What Do Wine and Saddles Have In Common? The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

Over the course of a weekend, volunteers with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo wash 20,000 wine glasses in two days. It's just one of the staggering statistics behind the annual International Wine Competition, the contest that leads to the Rodeo Uncorked! Wine Show and to a few lucky wineries walking away with buckles, chaps and saddles -- the Rodeo's equivalent of bronze, silver and gold medals.

This year, more than 2,500 wines were entered in the competition, which has become increasingly respected as not only a Texas wine competition but a showcase for international wines as well. The competition may fly under the radar for most Houstonians, but not for winemakers. Those 2,500 bottles represent a 40 percent increase in entries over last year's 1,788 bottles. It's especially impressive considering that the recession has led fewer and fewer wineries to enter competitions.

"At only $50 an entry, it provides an attractive value and and an attractive competition," said Stephanie Earthman Baird, now in her third year as the chairman of the HLSR Wine Competition Committee. Each entry is placed into a category -- whether it's a White Zinfandel or an old world Pinot Noir -- and judged in tightly controlled, double-blind panels. Over two days, panels made up of retailers, distributors, consumers, wine makers and sommeliers will taste anywhere from 140 to 150 wines a day.

It was this portion of the competition -- a mock double-blind judging panel -- that I took part in this past Saturday.

Along with other members of the media, I tasted my way through 10 different wines from one of the many Merlot groups. As with last time, we were tasked with closely examining each wine -- identified only by a long serial number -- and giving it a gold, silver, bronze or "no medal" ranking. Any wine that gets a run of gold medals in one panel is granted double gold status, and its chances of winning Grand Champion Best In Show, Reserve Grand Champion Best of Show or any of the other top spots is greatly increased.

We only had one double gold in the panel, however, with most other Merlots getting bronze or no medals. This is common, Baird told us: "Fifty to 55 percent of the wines are no medals," she explained.

The top wines, however, go on to have very distinguished careers. The winners are presented at the Rodeo Uncorked! Wine Show for tasting, then -- like everything else at the Rodeo, from heifers to pens of broilers -- gets sent up for auction in big, Texas-sized nine-liter bottles.

Last year's Grand Champion Best In Show, a 2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards CYRUS, went for a record-breaking $210,000 at auction. That's an amazing $23,000 a liter. And the Reserve Grand Champion Best of Show, a 2007 Stanton Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, was no slouch either: It went for $130,000, another record-setting price.

After all, the entire point of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo is to raise money for scholarships. And since its creation in 2004, the International Wine Competition portion of the Rodeo is becoming increasingly responsible for a significant chunk of that money.

That's not to say the HLSR's scholarship foundation is the sole benefactor here; the wineries aren't that altruistic. As happened with Guy Davis's Cabernet Sauvignon last year, Grand Champion wines always sell out.

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