While 400-plus wine enthusiasts jammed into the grand ballroom of the Ritz Carlton on Saturday to sample an impressive array of California cabernet and merlot "barrel samples," two dozen wine judges in white lab coats were gathered just uptown, at the Westin Hotel, for a three-day marathon tasting of nearly 1,000 wines from around the world.

Though the tastings differed vastly in atmosphere, both underscored the increasingly pivotal role of Washington on the national wine scene.

"Outside of a few spots in California, Washington is the most wine-knowledgeable area of the country," said Santa Cruz Mountain winery owner Ken Burnap, whose 1984 Bates Ranch Cabernet was among the 24 wines featured at the first California Futures Barrel Tasting at the Ritz-Carlton. "This is an extremely important market to us," he explained. "We're a small winery and we can't go everywhere. The response was very positive and I'm very gratified."

This was the first event of its type in the nation. Its sponsor, MacArthur Liquors, hoped to stimulate sales of premium California wines by providing consumers the chance to meet the winemakers and sample wines before placing orders at reduced "futures" prices.

Enthusiasm appeared to run high among tasters, some of whom had flown in from as far away as California to attend either an afternoon or evening session. Some admitted, however, that they were unsure of how to judge the raw, unfinished wines, many of which had been drawn from barrels just days before, and which would not be bottled and delivered for a year or more in most cases.

At the Fourth Annual World Wine Judging Competition at the Westin Hotel, the tasters were largely food and wine professionals. Five teams of five judges evaluated wines in well over 100 categories based on price, country of origin, and grape variety. Award criteria were strict. There were no bronze medals, only gold and silver, and no medal had to be awarded in any category.

Complete, official results will be available through Les Amis Du Vin (phone: 588-0980), the event's sponsor, by the end of the month. Initial tallies included golds for the following wines: Gran Condal Reserva 1978 (Spain, $6.25), Gran Condal Rioja Red 1984 ($3.30), Wyndham Estate Oak Cask Chardonnay 1984 (Australia, $7), Cain Cellars 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet ($11), Nebbiolo d'Alba Flavio (Italy, $5), Woodward Canyon 1983 Columbia Valley Cabernet (Washington, $16.50). Locally, Virginia's Meredyth Vineyards copped a silver for its 1983 Cabernet ($8).