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As an Alcohol and Beverage Control special agent, Shawn Walker spends many of his days busting up moonshine operations, nabbing underage drinkers, and investigating corruption, fraud, and money laundering. But, on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday in July, Walker put his expertise on alcohol to a different use. He and 13 others sat hunched over eight glasses of wine at 9:30 in the morning acting as wine judges. The setting was the Vinifera Wine Growers Association competition, and Walker, while a first-time judge, demonstrated that he knew his way around wine. Handpicked by the association’s president, he evaluated and scored roughly 90 wine entries competing for the coveted Tiffany “Jefferson Loving Cup.” The competition was held in a frigid conference room at Lansdowne Resort in Virginia. No contestants — and few outsiders — were present for the all-day event. Walker marked his debut as a competition judge at the VIP table alongside association President Gordon Murchie, former White House chef John Hanny, and celebrated sommelier Mary Watson-DeLauder. Walker listened attentively as Fred Butcher, the competition chairman, reminded those present that judging wine is very subjective — and that reasonable people can differ on their assessments of quality. Therefore, said Butcher, a 20-point scoring system developed by the University of California at Davis would be used to provide some “common ground.” Murchie emphasized that half-points were permitted, offered suggested criteria for appearance, aroma, taste, balance, aftertaste, and overall impression, and then gave the signal to the pourers. In a methodical ritual, each judge swirled, sniffed, and tasted the liquid contents of their glasses, which were placed in order and coded, in a special sequence known only to the cellar masters who stood hidden behind an adjacent blue curtain. By 10 a.m., each of the judges had tasted and scored 16 wines. Stylistic differences were apparent (both in the wines and the judges). Some judges spat the wine into a plastic cup after tasting. Others actually drank the wine. Some kept their palettes fresh with crackers and bland cheese. All, Walker included, kept up with the relentless pace, holding up partially filled glasses to the light, rolling the liquid around on their tongues, and writing down scores. Event cellar master Tom Payette and his crew had spent the previous day sorting, bagging, and coding the competition entries. Payette, following a trend set on the West Coast, is an elite wine consultant who is making a name for himself by working with a number of wineries on the mid-Atlantic stage. But on this day he remained behind the blue curtain, didn’t mingle with the judges, and kept the wines flowing. By 10:30 a.m., the judges had tasted 32 glasses of white wine. The room was hushed save for the shuffling back and forth of the pourers, who served from bottles concealed in brown paper. Before the end of the day, they would pour flights in categories including Viognier, Chardonnay, sparking wines, dessert wines, and several varieties of red wines. At 10:45 a.m., the first audible comments were uttered. “It tastes like oil,” said a judge at table four. “Don’t light a match,” rejoined a judge at the VIP table. That exchange (in addition to the mild rise in blood alcohol levels) seemed to break the ice, and for the rest of the morning, until they broke for lunch, the tasters were noticeably good-natured as they went about their task. After lunch, the conversation was a little louder, the commentary even more forthright. While the best-tasting wines earned approving nods and comments, judges were forced to return one less than spectacular sparkler back to Payette and the others in the wine cellar to see if it was corked. Unfortunately, the second bottle of the same wine — all entrants are asked to submit two bottles because of just such a possibility — fared no better than the first. As the afternoon wound down, an atmosphere that at first felt like a library or study hall felt more like, well, a wine tasting. Hanny, the former White House chef, regaled his table with stories about the gracious Jackie O. and Harry Truman’s famous distaste for Richard Nixon. Other judges, while continuing to take their work seriously, found more time for conversation with their fellow panelists. At 5 p.m., all were visibly flagging, but they all gathered close together to rank the wines that had topped their categories to qualify for the competition for best of show. Hanny and Walker got up and stretched. The winner of the Jefferson Loving Cup is always a well-guarded secret but sources predicted a relatively new winery would take the honor for its 2000 Viognier. The winner was scheduled to be announced this past weekend, Aug. 18, at the Annual Virginia Wine Festival in The Plains. Elisabeth Frater is at work on “Breaking Away to Virginia and Maryland Wineries,” the first book in a “Washington Weekends” series to be published by Capital Books Inc. Got a wine industry tip or business trend to share with Legal Times’ Wine Counsel? E-mail her at [email protected]

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