At that time, the competition was under the direction of Dr. James Crum, from whom I had taken a wine appreciation class at Cal State San Bernardino. After my first year as a steward, Jim asked me to help him set up the competition in future years.
I learned a great deal about wine from both roles — without ever taking a sip. Jim was an outstanding mentor, sharing his years of experience freely and enthusiastically.
Here are just three of the things I learned during those years…
- Price matters.
I enjoy finding a bargain like anyone else, but really good wine rarely can be found at an ultra-low price. Winemakers know when they’ve made something good, and they price it accordingly. Back in the 1990s, the threshold price was around $12. Today, it’s closer to $20. In other words, if you pay at least $20 for a bottle of wine, chances are good that it will be good.
- It all begins with aroma.
If a wine doesn’t smell good, there is absolutely no chance that it will taste good. Opening hundreds of bottles of wine over a two-day period during the competition taught me to detect a flawed wine quickly and seek out a fresh bottle. While it’s true that some seemingly “off” odors will subside with swirling and time in the glass, there’s no hope for a wine that is corked (and smelling of wet cardboard).
- Every palate is different.
Listening in on the discussions of tasting panel members was fascinating — and educational. Dr. Crum liked to have a wide spectrum of experience on a panel — always a winemaker, joined by some mix of restaurateurs, sommeliers and critics. Rarely was there unanimity among panel members, but when there was, the wine in question was considered either really good (gold medal worthy) or non-descript.
It helped me understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to wine enjoyment — only preferences. When you get to know your palate, you’ll start to recognize what types of wine you like.