State wines hold their own at Wine & Spirits tasting 

click to enlarge While Wine & Spirits Magazine is based in New York, its San Francisco office scouted many enticing West Coast wines for its Top 100 Tasting.
  • While Wine & Spirits Magazine is based in New York, its San Francisco office scouted many enticing West Coast wines for its Top 100 Tasting.
I recently attended Wine & Spirits Magazine’s 10th annual Top 100 Tasting, which features wines from the wineries that have received the best scores throughout the year from the magazine’s tasting panels. As a rule, I’m not a big fan of rankings, ratings and scores, as reducing a wine to a number runs the risk of debasing wine in general, instead of asking people to think about it through a wider lens.

This tasting, though, is always good fun. I get to see people whom I often haven’t seen in a while, schmooze, drink good wine, eat oysters and, when ready, disappear into the black hole of Muni without anyone knowing I’ve left. The next day, after I’ve had a chance to fully digest the experience, I reflect on the wines and I try to put myself in the position of someone who is not a wine professional but a civilian wine drinker.

With more than 100 wines, there is not only a lot to try but much one can learn.

Granted, it is difficult, if not rude, to corner a winemaker for more than a couple of minutes given the crowds of eager consumers waiting for a splash in their glasses. However, you can still glean some information and always follow up later on.

While there is a wide range of wines, from Chilean carignan to Australian marsanne, it is hard not to notice a preponderance of California wines. Is this a bad thing? I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Gambero Rosso, Italy’s top wine magazine, has an annual tasting as well, the Tre Bicchieri, which honors the top Italian wines. Since it is solely focused on wine from one country, attendees know clearly that these are, agree or not, what the magazine believes to be the best wines made in Italy. If Wine & Spirits considers the wines in its Top 100 to be the best in the world, at least of the 12,000-plus that have been tasted over the course of a year, should it be so weighted on California?

Many moons ago, I was on a tasting panel for a wine competition and one of its head honchos literally told my group that we needed to give out more gold medals. After that, I decided I was done with judging. Let the chips fall where they may, and if that means that California wines get higher scores, so be it.

While Wine & Spirits has its main headquarters in New York, there is a San Francisco office where the tasting is done for West Coast wines. I suspect that because of location, more wines are submitted from California than anywhere else, so it is likely that it will have greater representation at the Top 100 tasting.

Is it worth it for a consumer to pay sometimes upward of several hundred dollars to attend a tasting when the reality is that very few are going to try all of the wines or any number close to it? This particular event certainly affords a unique opportunity to try a whole lot of stuff that you may not be familiar with and, as it is pre-screened at least once by folks who are tested wine professionals, you can rely on a certain level of quality.

While I think that these events are worthwhile for wine enthusiasts, people should realize that ultimately, it is not just a matter of opinion. Tastings should really pry mouths and minds open, not force-feed what their sponsors think you should drink. That way you will get the most out of it, whether you taste 10 wines or all 100.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.

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Pamela S. Busch

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Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com.
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