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From an impressive pool of wine the sweepstakes and the gold medal winners have now been selected, but they won’t be announced until June 5th in the Press Democrat.

And you can’t coax the information out of any of the judges because we weren’t told who the winners were when we left the sweepstakes round this morning. We are, in short, just as curious as you are.

But here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the judging, which reveals the art of détente, how panelists decide the fate of a wine.

Check out photos from the judging here

First up, there’s built-in diversity on each panel to shake things up, which is a good thing, a martini in the making.  Each panel of three included a winemaker, a sommelier and either a journalist or a retail buyer. At times it seemed as though we only had one thing in common: BIG OPINIONS.

Chris Sawyer, a sommelier at Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro & Bar, was particularly gifted when making a point. He was a lawyer of sorts with a brief case of evidence. Sawyer was ready with a detailed paragraph on the wine in question when he wanted us to consider moving it up to gold status.

The other panelist on my team, Dan Kosta of Sebastopol’s Kosta Browne Winery, also had his genius. He worked quickly, sipping through a flight, and then doubling back through it, zeroing in on the best entries. “Certainty” was his gift. It was rare he was anything but certain on most of the entries, and when he championed a wine, he often brought winemaking into the discussion.

For the most part we were all on the same page but because we look at wine differently, that wasn’t always the case.

Here’s just one example. Tina Caputo, a judge on another panel, said she found it funny when one judge gave a wine a gold, another gave it a silver and a third said it didn’t deserve an award.

The editor & chief of Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine said, “We laughed because everyone’s perspective is different and no one is wrong. We’re all professionals and we respect each other so you can’t just dismiss a person’s opinion … we have to come to some agreement.”

Negotiations were tame for the most part. I’m guessing most judges didn’t want to squander their energy. Evaluating 110 wines in a day is what Sawyer refers to as an “intensive sensory experience.”

“You have a wine’s aromas and flavors and there are different levels of complexity,” Sawyer said.  “When you put your palate to the test judging 20 to 100 wines in day it’s an interesting challenge, but it’s a job too …”

For me the competition was like being on an airplane when you’re unreachable, off the grid, and you can really immerse yourself in the adventure. This day and a half of focusing on wine – undisturbed – was terrific fun for my wine geek comrades and me.

As Sawyer put it, “You’re in a ‘Cone of Silence,’ you’re in your orb where you and your teammates together are on a search to find gold medal wines.”

Read a Press Democrat story introducing the Wine Challenge here.

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