By S. Elaine Lyttleton
The Lum Eisenman Ramona Valley Wine Competition — quite a mouthful. The Academy Awards of Wine in the Ramona Valley A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area) is what it is.
It is named for the man who has devoted so much time over so many years to foster the production of quality wine grapes in San Diego County, and particularly the Ramona Valley.
The annual event also offers an opportunity for winemakers who have made wine from Ramona A.V.A. grapes to have their wines tasted and critiqued by some of the best palates in Southern California. The event is open to amateur and licensed winemakers alike. The only criteria is that the grapes come from here.
Over 60 people gathered in the banquet room of Sizzler of Ramona for the annual awards dinner on Sunday, Nov. 13. And while there was no red carpet and no designer gowns, there were a few sequins on T-shirts, and the anticipation was running high on who might have won the coveted gold, silver and bronze medals.
While host Sizzler Manager Adam Sullivan and his staff served the meal, the various wines that had been entered were sampled and dinner conversations ranged from the pros and cons of various maturation vessels to corks versus screw caps and label designs.
The publisher of the new Ramona Valley Wine Region magazine, Dave Bilick, was there. He is also the designer of award-winning labels for several of the Ramona Valley wineries. Yes, there’s an award for labels, too.
Also in attendance was Chef Aaron Griffin, who writes a food column for the new magazine.
The awards portion of the evening was opened by director of the competition, Carolyn Harris, who introduced: the past director of the event, Don Korhorst of Pyramid Winery, judging coordinator Joe Cullen of Cactus Star Vineyard, cellarmaster Bob Weirich, awards manager Paul Griffin and judging event hosts Bill and Kathie Schweitzer of Paccielo Vineyards.
The judges use a version of the UC Davis 20 Point Scoring System, which primarily means points are awarded based on the measure of different attributes, such as appearance, bouquet, flavor, acidity and general quality. That means a wine being judged anywhere in the state or the world would achieve the same points if the wine was being tasted in Napa or Ramona. The wines are not competing against each other, but for points based on the winemakers’ attempts to make the best possible wine he or she can.
The panel of judges included Eisenman of course, several noted winemakers from Temecula and Julian, wine educators, and the founder of the Society of Wine Educators, who is also a judge at the prestigious Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York.
“Every year I am impressed,” said judge Mike Menghini from Julian. “I enjoyed it!”
Menghini also counseled the wine makers, “If you won a Silver or Gold medal — bottle it! It’s not going to get any better.”
He was referring to the fact that a Gold medal indicated an exceptional wine, and Silver, a very good one, which, if not already bottled, should be so that everyone can start enjoying them.
Ron Nowack, the wine educator and Finger Lakes competition judge, commented, “The Ramona wines are great, delicious,“ adding, “The big deal about wine competitions is the recognition.“
He explained that the achievement is not just for the individual winemakers, but for the region. Napa wines win awards in competitions around the country, Temecula wines win awards all over California, now it’s Ramona’s turn, he said. Enter competitions around the country, he advised, and put Ramona on the map.
Eisenman said the quality of the grapes has significantly increased because the vines are getting older. That equates to the wine quality going up and up and up.
“That’s the right direction!” he said.
The winning wines were a combination of estate grown grapes by the winemakers on their own property and wines made from grapes acquired from numerous small growers in the Ramona area. As Harris stated several times, “It takes a village,” with many people putting heart and soul into the production of premium grapes so award-winning wines can be made.
Gold medal winners were Joe Cullen from Cactus Star Vineyard for his 2010 Estate Tempranillo and 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Rich McClellan of Highland Hills Winery for his 2010 Estate Grenache Rosé, and Rich Sportsman of Little Oaks Vintners for his 2009 Merlot — Chris Hansen Vineyard.
Jim Hart, wine educator at Mira Costa College and winemaker at Milagro Farm Vineyards & Winery on Littlepage Road in Ramona, won Gold with his 2010 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. He encouraged others to grow more white wine grapes. All the winemakers agreed they are eager to have more white wine grapes grown in the valley, now dominated by reds.
For more information on growing grapes in the Ramona area and getting involved in the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association, go to www.ramonavalleyvineyards.org.