This room could make you snow-blind. Arranged along the white walls are tables with white tablecloths. Sitting at the tables, seven white men in white lab coats. At each of their stations, a little white plate with a roll of roast beef and some crackers, and three glasses of red wine. Each man has a big white plastic cup with a white plastic funnel that will serve as his spittoon.
These men are here to decide on the best American zinfandel. An important factor to consider is the color, so you need a neutral color like white behind the wine. They wear lab coats because sloshing wine around in your mouth and spitting it out can get pretty sloppy--at the end of the day they sometimes look like butchers' aprons. And the roast beef is for cleansing the judges' palates.
This is the American Wine Competition being held at the Beverage Testing Institute at 310 S. Peoria. BTI founder and former Tribune wine columnist Craig Goldwyn gives the judges a briefing. Good wine judges are "olfactory athletes," he explains. "All of us are born with the ability to smell and taste. Some of us are given greater skill than others, like there are born great athletes. Most of us are like other athletes in that we have ordinary skills. It's just that we have developed them by focusing on them, by practicing, developing a language for them." A stuffed nose for an olfactory athlete is like a pulled hamstring for a baseball player.
Being an olfactory athlete is also more mentally demanding than being an ordinary athlete, Goldwyn says, because it requires intense, prolonged concentration. "I can't think of anything that requires such sustained concentration, except maybe a marathon."
Among the experts today are Joe Spellman, Todd Hess, and Robert Bansberg, sommeliers (wine stewards) at the Pump Room, Printer's Row, and Ambria restaurants. We also have wine retailers Rick Cooper and Glenn Reid, and wholesaler and distributor Dennis Styck. Also on the panel is a legend in the wine business, 72-year-old John Parducci, who grows the grapes from which he makes his Parducci wine in northern California. Goldwyn says, "He's known to be a curmudgeon. He likes simple wine that is easy to drink and is inexpensive." That's the kind of wine he makes.
And that makes Parducci the perfect judge for Goldwyn, who wants to bring some clarity and simplicity to the science of enology, give it some meaning for consumers who buy wine. That's why he uses his 14-point "hedonic" scale rather than the hallowed 20-point scale developed decades ago at the University of California at Davis by its department of enology and viticulture. The Davis scale asks judges to assign points for things such as color, aroma, clarity. The hedonic scale has one simple bottom line, Goldwyn explains to the judges: "Do you like the wine?"
He says, "That's a crucial difference! The wine world has to understand that taste is a matter of taste! The wine world still thinks there's good and bad! Is there good painting and bad painting? What's better--rock and roll or opera? It's a matter of what you like!"
Parducci says, "Do you like it and can you afford it--that's all that counts. Cut to the chase."
"Cut to the chase," Goldwyn echoes. "The best wine judges are people who know what they like and can say so with consistency. I don't care if you can tell the difference between hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide."
Goldwyn then explains that today each "flight" will consist of seven glasses of wine. The judges will have 25 minutes to taste each once, arrange them in order of preference, give each a score, and then taste them again to see if they want to rearrange anything. Then they'll have a discussion.
Only three glasses are out now because this is a warm-up flight. It's how olfactory athletes limber up. "Get the road tar and scum out of your mouth," Goldwyn says. "Get the coffee taste rinsed away."
They'll taste about 100 wines today, spitting them out so they don't get drunk after the first three flights. And they'll eat the roast beef to clean the tannin, a silty substance sometimes found on grapes, off their tongues. Goldwyn says having it all over your tongue feels like "you've been licking a dusty windowsill." But tannin clings to protein, so roast beef takes it right away. He discovered this one night while eating steak.
"The finest palate cleanser in the world is saliva," Goldwyn tells the judges. "But we're not gonna give you a warm bucket of spit to sip."
With that Goldwyn closes the door on them.
The back room reeks of wine. Holly Corbett and Geoff Ryan are preparing for the next flight. On the metal shelves that surround them are hundreds of bottles of wine, including a Parducci that will be tried today. They use a $90 state-of-the-art corkscrew to open the bottles with which they will fill 49 identical wineglasses set up on a gurney.
In this flight will be Beringer, Domaine Breton, Deer Park, Grgich Hills, Storybook Mountain, Windsor, and Rodney Strong. The judges never see the bottles. Each wine is identified by a three-digit code on the base of each glass.
Ryan takes a hunk of roast beef out of the refrigerator and slices it. Then he sets up a flight for himself and gives each glass a hard sniff. That's how he tests to see if a wine is corky--if it has reacted adversely with the cork and been ruined. If it has, it goes down the drain and he'll get another bottle. "It smells like wet newspapers," he says.
When the judges emerge after each flight, Ryan and Corbett will roll the gurney into the white room, set up a new flight, and clean up after the old one. That means emptying the spittoons. On the floor of the back room is a bucket for the wine and saliva.
Goldwyn sits on the edge of a table, folds his arms, and talks about wine. He says most Americans live within an hour of one of 1,400 wineries in 43 states. The closest to Chicago is the Lynfred Winery in Roselle.
Goldwyn is full of analogies. "Think of yourself as a television. Everything you know about the universe you collect through your antennae. You collect five stations: hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, and touch. Most of us are well educated in sound. Visually, we're very well educated. We take music and art-appreciation classes. But nobody teaches you how to smell and taste, which means most of us are going through life using two of our five senses. You're left to fend for yourself. It's like going through life watching only ESPN and MTV."
Goldwyn says BTI has been called the Consumer Reports of wine because it intends to demystify the language of evaluating wine. The battle against the "wine snobs" who like to "use wine to oppress their neighbor" is endless, he says. "Man, they can be a bore! You can always tell them because they're the ones who hold the wine glass by the stem with their pinkie sticking out."
He starts explaining the hedonic scale. "Taste is a matter of taste. Using the UC Davis scale is like going to an art gallery and saying, "Two points for yellow, three points for red.' You can make a simple thing too complex. The hedonic scale is purely subjective. I don't see how human beings can be objective. You may be unbiased in that you don't know whose wine you're drinking, but you can't be objective about wine. Get rid of the damn pretense. We say this is a wine that seven or eight guys liked. Chances are if they liked it, you'll like it."
Goldwyn, who was born in Chicago, was a college student in Florida when he took a job at a liquor store. His only previous experience with wine was Mogen David at Passover. One day he found an award-winning wine buried on a shelf of the store and took it to a friend's house for Easter. "It was a revelation! I didn't know you could make anything that tasted this good in a liquid form."
He got a journalism degree and took a job as wine clerk for a liquor store in Rogers Park. When his wife went to grad school at Cornell University, he followed and set up BTI in Ithaca, New York, in 1981. There are all kinds of regional competitions, but his was the first to be open to all 8,000 domestic wines. BTI tested 179 wines the first year, and will test about 1,700 this year.
Goldwyn moved BTI to Chicago last October when his wife took a job here. In August it will hold its first world wine competition--sort of the Olympics of wine.
The only sounds in the white room are the timer ticking, the scratching of pencils on paper, and a lot of slurping, sloshing, and spitting. The judges have their backs to each other.
Spellman, concentrating hard, sticks his nose deep in his first glass and takes a whiff. Styck takes his first sip and grimaces. "Holy shit!" he whispers loudly. Spellman shushes him. Styck's eyes tear as if he'd bitten into a jalapeno. He scores his wine a two.
Parducci is resolute. He wraps his fist around the stem of the wine glass as he raises it to his lips. He's the first to finish. He swivels his chair around, leans back, and takes a bite of a cracker.
Spellman makes notes on his score sheet: violets, herb, wild cherry, inky. Then the alarm goes off, and the discussion begins.
Spellman says, "All over the place on this one, I'd say."
"Nice little violets flavor," says Bansberg of the first wine. "There was like a little lanolin kind of thing happening. But too much tannin for my taste."
"There was almost a tomato in the aroma," Hess says.
"Herbs," Spellman says. "Sort of miscellaneous."
Now comes the wine that almost killed Styck.
Cooper says, "I wanted to love this wine because of the color, nice purple. I got the plums and a nice woody, dill nose and a very soft entry. But too much wood right up there, and it just cut off all the fruit."
"Maybe I'm just too sensitive," Styck says. "It seems like someone poured a bunch of acid in this one. Everything about it was delicious, it was all there--all except for this tangy pucker city."
"Sour grapes," says Bansberg. "If you locked into that sour component, man, you just hated it! But it was very ephemeral, very low threshold."
But Parducci gave it a 12. And he liked the next one too, surprising himself with his generosity. "I don't like oaky wine," he says. "But I find it hard to knock a wine if it tastes good. I could drink that wine with a meal. Almost like a claret I could drink it."
"I was real schizo on this wine," Bansberg says.
Goldwyn won't tell who the winners are. He gives results to those who pay for them first. But Parducci's zinfandel was controversial. He and another judge gave it an 11, but someone else gave it a four. It still finished in the top third, which means it will probably win a medal.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.