How to taste—and judge-- 3000 wines in 16 hours

I was wrong. Make that 3064 wines. From all over the world! The tasting and judging action at the Indy International Wine Competition surely qualifies for Seinfeld’s Feats of Strength category. There are many unsung heros in the wine judging world, and many untold stories, and more than a few rude comments about our favorite elixir. But as a “guest judge”, let me give you a guided tour to what’s behind the curtain.

When you enter this hangar-like Blue Ribbon Pavillion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, there is a barrier reef that you must navigate. The long long table contains gatekeepers who make sure you are who you say you are. Once you verify that you are in fact judge-worthy (wine writers and bloggers are judge-worthy), then Jeanette Merritt, the marketing specialist for the Indiana Wine Grape Council/Purdue University, leads you to the lab coat rack. A lab coat! Not since I toured the re-industrialized brewery at Kirin in Yokohama have I had a chance to wear a lab coat!

But it’s a good thing. So many wines. So many colors. So much spitting. A lab coat is a good thing.

Unlike the judges, I was allowed in the staging area, which I like to think of as a war room for a wine competition. There, arrayed on dozens of tables, were the 3064 wines. Two bottles of each. Each labeled as to whether they are amateur or commercial wines, noting residual sugar content, year of vintage, and whether or not they contain significant amounts of Indiana juice (those wines are eligible for a special set of awards… after all, this is INDIANA and taxpayers here support the wine industry via taxes on each bottle.)

The advance preparation of the flights, based on organizing wine by varietal and a number of other factors, takes weeks. Wines have been arriving at Purdue for months. They’ve been catalogued and entered into a program designed by Phil Rawles, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Purdue. At the end of this competition, the program takes in the information from the judging sheets and determines the award-winning wines and the overall best-of-show.

Back out at the front of the hall, 16 panels of judges each are presented with flight after flight of wines, each wine in a glass that has only a number hand-written in marker on the base. The head judge at my table was Steve Somermeyer, assistant winemaker at Chateau Thomas Winery (Plainfield, IN – near Indy). Although each judge’s opinion is considered equal in determining the final score for a wine, Steve can call for a further consideration of a scoring. Of the 32 wines that I tasted (12 Sangiovese, 13 Nortons, 7 Cabernets – some of which were vineyard designates) , only 3 wines were re-considered.

My fellow judges were (left to right) Mark Wenzel, winemaker at August Hill Winery; Marie Silberstein, formerly of Olinger Distributing and now an industry consultant, Michel Pascal, co-owner of Carroll Company Distributors; and Samantha Kollar, from the Southern California office of Vinquiry. Head judge Steve is seated. I'm in the lab coat on the right...

The judging sheet guided us to consider the following attributes of each wine: clarity, color, aroma, taste, aftertaste. The competition used to award points for cellarability, but doesn’t do that any longer. We were told the vintage of each wine, but nothing else. After each attribute was considered, a numerical score was tallied, and the results could be “No Medal” “Bronze” “Silver” and “Gold”. (At first this seemed overly generous to me, but an amazing number of No Medals are awarded, so consumers can in fact rely on the guidance suggested by the awards.) At the end of each flight, each judge is polled for their opinion, and the average score is used to determine the award. Or the no-award.

The remarks are honest and free-flowing. Here are some that caught my ear:
“I liked the freshness of it.”
“This is a wine that has been fixed – sugar was obviously added to overcome deeper flaws.”
“The issue with this wine is the vintage; it’s not yet finished.”
“It’s gone – there is no aroma – there are only tannins left.”
“A seriously flawed wine – smells like fingernail polish.”
“This wine has no flaws. Practically perfect for the varietal.”
“When I say a-hint-of-barnyard in the aroma, I mean that odor of straw and earth. It’s like the aromas that reach out to you when you walk through a farm.”
“If I had any criticism at all, it would be that it is over-oaked.”
“It has a bit of SO2 but not objectionable.”
“It’s really tight. It will be good in a few years.”

As interesting as this all was, it is important to give a tip of the hat to the unsung heros.

Those are the folks in the “Pit Cru” who poured all the wines to be tasted, and those others who washed over 15,000 dirty wine glasses. Without them, no awards. None at all.

The Indy International Wine Competition began in 1973. The 2009 competition judged wines from 42 states and 10 countries. 82 wine experts – winemakers, wine journalists, wine educators, wine marketers, and knowledgeable wine consumers -- each judged approximately 120 wines per day. In a few days, we’ll know the results. I’ll post a link and there will also be a guest-blog by a head judge that’s a what-to-buy guide. Stay tuned!

© 2009 Barbara Keck

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