In Italy or in Napa Valley, drinking the local wine is a given.
But in Arizona, where the wine industry has waged an uphill battle to improve its image, local wines are still a novelty at most restaurants -- so much so, in fact, that when FnB owner Pavle Milic and chef Charleen Badman committed to an all-Arizona wine list, it was newsworthy enough for the New York Times.
Now, to raise the profile of the state's wines, Milic is hosting a special by-invitation-only blind tasting, dubbed Arizona Judgment 2010. On June 2, he'll close the restaurant so that an elite panel of wine experts can taste, compare, and score Arizona wines alongside wines from around the world.
(The scenario might sound familiar if you've seen that movie Bottle Shock, based on the famous 1976 "Judgement of Paris" wine competition, where French judges were surprised at the top scores they gave to California wines in a blind tasting with French wines.)
The impressive roster of confirmed judges is a well-rounded group -- wine geeks, people who make a living with their fine palates, and a winemaker from out of state. There's Wine Library TV superstar Gary Vaynerchuk, Tucson-based Master Sommelier Laura Williamson, celebrated New York City chef Anne Rosenzweig, Neyers Vineyards winemaker Tadeo Borchardt, Tarbell's chef-owner/AZ Republic wine columnist Mark Tarbell, Pizzeria Bianco chef-owner Chris Bianco, Caffe Boa chef Payton Curry, and Milic himself.
Milic says his scores will not be included among the results of the tasting, which will be tabulated by David Vogels, editor of Sommelier Journal. Prior to the event, another blind tasting panel will select five reds and five whites to be included in the Arizona Judgment. Makers of the chosen wines won't be notified until after the event.
The idea for the blind tasting came about before Milic had a printed Arizona wine list at FnB. He'd simply offer a glass to guests and ask them to guess its origin.
Well-known foodies and wine fans were often surprised to learn that they hadn't just been served a fine Italian Amarone or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. People loved the local wines.
But when he put the all-AZ list into print, everything changed. Customers made assumptions about the quality of the wine, and were much less enthused to order it.
"I found myself defending it," Milic says. "Never in my life did I ever have to work so hard to sell wine."
The Arizona Judgment is meant to be "an exercise in perception," he says. "We are so used to being told what to think about things." He wants to encourage people to form their own opinions about the wine.
Given customers' stereotypes about desert grapes, it's not an easy choice to focus on local wines, although it's perfectly in line with FnB's local approach to food. Milic hopes that some will end up as top-scorers in the blind tasting.
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"Even if they don't, we still end up winning. These wines are worthy of tasting, and we got so much interest already."