(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #8 with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

I plan to take a different tact with this week’s blog.

I’m down in Temecula judging wine at Riverside International Wine Competition, getting a little writing in as the judges take their seats. Farmers are always more punctual than winemakers and retailers..may also be that I left the party a bit early last night to catch the end of the Suns game.

My plan is to organize this article before the 157 wines hit the table in flights of 10 – 12, it may sound like fun, and it can be, but if you take the job seriously you walk out of the judging room feeling as if you just took the LSAT with a hangover and that your palate has been struck with a two by four of tannin and acidity. I should mention that those 157 wines will be tasted over two days…but with the sweepstakes round the final total will be closer to 200 wines over the two day competition. Pro wine judges are expected to be able to be able to acurately assess up to 125 wines a day, and sometimes more. Keeping our palates fresh is a challenge..the key is using your nose more than your mouth, and keeping each wine in the mouth only long enough to make a careful and astute judgement. Dan Berger is making his introductory cmments, so I will put the iPad away and get to work.

It’s now after lunch and we’re about 80 wines in…I am the panel chair of the ‘pinotpanel’ which means i have the responsibility of guiding my panel through all 120 Pinot noire entered into the competition. We started with the 2006’s, which were glorious, complex and balance. Not an overwrought wine in 30 wines. Lots of gold medals. The panel agreed that the 2007 vintage, universally lauded as one of the best in the new world, has shut down aromatically. Still a lot of flavor and beauty in the mouth, but the slutty, fruit-driven character has been replace with very reticent aromatics. Well, back to the grind..another 42 wines before finishing our assigned wines.

The Pinot noirs have all been judged and Dan told us we did an admirable job finding the best wines. Now I have a few minutes to continue the blog as they set up to do the first part of the sweepstakes round to save some time tomorrow. So when the last panels finish up (Clark Smith, we’re waiting for you to finish your lecture no one asked you to give your panel), we get to judge the sweepstakes round of the rose’ and the sparkling wine. To be honest, if the sweeps today were cab and merlot, I’d slink away unseen, but I adore rose’ and bubbles.

While I wait to taste those, I wanted to give a short summation of my feelings about marketing wine to the gay community. About two years ago I registered Clos Pepe as a gay-friendly business. I didn’t really think about it, I just did it. I have to say that it was one of the best decisions we’ve made, and considering it over the last 24 hours or so, and in my discussion with some heavy hitters here at the Competition, there is a consensus that wineries who do not consider the gay demographic do so at their own peril.

Wilfred Wong is the Cellarmaster for BevMo, and lives in San Francisco, and agrees with me that the gay demographic is an increasingly important segment of his business, especially evident at his Van Ness store in The City. "As a group, the gay community is hilly educated and passionate about the finer things in life. As a rule they are foodie/wine lovers. They are clearly an important part of our business."

Steve Bloom, President of Tesori Inc., an importer of fine Italian wines, recognizes that there is a cognoscenti of gay sommeliers and restaurant managers in the United States that communicate regularly, and while not exclusionary, do have a significant impact on what wines and food trends register on the national stage of culinary trends.

Ellen Landis is the owner/sommelier of Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn in Half Moon Bay. We chatted at panel about the gay market and we both agreed that her gay customers and friends are unusually and consistently sophisticated wine and food lovers who are thirsty (giggle) for information about wines. They are more likely to follow through on recommendations from experts and excellent buyers. "They work hard, play hard, and always want the good stuff."

Wineries, restaurants, bars and retailers, here’s my message: Neglect the gay community at your own peril! My experience is that they generally have two incomes, less kids to suck their money into a black hole, appreciate passion and wines of pedigree. Also, without sounding patronizing, gay couples that visit often consist of a younger gentleman and a slight older gentleman giving the younger an education on fine wine. They build a cellar together, travel and dine together, and are among my best customers.

To sum up my judging experience this week, some very fine wines passed my lips, as well as the first smoke-tainted wines I’ve tasted, some wines that turned me on and some wines that were eminently forgettable. As a winemaker who rarely leaves home and is admittedly insular in my tastes (that’s English major for a guy who only drinks Santa Barbara and France),tasting a thousand wines a year at competition gives me a sense of context that I could never achieve in tasting groups or by visiting wineries. Style is understood on a global scale and tends emerge obviously in his format. A few surprises this year: two sweepstakes nominations this year came out of a bag-in-box, less corked wines were at my panel than ever (more screw caps, better corks, or both?), and the native/hybrids coming out of the Midwest and the east are getting better and better, more delicious and crafty, you just have to allow them to exhibit a character appropriate to their varietal anode regional character. Great wines need not be purely vinifera.