Thursday, June 29, 2017 (4:50 pm)

OC Wine Society hosts its annual wine competitions, judging more than 3,000 bottles

Let’s go behind the scenes at one of the country’s most exclusive wine-tasting competitions, hosted by OC Wine Society, where professional judges swirl, sip and savor entries from California wineries to determine who will win the gold at the 2017 OC Fair. 

The judging process is a sight to behold. The organized chaos works in a constantly flowing circle: stewards pour bottles of wine into glasses, labeling each with numbers for identification, and then serve the judges. After that round of tasting, the stewards maneuver the trays of glasses around to the washers and the dryers while the results are delivered to a group of volunteers who enter the handwritten scores into a computer. Wine is then poured again and around it goes. 

It’s known as a double-blind tasting. The judges know what the varietal is, but not who made the wine, its price, sugar level or any other information – and stewards are in the dark, too. 

The OC Wine Society enlisted more than 70 judges who put their expertise to work over a weekend this month tasting some 2,500 bottles of wine for the annual commercial wine competition. Lucky Fairgoers will be able to taste the winning entries in The Courtyard during the Fair that runs July 14 through Aug. 13. (See complete list of 4-star, gold, silver and bronze medalists.)

“This is the one of the most prestigious competitions in the country because we do only California wines,” said Fran Gitsham, treasurer of OCWS and one of the competition coordinators. “And we’re known to have the highest caliber of judging because we only allow actual winemakers and winery owners and some wine consultants. It’s the elite of the elite.”

Dennis Esslinger, Director of Judges, pairs up the judges to taste the types of wine they’re best known for, so they are well-versed in what they’re critiquing, Gitsham said.

If you’re picturing a bunch of wine snobs trying to one-up each other, you’re wrong.

“You can tell it’s a very congenial event, which I think leads to more thoughtfulness, and there’s no posturing or posing,” said David Stevens, a consultant for Davon International. “You have a chance to evaluate wines exactly the way they are – there are no politics involved.” 

Stephens has been judging for OCWS for 17 years. Many of the judges have been returning year after year to be a part of the competition.

“I always look forward to coming to this event,” said Norman Yost of Flying Goat Cellars. “For me, it’s a great opportunity to fine-tune my palette, and also to taste wine with my peers, which we only do once a year.”

Yost was in a judging panel with Stephens, along with Paul Ahvenainen of Korbel Champagne Cellars and Chris Ehrenberg of Ehrenberg Cellars. In between friendly banter and jokes, Stephens pointed out that the four men have about 100 combined years of experience. Yost has judged for 11 years, and says one of the reasons he returns is because the event is different than others.

“I think that’s the greatest attraction is they make you feel part of a special clique, and not many events allow that to happen,” Yost said. “Plus you get to taste great wines.”

OCWS actually hosts two major annual wine competitions at the OC Fair. The week after the professional judging, about 100 judges evaluated some 600 home wine entries.

While both competitions are run in essentially the same fashion – and with all volunteers – the judging itself is actually quite different. Most notably, the commercial wines are judged by professionals in the wine business while the home wines are judged by trained volunteers. Kevin Donnelly, competition chairman, says all scoring is based on a modified UC Davis 20-point scale. OCWS hosts judging workshops to help the judges stay consistent. 

Another big difference in the competitions is the Best of the Best award in the home wine competition. This is determined through a consensus by the judging panel. Each judge gives an award based on their individual recommendation, and then the panel of four judges gives a consensus award. If all the judges give a gold in the individual scoring, the wine is labeled a double gold, and these top winners are on display in The Courtyard during the Fair.

Orange County is represented well in the double gold winners, with home winemakers from Orange, Dana Point, Mission Viejo, North Tustin, Yorba Linda, Lake Forest, Irvine, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. (See a complete list of home wine competition winners.)

Esslinger and his wife, Carol, have spent a lot of time reorganizing the competitions, making them what they are today.

“Everything was manual, not state of the art,” Esslinger said. “When we got involved we started applying engineering principles, using computers to get things organized and automated, and put together a whole sequence of events. There’s tons of reports that get generated to verify bottles and boxes, and a lot of the cross checking from start to finish – most of that didn’t exist when we got started.” 

Now, OC Wine Society, with over 1,000 members and 350 active volunteers, hosts competitions that flow like wine. 

“This organization transcends every gender, every sexual orientation, every culture, every religion, every race,” Gitsham said. “This is the way the world should be.”