Joy can be found in evaluating a bottle of wine

By Staff
Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
July 21, 2004
I don't know which is more fun, drinking wine or evaluating it. We enjoy drinking wine with a meal, or, at this time of the year, out on the patio on a warm summer's night. Granted, our major monthly tasting, such as the all-2002 chardonnay tasting on July 29, is part of an evaluation process. But we also find pleasure in joining wine-knowledgeable friends in what is in effect a mini-tasting. That can happen at any time.
Last week was one of those evenings. I had obtained William Hill Winery's 2000 merlot, 2001 cabernet sauvignon and 2002 chardonnay for evaluation. We decided it was time to check the winemaker's skill. It's less fun to do this alone. "We" means a panel of at least four, all of them experienced and all outspoken. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don't. But we are always honest.
William Hill Winery is located in Napa Valley. They are a major player in the winemaking game with an annual production of 97,000 cases, specializing in the three varietals on our tasting table.
The merlot was opened first. The 2000 growing season in California started with dry spring weather and moderate temperatures. At harvest time, the weather was cool, giving the grapes some extra hang-time. Crop size was up and the quality was considered to be outstanding.
I'm not normally a merlot lover. My red wine favorites are the big powerful cabernets, syrahs and zinfandels. But this wine was an exception. It had a deep fruity flavor, much more forward than most wines of its type. There were only a limited number of tannins which normally hide the flavor in young wines. On the 100-point scale, our panel gave it an 87, meaning a very good wine.
Then we turned to the chardonnay. Now remember, the 2002 vintage is being regarded as a classic, one of the best ever. We expected to taste the usual citrus flavor many, if not most, California chardonnays offer but that was not this wine's personality. We also did not find other common flavors, such as butterscotch or butter itself. The wine maker described it as having firm acidity. My group did not agree. But they liked it and liked it a lot. Apple was the dominant taste in our evaluation. Hill's winemaker claimed their chardonnay had a crisp, clean finish. No argument from the panel. This wine was given an 89 and I might have gone a point or two higher.
Finally we came to what we expected to be the powerhouse of the evening, a 2001 cabernet sauvignon. It was not. Some day perhaps but not now. The panel agreed this wine had outstanding potential, but it contained so much tannin we had trouble deciding what the real flavor of the wine might be. Tanins in young wines mask flavors and this wine was an example. The consensus was open the same wine about five years from now and it should be wonderful. If I were to buy William Hill's 2001 cabernet it would be to cellar it, not to drink it today. We rated it an 86 as it is in 2004. Five years from now I'd expect it to be an 89 or 90.
Overall, the panel agreed the William Hill wines, which are in the $15 to $30 price range, were of excellent quality and we look forward to tasting them again.
Try these mini-tastings in your own home. Buy three bottles made from the same grape by three different vintners, three cabernets or three zinfandels or three merlots, whatever your favorite red wine might be, and compare one to the other. Or do as we did, get three different wines from the same producer and see how broad his skills are. Can he do with zinfandels what he can do with cabernet or syrah or merlot? Do it with different white wines as well.
It's one of the things that make our monthly wine tastings so much fun. We supply every guest with a scoresheet and as they drink the wine, they compare and argue with each other in the process of evaluating the flavor, the color and the aroma. Finally, they arrive at the overall score for each wine.
Formerly, we had another column called "Potential," but it became obvious 95 percent of the guests at the wine tasting were "buy them at 5 p.m. and consume them at 7 p.m. wine drinkers." If you don't have a cellar, why would you worry about the wine's potential?
We're looking forward to the tasting of July 29. If the 2002 chardonnays are as great as the trade press says, there will be differences of opinion on the seven wines to be served. They will all be from this highly hailed year of 2002. The price for the tasting is only $25. We require a reservation so call 482-0930 and make yours. It will be at Northwood Country Club, starting at 6:30 p.m. as usual.

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