What does it take to organize and execute the largest wine competition of American wines in the world? Consider 60 judges; 100 volunteers; 180 days; 320 arms and legs; 1,300 wineries, 2,200 meals; 10,000 hours; 30,000 stems; nearly 30,000 sniffs, swirls, sips and spits, 33,000 bottles and quite possibly a years supply of a stomach antacid! That is what the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is at its essence.
The Cloverdale Citrus Fair, the locus of this annual event since its inception in 1983, has a wonderful history and tradition. The Citrus Fair was established in 1892 as a simple country fair focused on the wonderful citrus fruits grown in the area and remains the earliest fair (mid-February) in California.
The Citrus Fair organization, headed up by CEO Bonnie Wlodarczyk, provides exceptional support throughout the preparations and judging with their multipurpose facility, kitchen and dish room operations and staff as well as a highly cooperative warehouseman/forklift operator. They all become integral members of the team delivering and removing tons of materials including tables, partitions, chairs, assisting in the movement of the nearly 100 pallets of wine, washing and rewashing thousands of glasses, dishes and other service items.
Over the past 14 years the competition has been "name sponsored" by the San Francisco Chronicle|SFGate.com and is now aptly named the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A wide range of other sponsors provide financial, media and other support for the event to include the judging and the public tasting. To name just a few: Bevmo! the "presenting sponsor", Stella Artois, Monster, KGO News, NBC Bay Area, Wine & Spirits Magazine, Wine & Vines Magazine and Santa Rosa Junior College. Sponsors offer financial support or other in kind support, like marketing or materials. In return, the sponsors get recognition in the form of media and website exposure and participation in a widely recognized, largest of its kind wine competition and public tasting held in San Francisco.
The heart of the competition in Cloverdale is the organization, the leadership team, the volunteers, the judges and, of course, the wine. Beginning the day after the previous judging in January 2012 a virtual army of volunteers, led by a small corps of 5 paid staff, began the planning and preparations for the this year.
The Process and the Volunteers
The effort for continuous event improvement starts with a review of what went well and not so well in order to make corrections and enhancements. Preparations continue at a steady simmer for the next several months collecting used empty cases and other free materials to keep costs at a minimum.
In late October/early November a list of volunteers (including all from the past year and some from a waiting list) are sent a letter of invitation to participate in the upcoming preparations. Anne Vercelli is the floor general for the back room activities leading up to and during the judging. (Anne is the daughter of the late Joe Vercelli, iconic winemaker and inspiration for the famous "Little Old Winemaker Me" commercials for the historic Italian Swiss Colony Winery at Asti (just a couple miles south of Cloverdale.)
The volunteers man 4 telephones at the Citrus Fair beginning just before Thanksgiving to call hundreds and hundreds of wineries to solicit their commitment to participate. The wineries submit their application through which they provide the details of their entrant(s) by Varietal, Vintage, Appellation and Vineyard designate, if applicable.
The wineries begin shipping (or delivering, if local) to the Citrus Fair, beginning in November. Almost 99% of the wine is shipped in those Styrofoam protected shippers. Each entry must provide 6 bottles of wine. Upon receipt, the volunteers take the wine out of the shipping boxes and place them in regular wine cases labeled with the winery name. In full swing, it takes 5 volunteers about 4 hours to process 8 pallets of wine or about 250 cases. The 33,000 bottles/5,500 entrees submitted take a 40 hour week to just transfer from shipper to regular cases. This is the beginning of the processes to ensure a high integrity blind tasting by the judge.
The secret sauce to ensuring a true blind and fair judging is the bottle coding which occurs in December. Each of the 33,000 bottles has a small sticker applied with 2 numbers. One number correlated in the data base to the winery/entry and a second number that identifies the wine class (white, red, varietal, price, etc). There were 112 classes this year.
There were 6 categories or divisions:
I. Sparking Wines
II. White Wines
III. Pink Wines
IV. Red Wines
V. Dessert Wines
VI. Label competition.
If a particular varietal has a large number of entrants, like the many Chardonnay entrants, they are further broken down by price range. As an example: 210 is the class number for the Chardonnay up to $9.99 a bottle. 211 represents the Chardonnay from $10-14.99 and so on for 7 price levels. Similarly there were 9 classes of Cabernet Sauvignon.
As the wine is coded it is placed back into the relabeled cases by judging class and returned to the secure storage area. This coding effort continues through Christmas when the entrance period is closed. Accuracy, Accuracy, ACCURACY is the watchword over this 4-6 weeks.
Now that all the wine has been received, inventoried, matched against the entry paperwork, coded, checked and triple checked, the volunteers can move to the physical setup of the staging and judging areas.
This year there were 16 judging panels. Each panel has 3-5 judges (always an odd number) and 1 volunteer coordinator to manage the process and record the judging results. The large auditorium in the Citrus Fair is set up with 16 partitioned off spaces with tables, chairs, score boards, dump buckets and spit cups.
The backroom is where the wine is staged for the 3 days of judging. That area is set with 16 'staging' areas corresponding to the 16 panels. In fact, the 3-4 volunteers in each of these 16 staging areas are dedicated to organizing the wine, polishing and numbering the glasses, checking the wines, pouring the wine just before needed for the judging and then physically delivering the wine to the judging panel.
On Monday of judging week, the staging area volunteers stage the wine in reverse sequence. All bottles are rechecked and then placed back into their cases. The wine to be judged on Thursday is placed under the staging tables in back. Then the wines to be judged on Wednesday are checked, returned to the cases and then placed under the tables in front of the Thursday wines. Finally, the Tuesday wines are removed from the cases, checked and then placed on the tables ready to be opened and poured as needed on Tuesday morning.
Like any army, this army of volunteers marches on its stomach. The volunteers and the judges were provided breakfast and lunch each day of judging week. Patti and Friends Catering of Cloverdale, augmented in the kitchen by the Citrus Fair staff, prepared and served 2200 meals for the volunteers and judges. The food was fresh, wholesome, varied and delightful. Closely related to the catering team was the dish/kitchen team from the Citrus Fair (augmented by volunteers) who washed and dried the thousands of glasses used over and over again as well as the dishes and silverware for all those meals.
A delightful side benefit for the volunteers, and many of the judges for that matter, is to see people that you only see once or twice a year. Although some are local friends, other volunteers come from as far away as Sacramento, San Rafael, San Ramon, Rohnert Park and points in-between. This is the only time they meet each year. Some have been meeting this way for years or even decades.
In addition to the small paid staff and the 100 volunteers there are interns. This year the 10 interns all came from Bob Frasers program at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC). Some years they come from both SRJC and the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State, both of which have well regarded oenology programs. Each intern is expected to provide at least 88 hours to the event. The SFCWC Wine Intern Program is designed to give wine students "real life" experiences at a major competition and wine tasting. They not only work the judging but also the Public Tasting at Fort Mason. The benefit for these students is reflected in their resumes and while interviewing for jobs upon completion of their course work at the colleges.
The Wineries and Wines
Bob Fraser and son Scott, the competition Co-Executive Directors, spend all year adding new wineries to their database identifying who to add to the call for entries. They use a variety of approaches including tracking and communicating with regional winery associations. Using this approach, new wineries from around the country are added to the list. Bob also makes regular "road trips" to various wine regions within the United States and visits prospective wineries. Finally, they advertise the "Call for Entries" for the wine competition in national wine magazines as well as various large metropolitan newspapers in those wine regions. Through this inclusive and diverse process small new wineries like 3 Steves Winery in Livermore, California (licensed in 2011) are invited to participate and make their name by achieving a medal status at this competition. In their first year in the competition, 3 Steves Winery was awarded two Silver Medals. In fact, wineries from all over the United States participate including the Finger Lakes in New York, Arizona, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and at least 17 other states.
The Judges and the judging
By August, Bob and Scott have narrowed the list of prospective judges for the following January judging. A letter of invitation is then prepared and sent to 70 judges to confirm their participation. Judges are selected based upon a wide criteria including noted reputations as professional judges, winemakers, wine buyers (restaurant/hospitality and retail), academia, media, food and tourist industries and the wine industry.
Typically the judges come from all the major media centers (NYC/LA/Chicago/Dallas) and the major wine producing regions around the country. Some widely known professionals included Wilfred Wong, Diane Teitelbaum, Jon Bonné, Carl Brandhorst, Catherine Rabb, Kent Rosenblum, Jim Trezise, Andy Perdue, Jessica Altieri, Dr. Barry Gump and Charles Mara. This year the judges came from the 23 major wine producing states represented in the wine competition. For the actual judging, the judges were assigned wines for which they have special expertise or preference. So, it would not be unusual that judges representing Washington and New York states, for example, to be evaluating Dry Riesling, as that is a major grape varietal from those regions. These judges have the dubious task of tasting as many as 120 wines per day. A challenge few 'civilians' would be able to manage without real palate fatigue.
In each class (there were 112 classes) the judges award the various medals (the vote had to be unanimous) and a Best of Class (BOC). On Friday, the 93 Best of Class Wines were all re-tasted by the judges to select the Sweeps winners by class. Those winners were:
Sparkling: Korbel Champagne Cellars Non-Vintage Blanc de Noirs California $11.00
White: Keuka Springs Vineyards 2011 Reisling Finger Lakes $13.99
Pink: Sorelle Winery 2011 Sangiovese Rosato Lodi $16.00
Red: (a tie)
Terlato Family Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $60.00
Wilson Winery 2009 Petite Sirah Dry Creek Valley Mollys Vineyard $38.00
Dessert: Castello di Amorosa 2011 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer Anderson Valley $35.00
The Public Tasting
Yes, there will be a public tasting of the premier winners at Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion on February 16th from 2PM-5PM. Thousands of people will flock to this annual event and taste some of the thousands of award winning wines. Unlike the judging in Cloverdale, where the wineries were not invited, they will be pouring their own winners at this public celebration. Tickets are still available for $70.00 each online at winejudging.com/event_tickets.htm . This is usually a sellout but if available, tickets are $85.00 at the door.
The beneficiary of any proceeds are the non-profit Cloverdale Citrus Fair and the wine and culinary arts programs at Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University, Fresno State University, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and other non-profits.
The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is an event of epic proportions both in the judging in Cloverdale and the much anticipated public tasting at the Fort Mason in February. The 5,500 participants at Fort Mason will never quite know of the army of volunteers and judges who toiled and tasted to bring these wines to their attention. Don't miss it!