Joel Cowley, the Rodeo’s president and CEO, knows it’s a little weird that one of the most successful events at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo each year is a wine throw-down. He chuckles every time someone mentions the International Wine Competition—now celebrating its 10th anniversary—as an unusual fit with the bucking broncos and cutting horse competitions.
“I get that question a lot,” Cowley admits, “but our mission at the Rodeo is promoting agriculture—and certainly viticulture is agriculture.”
The double-blind wine competition is audited on site by PricewaterhouseCooper, ensuring that the winners are both free of label bias and representative of the local palate. “We want the results to reflect Houston’s taste,” says Cowley. As a result, the event is taken seriously by the domestic and international wineries that participate, as well as the judges, most of whom are wine professionals from the Houston area.
That palate is fairly predictable from year to year, says Laura Widing, the competition director. “We eat a lot steak,” she laughs. So the winning wine is almost always a Cabernet or Cab blend, which pairs easily with the beef that’s auctioned off at the livestock show. Those winning wines are auctioned off too, with last year’s Grand Champion Best of Show—an Alexander Valley Vineyards 2008 Cyrus—selling for a record $215,000.
Wines are judged and announced months before the show starts to ensure the Rodeo will be able to obtain enough product to showcase in March. Those wishing to sample this year’s Best of Show, a 2009 Marchesi Antinori Guado al Tasso, have several options. One is the Champion Wine Garden on the northwest side of the Astrodome, which Cowley calls “the most serene and relaxing place on our grounds,” complete with fountains and live music. Sommeliers in the tent will even recommend wine pairings for the fair food outside.
Another is the annual Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup and Best Bites Competition—on February 23 this year—in which over 80 Houston restaurants gather inside Reliant Center to offer samples of signature dishes while vintners pour wines. “It’s patterned off an event at the California State Fair called Grape and Gourmet,” says Cowley. “But like everything else in Texas, ours is bigger.”
As per usual, this year’s Grand Champion Best of Show is a Cab blend, and the 2009 Marchesi will be auctioned off on March 2. But in a move that could signal Houston’s changing palate, the Cabernet grape was almost dethroned this year. “We had a tie for the Grand Champion Best of Show,” says Widing. It was completely unexpected—as was the challenger: a $14 bottle of sparkling wine. “The tiebreaker was one vote.”