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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!

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