Cougar Winery does battle with Italian varietals for the 5th year

Laura Donadoni
Certified sommelier and wine journalist Laura Donadoni participates as one of a panel of expert wine judges during the fifth annual Cougar Meets Italy event at Cougar Vineyard and Winery, Jan. 16. The event puts judges and guests in a blind tasting comparison of Cougar Winery’s Italian wines with their counterparts directly from Italy. Those participating blind taste and compare each variety before scoring each wine based on clarity, smell and taste. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

The fifth annual Cougar Meets Italy 2019 featured Cougar Vineyard and Winery varietals against their Italian counterparts in a side-by-side, double-blind tasting event Thursday, Jan. 16.

After having their best-ever scoring results in 2019, winning all three battles in the red wine categories, but losing in the white wine contests, in 2020 Cougar Winery won one of the four competitions, but owners Rick and Jennifer Buffington weren’t disappointed.

“The wines taste really similar. That’s a good thing for us; we’re doing something right, I guess,” Rick Buffington said.

In the whites categories, Cougar’s 2018 Vermentino lost to its Italian counterpart by a score of 17.2 to 16.5, but won in the people’s choice scoring 14.9 to 14.7. Cougar’s 2018 Falanghina lost 18.2 to 15.6 and lost the people’s choice vote 15.8 to 14.8.

Cougar’s 2014 Sagrantino easily beat its Italian counterpart by a judges’ score of 18.4 to 17.1 and won the people’s choice as well. Cougar’s 2016 Barbera lost 17.7 to 17.3, but won the people’s choice 16.8 to 15.3.

According to the more than two dozen, nonprofessional judges, Cougar won three of the four competitions.

“They chose very close to what the judges chose,” Jennifer Buffington said. “It was very, very close.”

Six professional judges were seated at the head of the room with more than two dozen audience members in front of them. Everyone was handed a 20-point wine score sheet from University of California Davis with a packet containing information about each varietal and the qualities each should have.

Each wine was judged on clarity, color, bouquet, total acidity, sweetness, body/texture, flavor/taste, bitterness, astringency and overall quality.

While judges and audience members alike tipped, swirled, chewed and spit the wines – to be honest, not many in the audience did any spitting at all – everyone scored along.

There were three new judges this year.

“Three of the people up there were Italian and the other three were Italian sommeliers,” Jennifer Buffington said. “It was good to have that kind of credibility.”

When the competition was over, everyone enjoyed a four-course dinner prepared by the in-house Sangio’s Deli.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at