Here Come Da Judging


Tinkle tinkle tinkle. Hundreds of half-full wine glasses, teetering on double-decker carts, inch purposefully down the sidewalks like old ladies headed for the casino. They’re on their way to the judges’ tables, to be swirled and sipped, debated and awarded. The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, held at Cal Expo over the course of three days in June, is a marvel of logistics that sometimes resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption. More than 3,000 wines from more than 600 wineries are cataloged, stored, retrieved, put in flights, opened, poured and anonymously presented for evaluation. Then the corresponding medal, or lack thereof, is documented, reported to the winery and, a month or so later, announced to the public at the Grape & Gourmet food and wine festival held here in July.

If it were easy, anyone could do it. But it takes the combined efforts of Kem Pence, the competition’s director, and G.M. Pooch Pucilowski, its chief judge. They in turn keep staffers, volunteers and judges productive and happy at the biggest, oldest tasting of California wines in the world. It’s the granddaddy of them all, says Pence, who works from January to August every year on the event.

Kem Pence on running the competition


Kem’s crew: A crack team of 18 volunteers works with Pence months in advance. I could not even begin to do it without that crew, she says. They are mostly retirees; one stalwart takes four weeks’ leave from her job.

High demand: So many wine lovers want to help that volunteers are asked to work two years, then sit out a year to give others a chance. The payoff: lots of leftover wine to take home.

Grapes on the move: Once relegated to the Other Varietals table, Pinot Grigio, Primitivo, Malbec and Tempranillo now have their own medal categories. Blends are hot, too. Now we have Rhone blends and Italian blends as their own categories, in addition to Bordeaux blends, says Pence. Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel are the most common entries.

Number of wineglasses used: More than 12,000, and they get washed repeatedly. From the staging building, racks of dirty glasses are piled onto wooden pallets, then loaded by forklift onto a flatbed truck. The driver carefully delivers them to the racetrack, where volunteers and a forklift are waiting to bring the glasses to the dishwashers of the Turf Club. Racks of sparkling-clean glasses are returned to the pouring room just barely before Pence panics at the diminishing supply, and the cycle starts all over again.

Pooch Pucilowski on judging

Testing requirement: Judges have to take UC Davis Extension’s Advanced Tasting Seminar and pass an exam. Says Pucilowski: The test is to find consistency, not preferences.

What he looks for: I want judges who practice tasting wines ‘blind’ a lot and who judge on a regular basis, says Pucilowski. Just being an enthusiast isn’t enough. Judges who get along with each other are key. They have to be willing to change their mind, not get caught up in their own expertise.

Making the team: Veteran winemaker John Parducci is the oldest at 92, and we’ve got some young winemakers in their 20s. Mostly older white males. I’d love to have more women. Women are more likely to be hypersensitive tasters.

Recruiting: None. I don’t need any.

So you want to be a judge: Start by judging with friends at home: blind tasting, five to 10 wines at a time. Then volunteer at the home-winemaking circles. After you think you like sipping and spitting 100 wines at a time and still can make good decisions, then take the UC Davis class and take the test.

Get A Taste

Judging is not open to the public. Says Pucilowski: Watching judges judge is like watching paint dry. But there are other ways to get a taste of the action:

Volunteer. It’s not sissy work, says director Kem Pence. But we have a great time. To volunteer, call (916) 263-3159 or e-mail

Attend the Grape & Gourmet food and wine tasting event July 10 at Cal Expo. Award-winning wineries and area restaurants provide food and drink. Tickets are $50 in advance, $70 at the door. For tickets, go to

Volunteer to pour at the State Fair’s Wine Garden.

Visit the Wine Garden during the fair and order yourself a winner.

Elaine’s Pick Of The Month

Last year’s Best of Show was a sweet wine, the 2006 Navarro Vineyards Cluster Select Late Harvest Riesling. Navarro, a small family winery with a counterculture vibe, is a perennial medal magnet, winning gold and silver medals for its Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Gewürtztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. What really gets me? These are balanced wines from cool-climate Anderson Valley, not the typical rich, fat, sumo wrestler wines you usually find in the winner’s circle. Navarro’s website ( and catalog deliver winemaking and vineyard news with the same personable artistry found in its wines.