Home vintners submit to zinquisition
Lodi hosts judging for state fair competition

LODI - Wine and Roses' Garden Ballroom was filled with the scent of rich red wine and the sounds of clinking glasses and scratching pens Wednesday during the California State Fair Home Wine Making Competition.

The competition, sponsored by Wine and Roses, the Lodi Amateur Vintners Association, and the Amador Wine Makers Association, was hosted by Wine and Roses for the fourth consecutive year, but the contest itself is more than 25 years old.

Sixteen panels of three judges each used blind tastings to assess 1,011 submissions from across the state. Winners will be announced at 5 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Turf Club during the California State Fair. The fair will run Aug. 21 to Sept. 7 at Cal Expo in Sacramento.

"Every judge has a score sheet, which they turn in to the home winemaker so they can see what they've done wrong and what they've done right," said G. M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, chief judge for the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition as well as the Home Winemaking Competition.

Every home winemaker has his or her own techniques for crafting the perfect chardonnay or zinfandel.

"You need a good bathtub!" Pucilowski joked.

Aaron Kidder, head organizer and home winemaker, owns his own vineyard, but amateurs can also purchase grapes from growers in the same way that professional distillers do.

"(Winemaking) is a blast. The simplest way of explaining it is that you take fruit and let it ferment to make wine. It's actually more complicated than that; you have to add your own yeast and pick the fruit at the right level of sweetness," Kidder said.

Many of the home winemakers fall prey to beginner's mistakes, such as a shortage of preservatives or "volatile acidity," which results in a vinegary taste.

"I look for flaws in the winemaking process or in the fruit they use. It's to offer them clues to help them bring it up another notch," judge David Akin said.

The judges are given water and a plate of crackers, celery, green olives, and slices of roast beef to cleanse their palates between each tasting.

"Cheese and wine are a great combo; cheese makes any wine taste better. We would never serve cheese at our competition, because we want to bring the palate back to a neutral position," Pucilowski said.

Mike Bellamy, former president of the Amador Winemakers Association, explained that it can take four to five months to make a white wine and one to two years to make a red, from picking the grapes to putting a bottle on the dinner table.

"I barrel-age my wine for two years," Bellamy said.

In addition to co-sponsoring the home winemaking competition, the Amador Winemakers Association takes wine-tasting trips to Napa, participates in the Amador County Fair and does group wine making projects.

"It's educational and social," Bellamy said.

California home winemakers have entered their fare in the fair in hopes of improving their techniques and bringing their wines to the discerning palates of professional judges.

Contact reporter Heather Ross at (209) 943-8576 or at hross@recordnet.com.