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Judging Wine

September 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Let’s do some math. There are about 8,700 wineries in the USA. Some wineries make only 2–3 wines, but this is quite rare. Some wineries make 10, 15 or more, especially if you will take into account all the “winery-only” specials. Let’s average, say, at 10 (I’m sure I’m reasonably conservative here). In this case, we are talking about roughly 87,000 different wines. Produced every year. In the USA alone.

How do we choose the wines? Presented with an average selection of at least a few hundred bottles even at a small wine store, we need all the help we can get to select that one bottle we want to drink tonight. One of such “helpers” is so-called ratings. Ratings are professional wine critics’ opinions, generally expressed in the form of the numbers (points), from 50 to a 100 – 89 points, 95 points, 100 points. Those ratings are produced by several wine publications (magazines and newsletters), such as Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and a few others. Let’s say there are about 4 main publications in the USA (there are lots more, of course, if you will attempt a full count, but let’s just stay with the major ones). Now, to produce the ratings for all 87,000 wines among 4 publications, working 365 days a year (no breaks!), it will be necessary to evaluate about 60 wines per day, every day – and these are just wines from the USA, based on our rough assumption of 10 wines per winery. Mission impossible – and mission unnecessary.

What else is there besides ratings, to help our poor, indecisive selves? Well, how about some awards? If you ever visited some lesser-known wineries – maybe on Long Island, or in Finger Lakes, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, etc – have you noticed a display of the bottles wearing straps with various medals around the neck? Those are the exact awards we are talking about. How the wineries get those? By participation (and winning) at the various wine competitions, in the USA or even in the world.

There are about 70 of major (or better known) wine competitions in the USA, plus probably hundreds of lesser-known, more regional wine competitions. Wineries submit their wines for the competitions. The wines are grouped into the categories (white, blend, Chardonnay, Merlot, Dessert, etc), and get rated in a blind tasting within those categories by the wine judges. The best wines in the categories can subsequently compete for the “best in show”, “best red”, “best dessert” and so on. And then wineries get to brag about their awards and to display the medals, sometimes at the winery, and sometimes even on the labels – I’m sure you’ve seen those.

Wondering how the wine judging is done? Let me give you a first-hand account, as I just attended my second wine competition as a judge – at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival – obviously focused on the wines of Hudson Valley.

As we mentioned, the wines are judged blind, with only a variety (or blend composition) and vintage known for every wine. The wines are split into the categories such as white and Rosé, red, dessert, fruit, and can be split into varieties within the categories, each category presented as a separate flight – for example, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for reds, or Chardonnay and Riesling for the whites. The wines are assessed at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival according to the American Wine Society wine evaluation chart, which you can find in its entirety here. According to that chart, the wine can get the maximum of 20 points comprising of the following categories

  • Wine color – up to 3 points. This is an easy one – as long as your 1-year-old dry Riesling is not a deep golden, or not hazy/cloudy, it is 3 points.
  • Aroma and bouquet – up to 6 points. The 6 points are awarded if the wine is absolutely on point for the varietal expression.
  • Taste and texture – again, up to 6 points. To get 6 points the wine should be varietally perfect.
  • Finish – up to 3 points. Here the long and enjoyable is what is required to qualify for 3.
  • Overall impression – up to 2 points. Here is an opportunity for a judge to express his or her personal opinion about the wine – nah, okay, or wow.

The assessment of the wines done in the flights, where each wine is individually labeled with a code. The judges are working in the groups of 3, with each group having a captain who manages the group’s work and fills up all of the final decision forms. While the wines in the flight had been assessed, all judges keep it quiet and filling up the form. Once the flight’s assessment is finished, the wines are been discussed one by one, to arrive at a final score for the wine. Based on the score and opinion, the recommendations can be made for double gold, gold, silver, and bronze, as well as for the inclusion into the best of show tasting.

Once all the flights are done by all the judges at all tables, the results are processed, which takes about 30 minutes. During this 30 minutes break, it is a perfect opportunity for judges to walk around and see a bit of the show floor before it gets ultra-crowded. Here are some of the pictures of what you can find on the show floor of the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Festival. These are the things which attracted my attention, and I can tell you that the bacon salsa you see below was superb. Both single malt and rye whiskey which you can see below were good, but not $100 good as it was the show’s asking price. And how about those cans and wine labels!

After the break, the final part of the judging is set up – now the wines are judged for the best in category (best red, best white, etc), and then all of the best in categories are included into the “best in show” tasting. Best in category and best in the show are judged by all the judges at all the tables by the show of hands, and each judge can vote only once.

Best in Show tasting flight

An interesting by-product of all the voting is the title of the “winery of the year” for the region – I don’t know the exact formulae, but it is determined by the number of wines awarded the medals, taking into account how many wines were submitted versus how many wines got awards, and the type of those awards – for example, it is better to submit 2 wines, one of which will take double gold, versus 4 wines, out of which 2 will take silver.

That’s all there is to it – now you know all about the wine judging.

 

Here you can see our list of flights, and some of my notes. I have to honestly tell you that somehow I liked the wines from last year a bit more than the wines from this year – but then last year our red wines flight was Cabernet Franc, and this year it was Merlot – and Hudson Valley produces better Cabernet Franc than Merlot (personal opinion, of course). Also, last year we tasted no DPMs at our table – in case you never heard the term which I learned last year, DPM stands for Don’t Put in your Mouth – and DPM can happen anywhere, it has nothing to do with any particular region.  So last year we got lucky, and this year, we were blessed with two – one wine was completely spoiled (can’t describe it, just terrible, like a spoiled fruit), and the second one tasted like it had cheese blended in the wine – as one of the judges said, “I like cheese with my wine, but not in my wine”. Anyway, bad wines happen anywhere in the world – nothing else there is to it.

Overall, however, I have nothing to complain about, it was fun and successful tasting, and we completed our work with no issues.

Debbie Gioquindo, Chair of the competition, deep at work

I will not be repeating here all the results – you find them all here, on the website of Debbie Gioquindo, Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition Chairwoman for the past 12 years. For my personal favorites, 2017 Millbrook Castle Hill Vinyard Chardonnay Hudson Valley was absolutely spectacular – it is hard to believe the Chardonnay of such a world quality can be produced in Hudson Valley (I mean no disrespect, but you have to taste this wine to believe it) – perfectly Burgundian with a distant hint of vanilla and butter. 2015 Glorie Farm Winery Cabernet Franc was simply perfect – an excellent rendition of the Cabernet Franc, the grape which Hudson Valley mastered to perfection for a while – and it was the Best in Show wine. And the Baldwin Vineyards Spiced Apple, entered in the fruit wine category, simply blew my mind with its perfect expression of a drool-inducing apple pie – the one you eat with the spoon directly from the tray, and you know you are not supposed to do it, but you can’t stop yourself…

In case you want to see it, here is the aftermath of the competition:

After the wine tasting...

That’s all, my friends. This was definitely a fun experience, and I’m already looking forward to the next year’s event. Cheers!

Hudson Valley Escapades

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Clermont WineryLast week I was talking about Fero Vineyards, which was a part of our traditional August getaway in 2015. As I don’t want to wait until 2017 to tell you about our adult’s getaway 2016, let’s talk about it now.

This year we happened to go back to the upstate New York, similar to the trip we took in 2013 when we had an amazing time at the Hudson Distillery. This year, we started our weekend with the lunch at Clermont Vineyards and Winery in Clermont (Germantown), New York.

Clermont Vineyards and Winery was started in 2014 by Tony Trigo, with the vineyards planted about 6 years prior. Before we talk about the wines, we need to talk about breathtaking views you get from the tasting room and surrounding decks. Better yet, let not talk – take a look at these pictures:

View from Clermont winery deck

Vineyards at Clermon winery

View from Clermont Vineyards deckThe winery primarily focuses on a traditional New York varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Seyval Blanc), but as Tony explained to us, last two winters were brutal, with temperatures dropping very low, so he lost about 3/4 of the Chardonnay vines. As the result, he is adding now hybrid varietals such as Aurore and Arandell, which were created specifically to withstand upstate New York winters – particularly Arandell, selected locally at Cornell University, can successfully survive temperatures of -19ºF, which definitely comes in handy. Having Portuguese roots, Claremont Vineyards also imports few of the Portuguese wines we had an opportunity to taste.

Unfortunately, a number of wines at Claremont Vineyards were sold out, so here are the notes for what we were able to try (just for your information, tasting of 5 wines costs $5 per person):

2015 Grambeira White Douro DOC Portugal (blend of Códega do Larinho; Rabigato and Viosinho) – nice, simple, clean, good body and good acidity
2015 Clermont Vineyards Chardonnay Columbia County New York – excellent, good fruit, bright, hint of sweetness
2014 Clermont Vineyards Aurore Columbia County New York – nice, clean, touch of sweetness – a new grape for me!
2014 Clermont Vineyards Arandell Columbia County New York  – Nice touch of sweetness, unusual, strong herbal component. This wine can be polarising, like Norton. The grape itself is selected to sustain cold winters and is also disease resistant – and this is another new grape for the collection
2011 Grambeira Red Douro DOC Portugal (blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, 11 months in oak, 8 months in the bottle) – outstanding, Great density, dark, brooding core of spices.

Grape Leaf with water drops

Grapes in progressAll in all, very nice place with priceless views, so it would worth even a special trip if you’d like. We also had a long and relaxing 2 hours lunch at a big communal table which Tony graciously set up for us (we brought food with us) – if you plan a group outing, Clermont Winery is a great place for it, but make sure to call ahead.

Our next stop was Tousey Winery, about two miles down the road from Clermont Vineyards. We visited the winery back in 2013 and liked many of their wines, so we were definitely excited at the opportunity to taste their new releases. This is where things took a bittersweet turn. We showed up as a large group (16 people), and 8 of us wanted to taste the wines. We were nicely accommodated on the outside porch and were told that the tasting would cost us $5 per person, and we are allowed to taste any 5 wines from the list. The owner was doing the tasting for us, and yes, we asked quite a few questions (which I truly hope should be expected – the conversation with the customers is an integral part of the wine tasting, don’t you think?); I had a feeling that our questions were perceived as annoying (as the owner was not a winemaker – her husband makes wines – some of the questions were probably a bit challenging). One person from our group wanted to taste a few more wines, for which she grudgingly agreed. When the time came to pay, all of a sudden we were told that the tasting was $15 and not $5 anymore, with the reason that we were a group and she had to pour us more than 5 wines (to one person, 3 extra tastings!!). This is not the issue with $15 versus $5, the problem is simply that you can’t treat people like that. When we tried to argue about it, the response was very irritated – as we were all in the vacation mood, nobody wanted to fight over an extra $10, it was easier to pay and just leave.

What the winery owner doesn’t understand that the winery’s tasting room is a hospitality business, and you have to respect your customers – or face the consequences. It is a pity – Tousey makes delicious Chardonnay, very clean, mineral and crisp, Chablis-style; their Pinot Noir is outstanding as well – restrained, smokey, well balanced – but no wines worth the abuse you have to subject yourself to for the pleasure of trying those wines. We will not be back…

Last stop before we went to our Inn was at Hudson Valley Distillers – and what a pleasure it is to talk to the nice and friendly people (see, we humans need so little to be happy). I like how this distillery is describing itself –  “formed by two families sharing a dream“. I like whiskey, thus first thing I wanted to try was their Chancellor’s Imperial Whiskey. I was a bit disappointed to learn that it was produced not from the crushed and fermented barley, but rather by distilling the beer. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Err, the glass, of course.

I like the clever presentation of that malt whiskey, where you get an opportunity to taste the product before and after. To do that, you get a taste of both beer – which is locally produced nearby – and the final malt whiskey, which was excellent – nice touch of sweetness, herbs, soft and round. The Hudson Valley Distillers also produces gin (very tasty), vodka from apples, and plans to start producing their whiskey directly from the malted barley. We also tasted a few of the cocktails which were super delicious and refreshing on a hot summer day. Add here live music (which was, of course, playing right there), and you have a recipe for a perfect summer weekend.

Our next stop was the Inn, and then the dinner – another post is to follow. Cheers!

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