best in class winners were located. Most of the winners that I had heard of were the sort of popular favorites you can often find in the supermarket - Kendall-Jackson, Ravenswood, etc. Another box wine won the Cabernet Sauvignon award - Black Box, which markets itself as providing vintage dated wines in a box.

The only wine I really recognized and eagerly darted for was the Meritage winner, as it's a beloved wine from my homeland - Justin Vineyards Isosceles. Frankly, this one was the winner as far as I'm concerned and I think the best wine I tasted that day, but I am highly, highly biased. Also, it's like six times more expensive than the wine box, but could hold its own much better against a nice steak, I think.

Some other interesting things I tried were an "apricot wine" which won in the fruit wine category. It definitely tasted like apricot and was definitely something you'd have for dessert. I also had a riesling from New York and an Albarino from Virginia that were both decent and firsts for me with drinking wines from these states.

After the tastings, Michael Jordan, one of the judges, and a longtime resterauteur, gave us a little talk, and that was that. My take on these wines was that the large amount of judges and large amount of wines resulted in winners that were sort of "populist" wines. In other words, someone with a very refined palate and tastes is probably not going to make much of these, but for the average buyer who's looking for a good bargain on a wine they can have with an everyday dinner or pizza and burgers and whatnot, then the wines here represent some good values with tastes that have a wide appeal.

One of the things I would recommend taking a look at the list of winners for some ideas of different grapes to try if you stick to certain kinds usually, such as merlot, pinot noir, cabernet or chardonnay. There's a whole world of other stuff out there and you could do worse than to give some of these a try as a starting point to expand your palate.

If you are interested in trying the winners for yourselves, they will be on display at the LA County Fair in September, or at a special event at the Pomona Fairplex tomorrow night called Wine and Cars Under the Stars. They will have the wines available there and also the award-winning olive oils from their related competition will be available to try with grilled cheese sandwiches.

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