Vintners vie for medals at Fairplex

Vintners vie for best wine at Fairplex competition

As published in the Inland Valley Daily BulletinArticle Created: 05/31/2008 05:56:02 PM PDT by Gino L. Filippi
The Millard Sheets Gallery served as the perfect pouring place for the 69th Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition at Fairplex in Pomona. Seventy-two wine experts including 20 proficient winemakers, importers, distributors, educators, retailers and restaurateurs gathered to sniff, swirl, taste and evaluate more than 3,500 wines. There were 855 producers from throughout the winemaking world, entered in more than 900 categories including brandies, sparklers, reds, whites, organic and fruit wines.

Day 3 concluded Friday with a savory luncheon for the accomplished judges, event coordinators and student volunteers from Cal Poly Pomona. The winning wineries and special recognition awards will be announced June 14 at the Fair's "Wine and Cars Under the Stars" benefit.

Since its inception in 1935, the L.A. County Fair's wine competition has maintained the highest standards of integrity and professionalism, earning USA Today's recognition as one of the Top 5 wine competitions in the United States. "The focus of our judging is to present the very best wines to the Southern California consumer, who is the most sophisticated and best wine consumer in the country," said James E. Henwood, Fairplex president and CEO.

According to Fairplex Vice Chair Reggie Webb of Claremont, the competition delivers significant benefit to the fair. "It's very important because it reflects the great agricultural history of the area. Los Angeles and western San Bernardino counties were California's original and largest winegrowing regions. Because of the history of this geographic area, the agricultural and economic activity in our state, and contributions to the quality of life to so many, we think the wine competition is most important."

The county fair began awarding medals for winemaking excellence to the finest wines grown and produced in California shortly after the end of prohibition. The competition expanded and achieved world-class standing, attracting wines from the Americas, Italy and finally, in 2002, opening the doors to wine producers from around the world. The event, presented by Ralphs supermarkets, also includes spirits and olive oils. The competition is the foundation for an extensive wine education available to 1.4 million visitors to the L.A. County Fair via public wine tasting and wine education opportunities.

Peter M.F. Sichel of New York City served as judge and honorary chairman. Sichel, a fourth-generation winegrower and wine negociant, is an authority on German and Bordeaux wines. He was co-owner and managing director of Chateau Fourcas-Hosten, a major Bordeaux property, and awarded the Ordre du Merite Agricole by the French government for his contributions to the French wine industry.

The competition is recognized throughout the wine business as one of the most prestigious in the world. "It's the largest, and it's the most international of all. The quality of the judges is so extraordinary. There is an outstanding network of people here," said Mark Newman of Studio City. Newman, chairman and CEO of three wine companies - Andiamo Vineyards Inc., Accolade Brands, and - has been involved with the fair for the past 13 years. He is also known to have his palate insured for $1 million!

Dan Berger of Santa Rosa, a judge at the fair for 20 years, is a respected wine writer and educator. He is the publisher of a weekly wine commentary, "Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences" and is the nationally syndicated wine columnist for Creators Syndicate. Berger also coordinates the Riverside International Wine Competition and lectures at Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa Valley. In addition to appearance, aroma, taste and overall impression, I asked Berger what he finds important when evaluating wine. "The most important factor in any wine is that it smell and taste as it should. If I purchase a pinot noir, regardless of how great it may be, if it is not true to its grape variety, appellation and vintage year, it is a complete failure by the winery/winemaker and a disservice to the grower and the consumer," Berger said.

Chuck Keagle of Upland is CEO of Cask 'N' Cleaver steakhouses and Sycamore Inn. He has judged wines since the late '80s. "We prepare our wine lists from results of this judging. Nearly all of the wines featured are medal winners. For me, this is most important and I think our customers are appreciative as well," Keagle said.

Enologist Marc Lurton gained his education from Bordeaux University of Oenologie. Lurton, a fourth-generation vintner, is proprietor of Chateau Reynier, a 15th century estate near Saint-Emilion, where he grows cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon. He is also active in the Vintner's Union Growers of Bordeaux wines. "This is perhaps the most organized. I enjoy the seriousness of the tasting, and also the ambiance. There is much camaraderie and respect for each other," said Lurton, who was one of five winemakers in attendance from outside the United States. Others were Enrico Di Giulio of Italy; Daryl Groom of Australia; Laely Heron of France, and Canadian Howard Soon.

"Judging here is amazing. The knowledge I gain is tremendous, as are the wonderful people that come together. It is a highlight to my resume and to my year," said Ian Blackburn of Los Angeles. Blackburn, an alumnus of Cal Poly Pomona's Collins School of Hospitality Management, holds a series of wine credentials including sommelier. He is founder of LearnAbout, the first business of its kind - dedicated to the education, service, and enjoyment of wine. John Solomon of Chino Hills, and John Weeks of Rancho Cucamonga also served as judges.

The 2008 Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition also took place last week. There were 510 entries, judged in two categories - domestic and international - separated according to regional designations and fruitiness intensity levels. Chairman Darrell Corti of Sacramento, a judge at the fair since 1970, was most proud of the highly skilled 20-member judging panel that included agricultural scientist Marco Mugelli of Val di Pesa, Italy, and Juan Ramon Izquierdo, who is panel leader for the Ministry of Agriculture in Madrid, and one of the world's leading sensory and technical experts. 

  Gino L. Filippi is co-owner of J. Filippi Winery in Rancho Cucamonga, and an Association Boardmember of the LACF.     He can be reached at

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