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The Envelope, Please

At 9 a.m., the procession begins. It's day two of the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition, and blue-shirted volunteers are beginning to push cart after cart into the chilly gray room where the judges wait at the ten great round tables. The tops of the carts are loaded with glasses, each one tagged to ensure it matches up to the correct bottle in back. (Thousands of pairs of bottles line the tables in the back room, their foils removed for quick opening -- one opened for pouring, one standing as backup in case of a corked or spoiled wine.) The volunteers fan out the glasses before the judges in flights of up to 14 wines, but there is still plenty of room for papers and snackables -- grapes, celery, cheese, crackers, and olives. (Nobody at my table touches the cheese; the olives and crackers are what get munched.)

Most of the panels have three members -- with four, you run the risk of deadlocks over controversial wines. Panel ten agrees to let me sit in and play along for the Viogniers and Muscats. The actual judges on the panel: Gerry Warren, Ellen Landis, and Stillman Brown. Warren is from Seattle and is "not a winemaker but a consumer. I founded the wine competitions for the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest and the Tri-Cities Festival -- they're for Northwest wines. I've known many of the judges that judge here for years, and someone put my name in the pot. I guess maybe I talked a good line up north. I'm also a home winemaker, so I know something about the vinification process." Landis, together with her husband, owns and operates "a luxury oceanfront inn in Half Moon Bay which carries a wide wine theme." While studying at UC Davis in preparation for becoming a certified sommelier, she also took a class in sensory perception of wine. "If you take it for credit and you pass, then your name is sent out to wine judges as one who is deemed worthy to be a judge." Competition director Bob Foster Brown is the proprietor/winemaker for Red Zeppelin Winery; he's been judging here since 1990. "I guess they thought I'd made some decent wines and that I could be a good judge."

The chief thing that strikes Brown about the opening round of Viognier -- the '05s -- is that it's sweet. "The Old World models for Viognier are all bone dry, unless the fermentation sticks. In this round, the three good ones are undeniably sweet -- and high alcohol." Wine one gets nothing. "Too light and syrupy," says Brown. Landis gives wine two a silver-minus, while Brown gives it a bronze-plus. "I think it's a solid bronze," he concludes. "I'm sure the winery would be delighted." Nobody disagrees. Three gets nothing, and four gets two silver votes and one bronze. The majority rules: silver. Some competitions allow for each judge to deploy one "silver bullet": "If I said gold and the other two were silver," explains Landis, "then the silver bullet would allow me to give it a gold." But this year's Pacific Rim will allow no such exceptions.

Five stirs a little debate. "That nose," complains Landis. "You know those circus peanuts? That's exactly what this smells like." "But if you don't have the association...," objects Warren. "It has the strongest Viognier nose here," rules Brown. Landis gives a little. "But I think they went over the top on the residual sugar." Six is bronzes all 'round, while seven, says Brown, is "an absolute disaster." "Do Not Put In Mouth," agrees Landis -- the nose alone was enough to condemn it. There are no gold medals in this group -- the judges are not basing their medal judgments on comparisons among the wines but working from their own referents. And while they may award a Best in Class if they find one, they are not bound to do so.

They whip through the '04s up to $14.99, pausing here and there to toss darts of criticism: "Three gets nothing." "But it has oak in it!" "They could have made it out of grapes, too." "It's disappointing," says Warren. "I like Viognier, personally, and they make some nice ones in Oregon and Washington." Then the '04s from $15 to $29.99, plus one over $30 that smells very much like money. I get to join in on the tasting here. I'm with them on one; there's nothing there to evaluate; two, as Brown notes, "is rather decayed." Three has a nice finish but is too soft and oaky for me. Asks Brown, "Is there any evidence, aside from mouth feel, that this was made from Viognier? The aromatics could easily have come from the Chardonnay flight. However pretty it is, I have trouble giving it more than a silver. It's wonderful structurally; they're just overkilling sonofabitches." Silver is what it gets.

Four, five, and six are busts. I say seven is pleasant, if bland and too sweet, but it's judged authentic enough to merit a gold. Warren doesn't like the sugar. "It's a varietal characteristic," says Brown, smiling. "It's a winemaker's characteristic," answers Warren. Ten has the peach aromas that Landis loves in Viognier, good enough for a gold, likewise the over-$30 bottle, even if it is sweet enough to remind me of Spatlese. The '03s -- "the fossil category," according to Brown -- manage only one bronze among them. "You're generally suspicious of an older wine," says Brown. The question arises: Why wasn't this entered sooner?

The Muscats are more fun and include one really excellent wine -- number seven, spicy, floral, and complicated, easily the Best of Class. The orange Muscats from '05 are barely even there. Most of the talk is given to a Muscat/Vidal Blanc blend. I didn't like it -- my first impression was "pine resin" -- and neither did Warren. But Landis and Brown are impressed despite the oddity and give it a bronze for being well made and interesting. "It's foxy," says Brown. "You have to have an Eastern palate."

The judges break for lunch, a splendid catered affair outside under the heat lamps. Then they return for the sweepstakes voting -- each panel has been allowed to select one white and one red for this round. Voting is by acclamation: everybody can vote for as many wines as they feel are worthy. "It's a good system, statistically," says Warren. "As long as you have a large enough sample."

Director Foster has pulled Landis from the judging so that she can smell the wines before they are brought out ("She has such a great nose for corked wines," he says). But even so, one judge immediately names one wine as corked, and her tablemate joins her. "That's just too many oak trees that have been sacrificed for the wine," suggests another judge, but no go. The wine is sent back to Landis. She sniffs, pronounces it clean. It's compared to the same wine from another bottle -- no apparent difference. "Normally, when a wine is corked," says Foster, "you get hands up all over the room. I don't get it; this is really unusual. Maybe something in the glass?" Eventually, the judge who cried corked agrees to back down, but the complaint made for an anxious few minutes.

The winners from the white and red categories -- a Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc and a Carol Shelton Old Vines Zinfandel -- are judged from the only sparkling and dessert wines submitted for the finals, and the final round of judging begins. I might have gone with the Riesling Ice Wine, which hails from the Mission Hill Winery in the Okenagen Valley of British Columbia. But the nod goes to the '01 Mumm Napa Valley Blanc de Blanc bubbly -- judging from the reaction among the judges, a sparkling sweepstakes winner is a bit of a surprise. Also surprising is the inclusion of two Argentinean wines -- a Cabernet and a Chardonnay from Andeluna -- among the sweepstakes finalists. The judges applaud the volunteers and congratulate Shelton and Geyser Peak's Daryl Groom -- winners from among their own ranks. The volunteers begin cleanup, and Foster bids his team adieu until next year.

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