Liquid Assets

A fair competition

For the last six years, the Wine Society of Texas has coaxed some of the best tasters in the state to come sit through a brilliant exercise: the annual Texas' Best Wine Competition. The contest is built on the simple theory that if people don't know what they are drinking, they award points differently than if they do know what they are drinking.

Texas A&M provided the perfect example of the impact of knowing on scoring when they invited a group of people to taste three wines – labeled France, California, and Texas – and rank them. In what psychologists call the "Halo" effect, nearly all of the people picked the French wine as the best, California's second, and Texas' third. Here's the kicker: All three wines were the same Texas wine. People's expectations led them to pick based on what they assumed the normal quality hierarchy to be.

Judges are guilty of the same issues. I was invited to judge in this year's competition and found most of the judges thought Texas wines to be generally inferior to other wines, plus a few who felt supportive of the industry. But the goal was to get rid of the biases before the judging. In a slight but elegant change, Russ Kane of the Wine Society of Texas figured out a way to have a judging of Texas wines and wipe away the prejudice. While 160 of the wines were from Texas, there was also a group of international wines thrown into the mix. These wines had been medal winners in other competitions and high scoring wines in the big magazines, so the judges would be evaluating some tough wines against the Texas wines. Everything was done double blind, i.e., neither the judge nor the person serving the wine knew what we were drinking.

The judges did a good job picking out the ringers; all received medals in the competition. The single highest-scoring wine of the competition was Kim Crawford's 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($17), one of the Wine Spectator's top 100 wines of the year and a killer wine by anyone's standards. Château Gruaud Larose ($40), a patrician Bordeaux with a huge following that has already racked up 90-plus scores in the main wine journals was also one of the top 12 wines. Here's the exciting news for Texas winemakers: The other 10 Gold Medal wines are all from Texas!

Even more exciting for a cheapskate like me, eight of the 10 Texas Gold Medal winners are under $20. Llano Estacado's Chenin Blanc ($6) was the low-price leader amongst the gold medalists, and it is a delicious wine for Texas summers and spicy fare. Another bargain with a gold medal is Fall Creek's 2003 Granite Reserve ($9). This is a wine that I always love, but it's nice to see it win a top medal in a blind tasting. It's made from Bordeaux-style grapes, and is a label you can consistently count on for delicious, well-made wine. Also coming in under $10 is a resurgent label, Delaney Vineyards. Years ago, Delaney made some pretty good wine. Then, beset by financial roundabouts that would drive most folks crazy, the owner hit a bad patch. Rather than foisting bad wine on the public, he took the hard road and disposed of the wine and hired a French winemaker. She is making some stellar wine, as proven by their gold medal wine, the 2002 Delaney Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($10).

We have a lot to be proud of locally. Within a 90-minute drive of Austin, you can visit six of the 10 gold medal winners. Besides Fall Creek, there's Spicewood Vineyards, whose stunningly good 2004 Rosé of Merlot ($12) beat some awfully good competitors, including a 2003 Domaine Amido Les Amandines ($15) from Tavel in France. I happened to be on the panel judging rosés and was so glad to see that so many Texas wineries are producing dry rosés, a trend I hope to see more of. Becker Vineyards 2003 Claret ($17) again proved why it is a perennial favorite. Judged in the same category as the Château Gruaud Larose, the Becker wine had some big competition. That it was able to tie for gold should tell the whole story. Also close by, in Johnson City, Texas Hills Vineyard's 2003 Orange Moscato ($17.50) is a scrumptious dessert wine redolent with floral and orange peel aromas along with a heady amount of alcohol. Two other gold medals went to a single local winery. Flat Creek Estate, one of Texas' fastest-rising labels, took gold for their 2004 Muscato Blanco ($16), another semisweet version of Muscat with beautiful floral aromas, and their 2002 Travis Peak Select, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), their best red wine to date.

The final two winners were premium red wines. La Bodega Winery is the world's only winery in an airport! D-FW to be precise. Their 2003 Private Reserve Merlot ($26) is made to their specification by Messina Hof and is a rich, jammy style of wine with intense flavors of new American oak. The final gold medal winner, Llano Estacado's 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Cellar Reserve Newsome Vineyard ($19), is a terrific example of the continuing growth of winemaker Greg Bruni. It is also another in a line of great wines coming from the high plains vineyard planted many years ago by Hoss Newsome, now lovingly cared for by his son and 80-year-old widow, LaVerne. In fact, more award-winning wines came from Newsome Vineyards than any other grape-growing entity in the state.

Kudos to the top three wineries of the year: Flat Creek Estate, Llano Estacado, and Becker Vineyards.

The Wine Society of Texas will have a people's choice event later this year where the public can choose which of the top 10 Texas wines they think is the best. In the meantime, for the complete results and more details, go to

The Best of Austin: Restaurants ballot is here! Nominations can be made now through Monday, July 18, at midnight. Vote now at

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