I have been judging wine at professional wine competitions since 1997. It makes me hiccup just to think of all those sniffs and sips over the years. But I love doing it. I’ve judged for the Los Angeles County Fair’s Wines of the World, the Dallas Morning News, the Tri-Cities (Washington State), the National Women’s Wine Competition, the VinItaly International Wine Competition (Verona, Italy), and the Global Traveler’s Wines on the Wing International Business Class Airline Wine Competition. And this year, I was delighted to judge for the first time at the 25th New York Wine and Food Classic, a competition of wines produced in New York, held Aug. 16 and 17 in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
As a wine professional, I find judging wine offers me tremendous exposure to a broad range of wine varieties and styles. The competitions reveal (and sometimes predict) trends in consumer preferences. And they offer us judges a chance to share opinions and socialize in a wider context than most of our normal professional lives would offer.
Most wine competitions exist to give awards. Why else would wineries pay expensive entry fees and send valuable products to be judged?
The competitions follow various formats. In some (especially in Europe), judges use numerical scores to assess such aspects as color, aroma, typicity and balance. In others, wines are not scored but given awards, usually named after precious metals. In all, the judging is blind, with the identity of every wine hidden until the final results are announced.
To me, rating the wines with numerical scores is pseudo-science. I prefer the format of the Los Angeles County Fair competition and the New York Classic, a clone of the L.A. Fair. Backroom staff bring out coded samples, sorted by varietal or style, presenting a row of up to 12 glasses at a time to each judge. Judges sit in panels or groups of four or five at round tables. After tasting in silence, they discuss and finally award medals to wines by consensus and compromise.
A study published last year by the American Society of Wine Economists showed that wines that win one competition often fail to win any awards in other competitions, and that the same judges often give gold medal and “no award” ratings to the same wines when tasted in different contexts. Still, I think wine competitions have validity, provided that one accepts the results for what they are: a selection of appealing, well-crafted wines, taken in the context of the competition, according to the preferences of the judges.
This year at the New York Wine Classic, 24 judges tasted 850 wines, categorized by varietal. On Aug. 16, each judge sampled about 140 wines. At this competition, some gold medal-winning wines (not all — there is no standard other than judges’ consensus) are “put forward” by each panel to be retasted and judged by all judges assembled together the morning after the preliminary judging. Competition staff counts the judges’ raised hands; the wines with the greatest show of hands win their categories. Then there is a final vote for the Governor’s Cup.
This year, the judges sent 41 wines to the finals, including one or more from these categories: Niagara, gewrtztraminer, Cayuga, Vidal, vignoles, hybrid white, diamond, native white blend, vinifera and native rose , native and vinifera red blends, other red vinifera (Dornfelder), Concord, cabernet franc and 16 different styles of riesling. No oak-aged chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, petit verdot or merlot made the finals.
All results are at www.newyorkwines.org. From Long Island, Peconic Bay Winery’s La Barrique Esprit de Rouge won best red vinifera blend and Bedell Cellar’s Corey Creek Cabernet Franc won best red overall, by acclamation.
The top award (Governor’s Cup) went to the Swedish Hill nonvintage Riesling Cuvee, a delicious, delicate sparkling wine with 3.5 percent residual sugar.
Some kind of Riesling has won this competition in a preponderance of its 25 years. In the ladies’ room after the results were announced, I overheard two other judges, verbatim: “So, it was a sparkling riesling that won.”
“Yes, I’m surprised. I expected the riesling to win.”
“What about the cab franc?”
“Yeah, that should have won.”
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.
NY WINE and FOOD CLASSIC
GOLD MEDALS WON BY L.I. WINERIES
*Paumanok Vineyards 2009 Riesling Late Harvest
*Bedell Cellars Corey Creek Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc (Best Red Wine)
Jamesport Vineyards 2007 Petit Verdot
Martha Clara Vineyards 2009 Riesling
Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards 2007 Reserve Chardonnay
Paumanok Vineyards 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
Paumanok Vineyards 2007 Merlot Tuthills Lane Vineyard
Paumanok Vineyards 2007 Assemblage
*Peconic Bay Winery NV Nautique Esprit De Rouge (Best Red Vinifera Blend)
Peconic Bay Winery 2007 La Barrique Chardonnay
Peconic Bay Winery 2009 Riesling
Pellegrini Vineyards 2007 Vintner’s Pride Chardonnay
Sparkling Pointe 2004 Blanc de Blancs Champenoise
WÃ¶lffer Estate Vineyard 2007 Chardonnay
(*Promoted to sweepstakes round of judging by the individual panels that tasted them.)