A masterful collaboration of winemakers, sung and unsung heroes in the winemaking industry converge each October in San Francisco. This year marks the 12th year for this global wine tasting event honoring wineries around the world that deliver exceptional performance at Wine & Spirits tastings throughout the year.
The event culminates into an evening of exceptional wine and food provided by some of San Francisco’s Top Bay Area Chefs.
The event benefits San Francisco Baykeeper organization for the conservation and protection of water, & to protect our water from pollution. Water plays a key role in the winemaking process as 80% of all wine originates from it.
I asked the founder of this event, NYC’s Tara Q. Thomas, the Executive Editor of Wine and Spirits Magazine for insider information on how the top wines are curated, evaluated and brought to the Bay Area for this one of a kind annual event.
KM: How are the top 100 wines judged? For those out there not on the list who may not have had a chance to submit for this, how can they get involved in the future?
Tara Thomas: The Top 100 Wines of the Year are those that performed best in our blind panel tastings over the last 12 months. This year, those panels tasted some 14,500 wines–so as you can imagine, the competition was very tough. Any winery is allowed to submit wines to our panels; our tasting schedule and shipping address are posted on wineandspiritsmagazine.com, and there is no fee for submissions. The wines are then presented blind to panels made up of staff and local experts we invite in to taste with us–sommeliers, wine store buyers, and other writers. These tastings are the only way a wine gets considered for review at W&S; we don’t ever score wines outside of these tastings.
KM: When you taste wine what kinds of things do you look for? How much of that applies to market or consumer preferences?
Tara Thomas: When I taste wine, I ask myself two questions: The first is, does it taste like what I expect wine from this area to taste like? While there can be wide variation in, say, what sauvignon blanc from the Loire can taste like, I’m going to be disappointed if my Loire Sauvignon tastes like California chardonnay.
The other question is, “Would I tell someone to buy this?” At the end of the day, our job is to make life easier for the reader by highlighting the really interesting and delicious wines. There has to be a compelling reason to recommend the wine: There’s little room for the merely okay.
KM: Often smaller boutique wineries are overshadowed by the bigger ones… how do you balance this aspect in the judging?
Tara Thomas: This is the beauty of tasting blind: We have no idea which wines come from small wineries and which ones come from corporate entities. And as you can see from the wineries that end up in our Top 100, the range is huge. We have wineries like Chateau Ste Michelle, which produces 3 million cases a year, as well as Cobb, producing only 1,500 cases a year; there are giants like Penfolds next to newcomers like Singlefile, another Australian winery which released its first wines in 2008. We are open to wines from everywhere, and from every kind of winery; this year, our Top 100 includes wines from Austria, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Slovenia, and, for the first time ever, Georgia in the Caucasus, in addition to all the usual suspects
KM: Regarding submissions. Do you personally vet, source the wines through Somms, winemakers? Is it invite only?
Tara Thomas: Any winery can submit wines for review–we certainly don’t discriminate, and we don’t charge, either. We only ask that they refer to our tasting schedule to see when we are tasting specific regions, and send them at the appropriate times.
KM: Who should attend?
Tara Thomas: The Top 100 has been a popular event for wine trade on the West Coast–a lot of sommeliers and wine buyers from San Francisco attend. It has a high reputation among trade because the wines at the event can be rare. There have been multiple instances of wineries buying back bottles from retailers or restaurants for this event because they’ve already sold out of the particular wine we recommended; the event then becomes a special chance to get a taste of it before it’s gone. But the event is also very popular with the general public, too. The number of consumer tickets sold grows every year, and I think it’s because the quality of the wines is so strong across the board. Plus, there’s also terrific food: Every October, we compile a short list of the best new restaurants and bars in the Bay Area, and then ask those restaurants to come show off their cuisine at the event. This year that includes places like Atlas Social, Benjamin Cooper, and Gaspar Brasserie. Add to those longstanding purveyors like Hog Island Oysters, which shucks oysters right next to the sparkling wine all night long–and it’s pretty hard to beat.
KM: After 12 years of producing this event, what still gives you that spark about the process?
Tara Thomas: It’s interesting to see the list change every year. There are certainly some repeat wineries, of course, but it’s nice to see up-and-coming producers on the list every year. What’s perhaps most exciting this year is the number of domestic wineries: we’ve never had so many wineries from the United States. And not just California, either. Two wineries from the Finger Lakes in New York and multiple wineries from outlying AVAs in Oregon and Washington are on the 2015 roster.
KM: What is one of the most remarkable stories you’ve heard from a winemaker participating in this event?
Tara Thomas: A few years ago, we made a video in which we asked winemakers attending the event to talk about wine they discovered in the room and describe what stood out about it. It was incredible to see just how excited they were to find wines from places they may have never considered going before, and how much they appreciated the opportunity to meet other winemakers. You can still check out the video on our YouTube channel, but really, all you have to do it attend the event to see it in action. I honestly believe that this dynamic is part of what feeds the energy in the room; it’s not just a fun event for the consumers, but a terrific experience for the winemakers, many of whom wouldn’t have the chance to meet each other were it not for this night in October.
KM: Why was this event started?
Tara Thomas: We wanted to celebrate the exceptional performances of wineries whose wines we tasted in a given year. And while we work hard to describe what makes each of these wineries compelling in our Annual Buying Guide, nothing beats tastings the wines and talking with the winemakers. The event is also an opportunity to celebrate with wineries after harvest and with wine trade before the start of the busy holiday season, and to get to know our readers better.
And eat oysters, of course.
For More Information on the Top 100