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Governors Cup Lite

Something was sour at the Governors Cup, and it's diluting Virginia's premiere wine competition.

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For months, everyone whom we contacted would say nothing about the event. M.R. "Yogi" Barrett, the actual coordinator of the judging was the least helpful of all: "The identities of or contact with the judges by the media is restricted." Gee, and I thought it was only a wine tasting.

Well, last Monday was the big day in Richmond for this year's Governors Cup with both the press tasting at the Executive Mansion and the official unveiling of the winners at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I must say it was nice to have the governor attend for a change, especially one dedicated to Virginia wines, and a vineyard owner to boot. He announced that he will establish a task force dedicated to raising our wines to a higher level.

All was proceeding well when Barrett began talking about the judging. After months of anxious waiting for the details of how the tasting was conducted and who was on that all important list of judges, the coordinator for the most important wine judging competition in Virginia forgot the list at home. "Oh, it's at home on my computer," he said. It wasn't until later in the evening that the list turned up.

Having judged this event more than a few times myself, I thought it was now beginning to look like something fishy was going on. One look at the pages and pages listing the medal winners suddenly brought it into focus: 225 total entries with 200 medals awarded. The judges must have been throwing metals into the air to land on bottles, especially those 84 silver medals. Last year there were just 16 silvers awarded.

But the finest moment was when they awarded the golds — all 21 of them. This is the equivalent of two to three past Governors Cups worth of golds. (There were 12 golds awarded last year and just seven the year before.)

Long ago I learned to give the judges the benefit of the doubt. I try not to second-guess them until I've tasted the wines myself, so here goes. Upon my tasting of the 21 gold medal wines I felt that a total of 10 were actual, bona-fide golds. The remainder were silver to low bronze.

The winner of the 2002 Virginia Governors Cup is AmRhein Wine Cellars Viognier, 2001 (no price is set for this wine yet), a brand new winery in Bent Mountain, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. This wine is a young, spritzy and lively viognier made in a fresh vivacious style.

In my opinion, the Rappahannock Cellars "Veramar" Chardonnay, 2001 was an absolute knockout and far outshone the AmRhein viognier. This is every bit a true gold medal wine. If you can, taste it next to the viognier as a best-of-show duel.

Another gold-worthy white is the Piedmont 2001 'Native Yeast' Chardonnay ($27). It's a benchmark for European-styled chardonnay.

There were reds of note, too. The Rockbridge Merlot, 1999 ($22.99) is terrific. Last year their 1998 merlot won best in show. The Breaux Merlot, 1999 ($22.50) and the Barboursville Reserve Cabernet Franc, 1999 ($28.99) are both in a league of their own.

Since there was no press conference, like there traditionally has been at these events or even any pertinent judging information available, it was up to me to find a judge. "There was no basis of comparison for medals," said one judge from central Virginia who wished to remain anonymous, "Yes, there were far too many silvers. A dozen golds are all that should have been awarded based on the quality of the wines." Since the judges didn't get to compare notes, they felt like there were no clear criteria for judging the wines this year.

In the bad old days of Virginia wines, the '80s, it was common to set up industry-inspired competitions that gave out vast numbers of medals to hang on bottles at festivals and in tasting rooms. These would take place in June to take advantage of the festival and tourist season. Some of us actually remember those days.

It is sad, but it seems that for the past few years Virginia's wine industry has been spending more time patting itself on the back than endeavoring to make wines that will put us on the map. Virginia hasn't quite earned respect in the wine community yet, and events like this questionable Governors Cup won't help. We all want them to do great work. As I was leaving, a winemaker friend standing next to me lowered his head, looked at the floor and said, "I am trying to make something positive out of this." Next year the Virginia Wineries Association has another chance to truly make something positive out of this. Let's hope they do. S

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