At Cal Expo last Saturday, a hangar full of doughy, teeth-stained baby boomers sat sequestered with the solemn duty of judgmentally sipping their way through hundreds of wines.
“There are lotsa old farts in here,” said California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition chief judge G. M. “Pooch” Pucilowski, surveying the room with a laugh. Chaffing agrees with Pooch; he is slender and spry, with a short wave of salt-and-pepper hair, a matching goatee and an acute grin. Although the event had no dress code, his fashion scheme—a bright Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes—seemed widely influential.
Pooch had imported 64 judges from throughout North America. They sat in groups of four, methodically negotiating the dozens of glasses arrayed before them. They swirled, sniffed, spit and scribbled. Periodically, they hoisted cards reading “dump,” whereupon their spit buckets were tended by a pit crew of aproned volunteers. The cool air smelled grapey and acrid.
“They can’t drink the stuff,” Pooch continued. “In fact, some of them will be a little tipsy even spitting. Just from the way the alcohol …” He trailed off, making a gesture of fuzzy-headedness.
If you are a California wine producer, and you’d like to have a go at America’s oldest official wine contest, all Pooch needs from you is “six bottles and a check for $44.” That’s not a bad deal, and it must account, at least in part, for the contest’s numerous entrants.
“We had a list of what we hoped would be all of ’em,” Pooch explained. “It’s not all of ’em. Every year we get a hundred new ones.” This year, they had 2,926 altogether, enough to require an entire weekend to get through all of ’em, and to emphasize the statistical inevitability that some of ’em will be godawful.
“That was one of the worst wines we’ve ever had in our lives,” said one judge, a rotund, affable nine-year veteran of California wine evaluation, who, with his table-mates, had just endured an especially harrowing rosé.
“You know how quantum physicists talk about really tiny black holes?” added a heavy-lidded, ponytailed man in his early 50s. “That wine should fall into a black hole and never come back.”
“Wow,” the first judge said. “That’s really nerdy.”
Of course, the advantage of a distinctly terrible wine is quick, unanimous appraisal. Far more common and more tricky were the middling contenders, which inspired conversations like this:
“I had bronze plus.”
“Good varietal character.”
“I had gold minus.”
“It had a cream and a cherry taste.”
“Yeah, that was my issue with it.”
Then shrugs and nods, which may or may not have meant consensus.
Pooch, for his part, tries to match the judges with what they prefer to taste. “I mean, how’d you like to sit down drinking 200 chardonnays if you don’t like chardonnay?” he asked.