Saturday, September 6, 2008

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and Wine Rating System

The San Francisco Chronicle was started in 1865 by Charles de Young and brother Michael de Young. It is now Northern California’s largest newspaper and serves almost primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the year 2000, the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition entered into a sponsorship agreement with The San Francisco Chronicle which then was renamed The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The idea was to take public wine tastings from hundreds of wineries across the United States and award the best tasting wines with medals and feature the winners in The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2006, over 900 wineries across the United States entered in an astonishing 3,318 different varietals into the competition. Since 2000, father and son Bob and Scott Fraser founded which was a service provided to the Chronicle and became the new producer of the competition and started to feature wine nationally across the United States. At first, the competition only featured wines from the California area, but started to broaden its wines nationally in 2005. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is one of the biggest public tasting competitions in the United States and in the world.

While there is a big public tasting competition and the winning wines are featured in the newspaper, there is also several writers and wine experts who write for The Chronicle and rate different wines in blind taste tests. During a typical panel, one wine expert will taste around 30 to 100 different kinds of wine. It’s interesting to note that The San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine rating system is a bit different from others. Magazines such as Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator use a 0 to 100 point scale, and usually any wine that scores 90 or above is considered a good, quality wine. Anything below 90 is usually not published. The San Francisco Chronicle, instead, uses a four star system for their ratings. One star meaning “poor”, two stars meaning “good”, three stars meaning “excellent”, and four stars meaning “extraordinary”. It is very rare to see any kind of wine that is higher than two stars and those wines with less than two stars are never published. It is even rarer for the Chronicle to find a four star wine. That is to say that there are only a few four star wines that the experts find each year. In 2007, one of there most highly recommended wines was a 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from Sonoma Valley which only received two stars. Once again, they never publish any of the wines that receive lower than two, but state that, “Even many of our rejects from this week's edition were solid wines that we wouldn't mind having again, though perhaps they cost a bit more than we would pay” (

Here are some examples of ratings from their publications:

EXTRAORDINARY – One of San Francisco Chronicles most highly rated wines was a 1988 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rare Vintage Champagne. It was said to have a “dazzling complexity” with very unique drinking experience. It received a very rare four stars and is priced at $85.

EXCELLENT – One wine that received a very rare three stars was a 2005 Roessler Widdoes Russian River Valley Pinot Noir priced at $48.

GOOD – Said to have been a “very solid” wine, the 2006 Hogue Columbia Valley Pinot Grigio received two stars in their publication and is priced at a mere $8. Others such as the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc or Fume from the Falkner Winery and a 2006 Chardonnay from the Scheid Vineyards come very highly recommended at come at very reasonably low prices.

Once again, a POOR wine or wine “reject” is never published by The San Francisco Chronicle, so it is nearly impossible to find. I, personally, would have to agree with the way that is handled. A poor wine rating may equal bad things for the specific vineyards that get them. So, I think it’s better not to be published than receive a horrible rating. When rating, several experts taste numerous different wines and take in account the different notes both on palate and nose. They measure body, flavor, balance, acidity, tannins, secondary characteristics and how long the finish is after each taste.

There is a higher rating consideration according to the complexity involved in each wine. The vintage year is also taken into significant consideration according what specific region the wine had come from. It is also interesting to note that for more expensive wines, the experts take the price of wine in consideration as well. They try to take the point of view of the consumer and view more expensive wines with a more critical view than less expensive wines.

The wine samples for each tasting collected feature almost all varietals including: Merlots, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Reisling, and many, many more. Suffice it to say that The San Francisco Chronicle’s target audience is almost anyone who is remotely interested in wine, those wanting to learn more about wine, and those who would like to purchase quality wines at reasonable prices. California is one of the largest areas in the world with vineyards and wineries, so The San Francisco Chronicle caters to a lot of the wine-loving public there. This shows with the public wine tasting competitions that they hold with where the public is invited to taste and rate wines from across the country.

Recently, The San Francisco Chronicle features an option to join an “exclusive” Wine Club (The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Club) which publishes weekly sections about fine wine. Those wanting to join this “exclusive” club can join for $39.95 a month. Members of this wine club have benefits such as: Recipes to match wines with food, receiving two wines selected by wine and food editors Jon Bonné and Michael Bauer, and gift ideas for the holidays or any occasion, and options to reorder club favorites at significant discounts.

The wine section of The Chronicle runs weekly ads with the newspaper featuring different kinds of wine at fair prices. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition runs annually, usually near the end of February, in the San Francisco Area. It lasts for 3 hours and usually costs between $40 to $70 depending when and where you bought the tickets. Furthermore, Santa Rosa Junior College Wine Studies Program and Culinary Arts Program are the primary beneficiaries of the competition. The next public tasting and competition is offered on February, 28 2009 and one can purchase tickets for the event at:

The Pisco Sour

Nobody can argue that fütbol is the most popular sport in the world. South America is no exception, especially in South American countries such as Chile and Peru. Chileans and Peruvians can argue for hours on end to team is greater than the other. Both countries take great pride in their national teams, and you may have even heard or seen the incredible emotion from the fans during, (and sometimes after) the matches between the two countries. However, between life and fütbol, there has been one outstanding issue that has been the subject of great debate between both countries: Which country is the originator of the cocktail brandy the Pisco Sour? For over 500 years, the two countries have been battling over the true origin over the drink.

If you traveled to Chile, you would most likely discover that the citizens believe that the cocktail was created solely by them. If you traveled to Peru, you would most likely hear a similar story in Peru’s favor. This cold war of pisco has gone on for decades and seems that the debate will never rest until a distinct truth emerges from the past. If you track both histories of pisco between both Chile and Peru, you can see how the creation of the actual drink may seem something worth debating over. After all, the Pisco Sour is an amazing drink! Unfortunately, the drink is quite rare in the United States especially on the east coast.

Although the history is in high debate, Peruvians claim that the earliest roots of pisco itself have been dated back to the 1500’s. Pisco is a liquor that is distilled from grapes from both wine-producing countries of Peru and Chile. The earliest known vineyard to harvest pisco was dated back to 1553 in Peru during the time of the Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards had begun to harvest grapes in the southern areas of what is now known as Peru for wine production. Then in the 1920’s, the pisco sour cocktail was then supposedly produced in a local bar in Lima at a bar named “Bar Morris”. Whatever their claim may be, the Peruvians can claim that the original word, “pisco” is, in fact, a genuine Peruvian word. It came from a Quechua, (Peru’s indigenous language) word meaning “bird”. Furthermore, Pisco is also a port city located in the Ica Valley in Peru. The mud container that pisco was deposited was the “bojita”.

To debate the origin, Chile had also developed the pisco sour cocktail supposedly before Peruvians claimed they had in 1920. The birth of the pisco sour was said to be produced in Chile during the War of the Pacific in the 1800’s. An Englishman by the name of Elliot Stub was the so-called inventor of the pisco sour while he was on leave in a small city called Iquique. He had opened a local bar in the area and had begun experimenting with the local pisco and a small lime grown in the area called limon de pica. From there, he had created the cocktail known as the pisco sour. However, the Peruvians claim that drink was “stolen” during the War of the Pacific. Peru had lost the war and had therefore lost a lot of land to the Chileans.

The area that had been taken over was a region of Peru where pisco production had thrived. This region that was taken over was a large desert area known as Tarapaca. Naturally, Chileans disregard this “allegation” as a fallacy and have since focused on the fact that Chile produces fifty times more pisco than Peru today. Chile’s marketing power and claiming to be to able to, “bring the world pisco” is truth enough for them that they are the original creators of the cocktail.

Needless to say, we may never know the true originator of the Pisco Sour, but both hold the Pisco Sour with great regard and pride. Even though pisco is a pomace spirit, it is actually a brandy. The Pisco Sour cocktail has a very distinct taste and has said to be a cross between a margarita and a whiskey sour. When it is tasted, one would get a sweet and sour taste with a dash of lemon on their palate which makes for a very refreshing drink! The recipe includes egg whites, lemon,, cane sugar and bitters known as Angostura bitters.

However, Chile and Peru can also debate which variation of the recipes is the superior. Some South Americans claim that the inclusion of Angostura bitters, (a bitter found in Venezuela) in a Pisco Sour is not a “true” Pisco Sour. Especially in Chile, where is a largely believed that adding egg whites and the bitters is not part of the original recipe in a Pisco Sour. In Peru, the variation of the recipe may use lime instead of lemon and in other areas simple syrup instead of cane sugar is used. Whatever the recipe best suits the individual, the mixture is shaken over cubed ice and strained and then served into a traditional and old fashioned glass. The egg whites are said to give life or consistency to the frothy top of the beverage.

Although most popular in Peru and Chile, the Pisco Sour is also a popular drink in many areas of California such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Bank Exchange Bar in San Francisco is famous for selling this drink. Along with the Pisco Sour, the bar experiments with different variations of the drink such as Pisco Punch. Sadly, the Pisco Sour has been left out of the mainstream in the United States. There aren’t many restaurants around North America that make it or even distribute it.

There are many online sites that do, however, sell many mixes and variations of the drink to buy such as or To truly purchase this drink at any local bar, one must travel to South America; namely Chile, Peru, or Bolivia where the drink is most popular. Hopefully the cocktail can break out into the mainstream so that all can experience its delicious and fresh taste!

Until then, Peru and Chile will continue the debate of the origin of the Pisco Sour. The debates had gotten so “sour” that in 1961, Chile actually began to ban imports on all Peruvian imports! However, many outsiders would agree that the two countries would or could eventually come to a small agreement if they actually sat down together and talked about it. If you ask a Chilean or Peruvian personally about the heated debates, they would most likely respond, “Ah, you just don’t understand”.

We may never know, but the argument about who the original creator is neither here nor there at this point. Both countries hail it as a regional drink and both make very delicious variations of both. Who can complain?