Critics Wine Challenge turns 16

By Panos Kakaviatos for

11 June 2019

For the third year in a row, I joined several judges in an intense, yet well organized and friendly one and one-half day tasting experience called the Critics Wine Challenge this past weekend, under the direction of Robert Whitley and Rich Cook.

This year, 13 judges assessed over 1,200 wines from all over the world. I was paired with writer Laurie Daniel and Joe Roberts, the one and only One Wine Dude. At our table, staff poured some 200 wines for us to evaluate, which we did using an Excel sheet. Wines that did not make at least 90 points we classified as “silver” or “no medal”, while top wines were either gold or (rarer) “platinum”. 

As you can see in the list above, judges included many fine wine tasters, from Travel & Leisure Magazine wine columnist Bruce Schoenfeld and wine writer Michael Apstein (including Boston Globe columnist) to The Robb Report wine columnist Sara Schneider. 

In its 16th year, the Critics Challenge began as “an experiment to bring together a posse of talented and highly competitive wine journalists”, says founder and syndicated wine columnist Robert Whitley. “They would spend a weekend together immersed in wine evaluation and the open exchange of insights, culled from years of travel throughout the world of wine and countless tasting experiences”.

As you can see in the video, below, I caught up with Robert to get his current take on the event, held this year at the Sheraton near the San Diego Marina.

The tastings are carried out blind by category. So, for example, we had a flight of Zinfandels and Chardonnays, among many others. Rather than reaching consensus, the Challenge encourages independence of judging so that – for example – a so-called European palate may like a certain type of wine more than, say, an “American” palate. Broad generalization to be sure, but it gives each wine a better chance at recognition.

Joe and Laurie and I actually coincided in our judgments more often than not, but there were occasions when one of us would give a wine a gold rating, and another would give it silver or even no medal. The most interesting occasions were when one of us would give gold and the other platinum. Part of the fun of judging is having conversations over wines that are “on a border” between excellence and grandness. 

Once tallied, winning wines are posted on the online platform, and producers who get medals use such recognition to promote sales.

Hats off to the staff that put this gig together: ever professional and especially friendly, with superb tasting conditions, stemware and tempo. We were impressed at how quickly the wines were prepared and served after each flight and how courteous the staff were in handling requests for second samples if ever a doubt about a possible wine fault.

As you can see in the video, Sheila Mcbain-Clark and Ray Fernandez have been key members of the team on competition weekends since nearly the start of the series, and they talk about the Challenge from their perspective, “behind the scenes” so to speak.

One highlight is the Saturday dinner for volunteers and judges, which features many different wines at a gorgeous setting near the San Diego marina. Some judges brought their own wines to the dinner and one such star was the 1980 Estate Bottled Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour, which Michael Apstein shared. Yet more proof of how well California Cabernet can age, the wine showed excellent grip and gorgeous tertiary notes that breathed energy and life.

Michael Apstein, at left, with his excellent Napa nearly 40 years on. To the right is former Washington Post wine writer Michael Franz, who edits

In short: a great time!



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