CLOVERDALE, Calif. - Sitting down to 78 glasses of chardonnay before lunch is one of those "be careful what you wish for" moments.
If you're thirsty, this isn't what you think. Given the circumstances - the opening round of my fourth year as a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the world's biggest for American wine - no one here was about to dive in and get loopy.
This is a sip-and-spit derby, with anonymous flights of 10 numbered glasses coming at my panel of four lab-coated cohorts in lightning rounds every 15 to 20 minutes. Sniff, sip, swish, spit, grade. How much do I like it? Is it as good as "gold" - the equivalent of an "A" effort? Am I willing to defend its virtues to my fellow judges?
Or does it make my nose hairs curl with the sulfurous stench of a winemaker's flaw? "No award" or "charity bronze" are usually the results for such an offering. And it happened more often than one might expect for this round of chardonnays priced $20 to $25, usually accompanied by the judges' more colorful descriptions of their off aromas: "smells like a hamster cage!" or "air from a tire" or "kimchi" (love it in pickled cabbage, not so much in wine).
If you don't love chardonnay, gargling your way to No. 78 in a morning session can be grueling. Especially with 60 or so red blends lined up for the afternoon. But it can also be a fascinating exercise.
I won't argue with critics who say that such competitions put wines in an unnatural situation, denied the leisurely pace, carefully calibrated food pairings, and jolly company that often make a quirky bottle shine. But there is also much to be learned from setting dozens of similar wines side by side blind, organized by grape variety and price point, and letting their most basic qualities - craftsmanship, flavor, and mouthfeel - be judged anonymously by experts.
Without the prejudices that often come from seeing a famous label or provenance, there are inevitably some surprises when 5,825 wines from 25 states land on the tasting table. Among them this year were a few golden bottles from New Jersey.
Just on the other side of our curtained booth, where another panel was tasting through the other 40 chardonnays in the $20-to-$25 category, Sharrott Winery in Blue Anchor, Winslow Township, was striking gold with its 2010 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay.
Elsewhere in the tasting, the Bellview Winery from Landisville, not far from Sharrott in New Jersey's Outer Coastal Plain AVA, took gold with its Blaufränkisch in the "all other red" category. Old York Cellars in Ringoes also landed in the top tier with a merlot in the $15-to-$20 category.
These represent only a tiny fraction of this region's rapidly growing winemaking scene. Just two of Pennsylvania's 200 wineries (with only Fero Vineyards scoring a silver with its grüner veltliner) and seven of New Jersey's 40-plus wineries participated in the Chronicle's competition. Virtually all of them participate in more local and regional events.
But winning on a national stage is priceless, Larry Sharrott Jr. says, for both marketing and validation.
"People walk in and are impressed before they taste," says Sharrott, who runs the winery with his son, Larry III. "Some want to say they make a really good New Jersey wine. But that's not what I'm after. I want people to say: 'This is a really good American wine and it happens to be from New Jersey.' "
Sharrott's chard, richly oaked and edged with aromas of tropical fruit, was one of seven in its 40-wine set to win gold, alongside Starmont from Carneros, the Diamond Collection from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Plume from Napa Valley: "I'm benchmarking my wines against California."
Sharrott, which won a Chronicle gold for its cabernet franc in 2010, has seen business grow along with its accolades. Production has risen from 1,000 cases in its first 2008 vintage to 6,000 cases this year, including sales in 100 retail stores and restaurants including Buddakan in Atlantic City.
"It's starting to get complicated," Sharrott says.
For Bellview Winery, such an accolade is validation for the Quarella family's decision in 2000 to transform its vegetable farm into a vineyard after 86 years of growing produce. Just as intriguing, though, is the fact that the farm will mark its 100th anniversary this summer with an award for blaufränkisch, a lesser-known Central European grape (also known as lemberger) that has exceptional potential for this region. Their Lumiere (recently renamed Centennio), a $40 anniversary blend of cab franc, Syrah, petit verdot, blaufränkisch and other varieties, which took silver in its category, was equally impressive to my taste.
Acknowledged success for those grapes is key for the relatively new winemaking industry in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, on a continuous quest to discover what varietals work best in the Mid-Atlantic's microclimates.
In the case of Old York's winner merlot, however, the wine itself doesn't necessarily tell that story: About 50 percent of the grapes came from California's Sierra Foothills.
The winery says it has had to supplement its grape supply to keep up with a tripling in production since Old York Cellars took over the old Amwell Valley Vineyard in 2008.
"You know New Jersey and the East Coast with frost and mildew, etc.," says Old York's winemaker, Scott Gares. "You're working with Mother Nature, and it's tough."
Larry Sharrott agrees in one regard - that New Jersey doesn't yet grow enough high-quality fruit.
"But our grapes are all essentially estate fruit," he said, including an outside vineyard that grows grapes to Sharrott's specs. "It can be done. It doesn't have to be brought in from California."
Such a high percentage of out-of-state fruit, in fact, would prevent Old York Cellars from entering its merlot in an officially sanctioned New Jersey wine competition. On the anonymous tasting tables at the San Francisco Chronicle's competition in Sonoma, however, all that matters is what's in the glass.
The Winners Are ...
THE WINNERS ARE . . .
Here's where to find the New Jersey wines that recently won gold medals at the San Francisco Wine Competition:
Bellview Winery, 150 Atlantic St., Landisville, 856-697-7172; bellviewwinery.com (Blaufränkisch, $20).
Old York Cellars, 80 Old York Rd., Ringoes, 908-284-9463 (Merlot, $18).
Sharrott Winery, 370 S. Egg Harbor Rd., Winslow Township, 609-567-9463; sharrottwinery.com (2010 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay, $24.99).
Here are the overall competition winners from the 5,825 entries at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for American wine, as decided blind by the 65 judges:
Best sparkling (tie)
Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2009 Brut, Carneros, Calif. ($32)
Korbel Champagne Cellars Brut Rosé, California ($11)
Baldacci Family Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Carneros-Napa Sorelle, Calif. ($38)
Barnard Griffin 2013 Rosé of Sangiovese, Columbia Valley, Wash. ($12)
Best red (tie)
3 Steves Winery 2011 Zinfandel, Cienega Valley, Calif. ($31)
Calcareous Vineyard 2010 Syrah, Paso Robles, Calif. ($40)
Ferrante Winery 2012 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, Grand River Valley, Ohio ($28.99)