– By Richard Eber
It’s 10: AM on a Saturday morning at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek. While most folks are still sipping Starbucks at this moment, ten wine experts are gathered at St. Paul’s Cafeteria to carefully sniff, analyze color, and ultimately taste eight glasses of wine to determine which one is the best.
Welcome to the Contra Costa Wine Group’s (CCWG) 38th annual professional judging of vino, mostly produced in the garages of its 75 members. Each year the club, which has been recently named Wine Club of the Year for the third time in five years by Winemaker Magazine, holds its competition where gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded for different varieties of red, white, and dessert wines.
The CCWG has been around since 1972 and relies on its member’s love of winemaking to be the guiding light behind the club’s activities. “Our success is based upon our location in Northern California near high-quality grapes, the wonderful sharing of information among members and the spirit of the club,” states the group’s President, or should we say “Wine Czar” Bonneau Dixon.
Inside, volunteers mark each entry, clean glasses, and present wine groupings to the judges. Then they tabulate the results. Most of those who tendered the 99 entries in 2016 are more interested in the evaluation sheets they receive than winning awards. They
take great pride in their work. For the members, the quality of the wine means everything. Winning awards at wine tasting functions merely add credence to their dedication to the craft.
Of course, this event was celebrated with a potluck dinner. What is wine without food? The cuisine ranged from polenta lasagna to pulled pork sandwiches. Home winemakers are usually “foodies” who appreciate all aspects of their dining experience.
CCWG members reside primarily on the 680 corridor from Martinez to Livermore with several members living in Concord, Clayton, Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill. They all understand the purpose of the organization is to make the best wine possible by improving their methodology each year. Monthly meetings hosted at a member’s house include a happy hour of drinking each other’s vintages followed by an expert speaker on some aspect of winemaking.
Making Wine, Some members grow grapes on their properties, but most purchase from growers in the area. The process normally takes from ten months to a couple of years after grapes are harvested before they are bottled. Following the harvest, a great deal of work goes into the first month including crushing (removing stems), fermenting (converting sugar to alcohol), pressing, filtering, and placing into containers (mostly barrels). Adding chemicals to regulate acid, PH, and possible diseases that could damage the wine are the main activities in the following months. During this time the wine needs to be racked (pumping out of the barrel) and sulfated every 6-7 weeks prior to bottling.
Throughout this whole process, for most CCWG members and millions of other winemakers worldwide, the tasks of stomping the grapes to corking the finished product is very much a fun, family-friendly activity.
The Judges Many of the judges are professionals who work in the business. Most are sommeliers and/or professional winemakers. Brent Davis, a graduate of Fresno State, is a winemaker at Bent Creek in Livermore. He looks for balance, elegance, aroma, finish and of course tastes to evaluate different elements he is evaluating.
Similarly, UC Davis grad Aaron Luna, the winemaker for Fenestrate Winery in Livermore claims “taste is partly defined by the aroma. The two are a package deal.”
Wine judge Vlatka Bathgate of Orinda feels her diverse training makes her better as a judge. Her family owned a winery in Croatia. There she received a degree in Viniculture studies and performed a stint as a winemaker in New Zealand prior to immigrating to Napa. Vlatka then became a Sommelier studying at Greystone in St. Helena.
Maria Terry of Walnut Creek is a professional Sommelier. In her business, Terry educates groups on proper pairings of various wines with food.
The Winners: This was no beauty contest, nor was politics involved with the selection process. It was a blind tasting with plain brown paper bags covering each bottle. Longtime CCWC member David Hicks was awarded Best In Show for his 2014 Clearlake Viognier. In the red category, newcomers Mary Rogan and Alan Nunns win first for their 2013 Napa Meritage.
For the judges, the task of evaluating 99 entries is an act of love. There is no monetary compensation. They are content receiving a six-pack of quality wine from the group. At the awards dinner, Judge Maria Terry was asked if she grew tired of drinking wine. As a judge for the CCWG, she distinguishes between evaluating wines and enjoying them. To this, she raised a glass and replied “There is a difference between tasting and consuming wine. I like to do both.”