The four-person panel I was on at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition this spring was assigned one of the more offbeat categories on the judging circuit: Division 1003, formally known as “Wine World of Sports and Entertainment.”
In plainer terms, this was the class in which sports stars, musicians and other celebrities who have transitioned into the wine business could enter their wines.
If you haven’t been keeping up with this particular niche of the entertainment world, those folks now include Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, David and Victoria Beckham, Drew Barrymore and Jeff Gordon, among many others.
We had no idea whether any of their wines were among the 33 delivered us. This being a blind judging, we only were given a number for each wine.
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By the time we were finished, we’d awarded 12 of them gold medals, an exceptionally high proportion for any class in any competition. I didn’t necessarily agree that all 12 deserved gold, but that’s how the voting went.
That said, a few of the wines likely would have won gold in the larger divisions, given their freshness, structure and character. They reflected either an engaged proprietor or someone with the money and smarts to hire a competent winemaker and turn him or her loose without meddling.
Many of the entries, however, spoke of proprietors who simply were cashing in on their celebrity, perhaps buying juice on the bulk market and slapping their name on the label. Those wines generally were awkward, sweet and soft.
As we proceeded through the flights I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the wines were by the most successful celebrity-cum-vintner of them all, Francis Ford Coppola. He’s built such a winemaking empire in Sonoma County and Napa Valley that almost surely his wines would have been entered in the customary classes, I suspected.
Wrong. When results were released we learned that four wines under his Director’s Cut label accounted for a third of the gold medals we bestowed: the peppy and persistent Director’s Cut 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($21); the delicately fruity Director’s Cut 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($27); the juicy and accessible Director’s Cut 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($22); and the pleasant if understated Director’s Cut 2012 Sonoma County Cinema ($39), a blend primarily of cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.
Another celebrity who appears to take the wine business seriously is Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian hockey superstar whose business interests include a line of wines from his native Ontario, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and California’s Sonoma County and Central Coast.
His gold-medal Wayne Gretzky Estates 2013 Okanagan Valley No. 99 Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah ($14.50) is a wine worth seeking for its assertiveness and value. All flowing cherry fruit spiced with black pepper, the wine consists of 58 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah and 3 percent cabernet franc.
Gretzky’s other gold-medal wine – and you could see this coming – was a lusciously sweet ice wine, the Wayne Gretzky Estates 2012 Niagara Peninsula No. 99 Cabernet Franc Icewine ($68 per 375-milliliter bottle). It was a brilliant wine, both in its garnet color and in its balanced richness.
The rock band Train also is showing consistency with its wines, marketed under the brand Save Me, San Francisco, also the name of one of its albums. Both the simple and sweet Save Me, San Francisco 2013 Central Coast Soul Sister Pinot Noir ($11) and the lithe Save Me, San Francisco 2014 California BulletProof Picasso Sauvignon Blanc ($12) won gold medals.
Under the auspices of Trinchero Family Estates, Duck Commander wines, a spinoff of the TV series “Duck Dynasty,” also performed well, with both the sweet and soft Duck Commander 2013 California Teal Hen Pinot Grigio ($10) and the even sweeter and thicker Duck Commander 2013 California Pintail Moscato ($10) winning gold.
Musician Dave Mathews struck gold with The Dreaming Tree 2012 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), unusually expressive and elegant at that price point, while Vince Ferragamo, former quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, now an Orange County vintner, also took home gold with his ripe, floral and tarry Tenuta di Ferragamo 2013 Orange County Caressa J. Super Tuscan ($55), a blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.