The most fascinating part of judging in a wine competition is finding wines that wow you. But equally compelling is the table talk with fellow judges in-between flights of wine.

This chatter, this free-flowing conversation, is intriguing because it reveals juicy morsels, striking little bits of life. For instance I learned that my fellow panelist, winemaker Jesse Katz, had an interesting “ah-ha” moment in 2008 when he was assistant winemaker for Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle. Katz had just sold his 1992 Acura Integra for $750 and there he was carting two barrels of Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon worth a ½ million dollars or the price of a house in California.

Doing the math made Katz laugh, realizing that cult cab was tremendous loot.

Katz now has his own brand called Devil Proof, with his winery in Calistoga. He said he has visited 80-plus countries, many during his childhood while traveling with his well known photographer father, Andy Katz.

The other judge on my panel was Fred Dame of Southern Wine & Spirits who lives in San Francisco. Dame passed his Master of Wine exam in 1984, and he was full of colorful quotes like this one: “A major league player in a 10-year career won’t see as many curve balls as a winemaker in one vintage.”

Dame was musing about a wine he recently tasted — Chateau Laroze, Saint Emilion – with the vintage of 1906, the same year as the San Francisco earthquake. Dame tasted it with his French Club in San Francisco, and he said, in so many words, it was nectar of the Gods.

Of the esteemed judges in the competition, the ones associated with the Press Democrat include Linda Murphy, managing editor of Sonoma Magazine, Dan Berger, a Press Democrat wine columnist and Virginie Boone, who writes a column and stories for Sonoma Magazine.

A  high point in the  contest for our panel was finding a pinot noir that we all considered an absolute knockout. While we didn’t see eye to eye on every wine, we were completely unanimous about this pinot and gave it a 98-point rating, our highest score.

Tasting wine is always fascinating in contests, but the table talk? That’s also a rare treat. The judges who are sipping through a pool of 1,000-plus wines in this competition, are filled with great stories.


Tickets are now on sale for those who want to taste the gold medal-winning wines from the competition. The tasting is May 15, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at  SOMO Village in Rohnert Park. For more information, visit