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Wine Without Pretense: Napa Valley has a competitor in Georgia

POSTED: October 5, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Way back in 1976 a British wine exporter living in Paris decided to shake the trees. His name was Steven Spurrier (no, not the old ball coach) and what he did had a seismic impact on the wine world that reverberates today.

Stay with me. I’m telling you this so I can tell you something else.

Spurrier decided to find out if California wines were as good as French wines, a heretical thought for those times. So he set up a blind tasting in Paris using French judges, who tasted some of the best wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy vs. some fine upstart wines from America.

Although Spurrier conducted this tasting scrupulously — judges did not know which wines they were tasting — the deck seemed stacked in favor of the French. After all, it was held in Paris, the judges were French and the French wine industry had centuries-old roots. The California wineries involved had been around for, at most, a decade.

Surprise! California cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay won big time, leaving the French apoplectic and Spurrier effectively ostracized. They called it “The Judgment of Paris.” And California wines never looked back. The movie “Bottle Shock” tells that story.

Fast forward to last January. Scene: Yonah Mountain Vineyards, a relatively new winery at the base of the mountain of the same name south of Cleveland. Purpose: The judgment of Sautee-Nacoochee.

Yonah Mountain owner Bob Miller and winemaker Joe Smith asked Michael Bryan, founder of the Atlanta Wine School, to set up a blind tasting, similar to Spurrier’s. In it big-city experts would blind taste Yonah Mountain’s chardonnay against the revered Kistler Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, with a retail price of $100 and up. Yonah Mountain’s Genesis, a $40 merlot-cabernet sauvignon blend, went head-to-head against long-time Napa cab champ Jordan, and cult wine Ghost Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bryant set up the tasting just as scrupulously as Spurrier had. The Atlanta experts shuttled up to Yonah Mountain, taste buds at the ready, and plunged ahead.

The result? As Atlanta wine writer and educator Gil Kulers wrote later, “Yonah shut out California’s best in all contests.”

That’s right, friends and neighbors, a Georgia winery whupped three of California’s best wines. And, BTW, the Ghost Horse is one of those low-production wines that will claim more than $200 from your debit card.

I asked Kulers, who wrote about this event, if he was surprised at the results.

“Surprised? I was stunned. I have been following the Georgia wine industry for over 10 years and while I could always point to encouraging signs, I could never truly say that I tasted a wine that could compete with wines from other established regions on quality AND price,” Kulers observed.

“This was one of the very few times, perhaps the only time, I’ve tasted a Georgia wine and thought I would absolutely choose this wine over a similarly priced wine from, say, Napa Valley or France.

“I love an underdog, and while I may have been pulling for Yonah, there was no way I or anyone judging could knowingly help the young winery,” Kulers continued. “That’s what makes these contests compelling. In fact, I thought I identified the ‘better,’ more expensive California bottlings only to find out they were from Georgia.”

Imagine that.

Let me underscore how carefully these tastings are constructed. Judges do not know which wine they are tasting. Bottles are covered with paper bags or foil, and the scoring sheets show only numbers, not names. Judges are really put to the test; making decisions and scoring based on what they see, smell and taste, not on what the labels say.

It’s easy to understand that Joe Smith is still stunned at the results.

“It was definitely a humbling moment,” he told me recently. “To be honest, we really had no expectation of winning. We work very hard with our wines, do trials with them, and it’s one thing for us to feel positive. It’s quite another for people like the judges to agree. Blind tastings like this one mean so much more than massive wine competitions.”

Asked if he felt there should be an asterisk behind the results because much of the fruit that went into those Yonah Mountain wines came from elsewhere, Smith replied emphatically, “Absolutely not.”

He pointed out that many wineries — he cited Napa’s prestigious Opus One — buy fruit for their wines. “We’re an open book and we’re proud of it.”

Kulers agreed. “This practice ... is not uncommon for start-up wineries in California,” he pointed out. “They frequently buy grapes from other areas as their vineyards come on line to produce fruit in sufficient quantity and quality to make a go of it.”

This really is stunning stuff. I’ve said for years that Georgia wines have great potential, and that many of our state’s wineries are pumping out some darned good juice.

The Judgment of Sautee-Nacoochee underlines that clearly.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. His column appears monthly.



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