When you think of the California State Fair, does wine instantly come to mind?
If not, it should, at least, according to resident wine expert Rick Kushman. In this month’s Kushman by the Bottle, Rick explains why winemakers consider a win at the fair prestigious and how visitors can take advantage of it through tasting.
Wine judging, the process and the Rose craze
So just how important is wine at the California State Fair?
Rick Kushman: "What state fairs were -- and still are in many ways -- it's about agriculture and about the products of the state and the things we grow and produce. And state fairs have always been about competitions. ... Wine is, for all kinds of reasons, the preeminent commercial competition simply because it's wine. People understand it and love it. And they get to taste it afterward.
It also has a big deal of cachet. The State Fair's wine competition is one of four or five most important in the country."
Takeaways from judging
Kushman: "What was so impressive is how good zin has become again. There was a while there where they were all just big and juicy -- and there are still plenty big and juicy zins out there - but now they all seem to have these layers. There's just so much good zin in California."
It's less fun than it sounds. We got three flights of zin. Each flight was 12 wines. You probably spend, maybe, 45 minutes on a flight of wine.
How can you taste all these wines and judge it?
Kushman: "Everybody has their own palate cleansing thing. And they give you a little plate with mild green olives and celery and roast beef and bread. And lots of water. ... For me, roast beef is a really good palate cleanser for red wines. ... And the one thing you need to do is to remind yourself that if you're starting to not discern things in the wine, it's probably you and not the wine, and you need to go back and refresh yourself and then you re-taste that wine.
So how does the judging actually work?
"There are three judges per panel and there were 18 or 19 panels this year. Each judge tastes separately and writes down their scores -- and maybe a note to remind you why you scored the way you did -- and then we talk. Not to change our medals or minds or anything but sometimes to see if someone missed something the others didn't.
It's not just a taste thing, it's an intellectual thing. We love thinking about wine and if it's interesting, delicious and interesting. Sometimes that might raise the score as well.
And don't forget, you can taste at the fair.
Kushman: "I recommend instead of just buying a glass, that use this as an opportunity to taste three of the same wines that you like or that you don't like and want to learn more about and then choose one from each of the different growing regions ... so taste from the north and the central coast and the southern region. Use it as a great opportunity to compare like to semi-like."
It's not just commercial growers competing at the fair either, so don't forget to visit the home wine makers booth. Kushman has been the chief judge for the home wine competition for a few years and there's year's competition was one of the best. This year's competition featured "something like 800 wines and every year they get better."
For anyone who's interested in learning to make wine, go by the booth and there will probably be a bunch of very eager people there ready to share information on how to get started.
So what's with all the Rose?
Kushman: "It's simply delicious, and it has grown massively the last few years.
It's only 2 or 3 percent of the market but at this time of the year, it's huge, and you can't run a restaurant without having a good rose on your list.
Partly, because this time of year, it just fits. It's cold but still has some substance. It can be both light and full. It's one of those wines that fits everyone's palate. Simply put, it's a red-ish wine you can drink cold."