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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 33 (May 2, 2005)

Monday, April 25: I flew to London on Saturday to judge in the Decanter magazine wine competition. This is the second year. I judged on the North American panel then and have been invited back on the same panel this year... I'm staying with my friends David and Carole Goldberg in Kentish Town. David is the rabbi who married Deborah and me. I arrived at their house in the middle of their Seder service, some twenty people at table. On Sunday we went for a walk on Hampstead Heath with their terrier Daisy. Usually David names his dogs after characters from Thomas Hardy novels... The judges have to assemble at a gallery called The Worx in Parson's Green. It takes me about an hour on the Tube from Kentish Town. Sarah Kemp, Decanter's publisher, and Stephen Spurrier, the chief judge, brief us on the 20-point scoring system. My panel colleagues are Howard Goldberg from The New York Times, Sam Harrop MW, a consulting winemaker, and Steven Brook, a British wine writer and author. Howard's quote from an article he wrote about last year's competition is printed on the information sheet given to each judge: "After spending three days with the extraordinary team of wine writers and professionals assembled for the Decanter World Wine Awards, I thought, 'The last time an equal amount of brains and experience appeared in one place at one time in London was when André Simon lunched alone at the Café Royal.'"

Sam Harrop MW at the Decanter tasting

The statistics of the competition are impressive. 5,500 wines entered from all over the world (100 from Canada), 7,000 Riedel Chianti Classico glasses for tasting, 150 judges. The room in which we judge at tables of four like large, painted white and well lit with skylights all along the ceiling. In the morning we taste 45 white and sparkling wines from California, Washington, New York and Oregon. In the afternoon, 47 whites. We give two gold medals – one for a California Sauvignon Blanc and one for a California Chardonnay. At the end of a day of only white wines I felt like biting my wrist. That evening I take David and Carole to dinner at Ottolenghi, a small, contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant in Islington. Lots of small dishes and a bottle of Muga rose from Rioja.

Tuesday, April 26: Our panel started with sparkling wines, then a flight of white Zinfandels, followed by Oregon Pinot Noir, then California Pinot Noir and Merlot. After lunch a couple of California Cabernet Franc and the rest California Cabernet Sauvignon. No gold medals today. Our panel is really hard on the wines. I find my scores are invariably a point above the two Brits. We tasted 72 wines in total today. This evening I'm meeting my nephew Jeffrey for dinner. He has lived in London since 1991, in Notting Hill Gate. This my old stomping ground when I lived in London in the 1960s. The pub on the corner of Portobello and Westbourne Grove is not the Lonsdale. I remember it as Henneky's (spelling?). I would meet a group of friends there every Saturday morning and we would have lunch in some grotty transport cafe on Blenheim Crescent. The restaurant Jeffrey has chosen is E&O, his local haunt. It has a good bar and is very lively. We order Bloody Marys and wait almost an hour for our reservation. The man at the next table asks if we mind that he smokes. We say no, go ahead, but we don't mean it. The food is a mix of Japanese and Chinese. A bottle of Sancerre rosé goes well the dim sum and tempura. It's raining so I take a cab back to Kentish Town. It cost a fortune. Gas in London is 89 p. a litre. The same figure as in Toronto but the pound is worth $2.40.

Wednesday, April 27: Search desperately for the tube pass David has lent me but can't find it. It was in my raincoat pocket last night when I checked my coat at the restaurant. I think someone must have lifted it. Today is my last day of judging because I have to fly back tomorrow morning at 8:20 am. An all-California-red-wine day, beginning with Petite Sirah, then Shiraz/Syrah, Zinfandel (disappointing), Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and ending with Merlot. Again no gold medals – the organizers are not going to be very happy with us. Today 71 wines and when we finish I go over to the pub, The White Horse, for a pint of real ale. There is an important soccer match, Chelsea versus Liverpool, and the pub is full. They are barbecuing outside – sausages and ribs. There is a champagne reception sponsored by Laurent-Perrier for the judges in Will's Art Warehouse a couple of doors down from The Worx. After an hour or so I take the tube back to Kentish Town.

Thursday, April 28: Up at 5:30 am, finish packing and leave the house by 6 am. David has ordered me a taxi for me which is waiting outside. Love those London taxis. Didn't get much sleep last night and I have to work on the plane. I use an upgrade coupon and get a seat in Business Class. Write my script for tomorrow's introduction to the Ontario Wine Awards. Jim Bradley, the Minister of Tourism and Recreation, is coming and will say a few words. This is what I will say: Jim Bradley was so impressed by the movie Sideways and the effect it had on the sales of Pinot Noir in california, he thought that we could do the same thing for the Ontario wine industry, so he approached Alliance Atlantis with the idea of making a Canadian version of Sideways. I managed to get hold of a copy of the script. It's the story of two desperate housewives from Mississauga who decide to spend a week cycling around the Niagara Peninsula – it is after all, a low-budget Canadian movie – in search of the perfect Baco Noir.

They go from tasting room to tasting room cleaning up glasses and emptying spittoons. Then they hook up with Don Ziraldo and Danny Lenko. They go to dinner at Inn on the Twenty and one of the women says, "If anyone orders any effing Marechal Foch I'm out of here."

I could go on, but I don't want to spoil it for you. lLook for it at your local movie theatre soon. It's called Front Ways – The Canadian Way.

Friday, April 29: It took Deborah and me over two and a half hours to drive down to Queens Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There were accidents along the way and people were rubber-necking. The gala dinner went very well. The room was full – 225 people. The food was good and the gold medal wines served with each course showed well. (The complete results are posted on this site). The wine of the year, which garnered the highest aggregate score was Reif Vidal Icewine 2002. Sweet wines always score well in competitions although wine writers tend to drink few of them. The winemaker of the year as voted by the judges and the executive of the Ontario Wine Society was Carlo Negri of Colio Wines. He received a standing ovation from his peers and delivered a very moving speech about his passionate approach to winemaking. Slept the night at Queens Landing, a very comfortable bed.




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