Auction Night

The 2015 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition culminated in a wonderful evening this past Saturday, when 540 guests attended dinner and bid on auction items for the benefit of Camp Good Days. For volunteers, Camp staff, and staff at the Rochester Plaza, it was a long day. But witnessing all the good things being done for Camp, it was certainly a rewarding one.

For most volunteers, our day began at 3:00 in the afternoon when we checked in, were served an early dinner, and had a meeting with Amanda Anderson and Chris Van Zile. The purpose of the meeting was to review the agenda, get our assignments, and also to walk through the facility. We toured the ballroom, the VIP tent, areas where the auction items were on display, the checkout area, and most important, the “Candy Store” containing the wines to be served during the evening. There, Candy Store manager Lorraine Hems was working with her staff inspecting and organizing bottles, so they would be in a good position to find wines guests expressed interested in tasting.

ChrisVanZiles leading Ambassadors through the VIP tent.

ChrisVanZiles leading Ambassadors through the VIP tent.

Artwork by Carl Parlmer.

Artwork by Carl Parlmer, described in an earlier article.

At 5:00, the VIP tent opened up where guests who paid for those tickets got first dibs tasting some of the double golds and golds, and were offered hors-d’oeuvres. As other guests entered the hotel and walked around viewing auction items, they also were able to visit any of seven pouring stations. Each station was able to serve a variety of wines selected by Lorraine. Viewing and tasting continued through 7:00, when the stations were broken down and wines returned to the Candy Store. Wine ambassadors, who would work with individual tables during the evening, gathered outside the hall in table order, were given one bottle of red and one bottle of white, and entered the dining room to “When The Saints Come Marching In.”

After the invocation and the welcome from Camp Good Days founder Gary Mervis, guests focused on dinner and tasting. In addition to the first bottle of red and white which varied by table, every table was served a bottle of the 2013 Dr. Konstantin Frank Semi-Dry Riesling, which won the Best of Show award. Then, it was up to the wine ambassadors and guests to decide what they were interested in sampling (well, the guests sampling and the ambassadors pouring), and we would get some wines from the Candy Store, serve, and then return the bottles so they could be shared with others. The sheer variety of competition wines available for pouring made this an interesting and educational experience.

Auctioneer Matt Chung with Peter getting people excited.

Auctioneer Matt Chung with Peter getting people excited.

When dinner was served, the live auction started. Fifty lots were available, starting with a case of the Dr. Frank Riesling, traversing through jet rides, travel and sports packages, tours and tastings, other cases of still, sparking, and ice wines, private dinners, and ending with the “Lets Get The Party Started” six litre Imperial of Drappier Carte d’Or Champagne. While the live auction was proceeding, the silent auction continued as well, and guests interested in particular items, or ambassadors knowing of their interests, periodically strolled around checking status. Live auction items that garnered the most spirited bidding were the Judge’s Wine Cooler (a collection of wines donated by each judge), the trip to Boston, and Wine/Cheese/Chocolate pairings with Holly Howell.

The absolute highlight of the evening, which occurred mid-way through the live auction, was the appearance of Courtney Wagner. Courtney is a camper and cancer patient who, among other things, was part of the audience at an Ellen Show in March when, to her total surprise, Ellen invited her to come on stage. You can see the interview here. Courtney spoke to us, sharing thoughts about her diagnosis, life since then, and what Camp Good Days has meant to her. She literally brought tears to our eyes, after which Peter asked guests to raise their paddles and donate $500 to sponsor a camper. Over the course of the next few minutes, we raised a record amount of $51,000 (102 campers).

Courtney Wagner inspiring us all with her courage.

Courtney Wagner inspiring us all with her courage.

Guests raising paddles to send a kid to Camp.

Guests raising paddles to send a kid to Camp.

As 11:00, things wound down, and guests who had not yet checked out with their items queued up at the registers. Others were busy carrying away cases of wine they had purchased with the help of members of the Victor High School football team. As things cleared out, the remaining open wines were moved to one side of the hall, pizza was delivered, and it was time for the volunteers to let their hair down.

When your regular size bottle simply isn't enough.

When your regular size bottle simply isn’t enough.

All in all, May 2 was exhausting but exhilarating, to which point there is a saying that goes something like “It’s amazing when a plan comes together.” This one certainly did.

Training To Be An Ambassador

In order to ensure that those attending the auction dinner have a great time, the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition uses a set of volunteers called “wine ambassadors.” Being first time ambassadors, some of us attended a training session at Camp Good Days on Thursday evening. Chris Van Zile has been in charge of this program for a number of years, and like everything else with FLIWC, we use a process of doing, assessing, learning from mistakes, and making it even better next year.

Tammy, Tracy, Amanda, and Chris leading the training session.

Tammy, Tracy, Amanda, and Chris leading the training session.

As Chris, Amanda, and Gary Mervis note, the role of wine ambassador is primarily one of customer service, but it becomes clear that at the same time we are there to keep everyone safe, about which more on in a bit. In broad brushstrokes, the program for the evening is:

  • VIPs arrive for a private reception.
  • Other guests arrive, visit tasting stations, and participate in silent auction.
  • Those who are interested in purchasing competition wines can assemble a build-your-own-case (any 12 wines for $100).
  • Guests enter the dining room for dinner, tasting, and the live auction (50 lots are posted now on the FLIWC web site).
  • Dinner concludes, and guest check out with their items.

During the evening, wine ambassadors pour at the tasting stations, and then accompany guests into the dining room, where they meet the people at their table, pour wine during the evening, and facilitate the bidding process. The wine pouring is tailored to people at the table, and ambassadors are expected to discuss their interests, find appropriate bottles from a central location designated the “candy store,” and share. We get extra points for introducing them to wines they may be less familiar with and broadening their interests and enthusiasm for what we are about.

Ambassadors are also expected to keep tabs on bidding on both silent and live auction items. If a guest is interested in a particular item, our periodically checking on the status or informing a guest that he or she has won really helps. We also help ensure that if a guest has his or her paddle raised during the live auction, the auctioneer does not miss it. This is particularly the case during the point in the program when guests can raise their paddles to donate $500 to sponsor a kid at Camp. Last year, attendees were so moved by listening to one of the camper’s stories that they contributed $47,000 in 3 1/2 minutes.

And about safety. First of all, wine tasting and wine drinking are not the same. Except for ensuring that any wine we open is sound and then spitting it out, we do not drink. And when we pour for guests, we pour a taste, for which Chris has designed a visual aid (patent pending). We ensure guests keep well hydrated, that they are safe to drive home if they are not staying at the Rochester Plaza, and if need be, the Competition will get them a hotel room. We can help guest pick up their wine, but we do not accompany them to their rooms without other staff present. At checkout, more staff are available to help move wines from the loading dock, and we also have students from local high school sports teams to carry boxes. But they do not leave the property without one of their adult coaches.

In case you don't know what a taste is.

In case you don’t know what a taste is.

At this writing, the forecast for Saturday is sunny with a high of 72 degrees. This promises to me a great day for the Camp Good Days organization, our guests, and most importantly, the children and families who will benefit from this stellar event.

Sorting For the Auction

After the judging was complete, the Camp staff, with Simon Durkee’s help on the IT side, did their customary magic to construct auction lots. While some of the higher value (double gold, gold, other unique) lots will be bid on live during the event, many are made available in advance via a silent auction managed on the web site. Regardless, the wines must be pulled from their original boxes and repacked, and volunteers are involved on an almost daily basis.

One of many, many lots for the auction.

One of many, many lots for the auction.

Shown above is a typical lot, this one consisting of assorted reds. For each wine, bidders are able to see the winery, varietal composition, and retail price, as well as how the wine scored. This particular lot contains both vinifera and hybrids (e.g., Cambourcin), varietals and blends, wines from the Finger Lakes and other states, and wines from the U.S. and abroad. Like virtually every other lot being offered, this is a collection that, for all practical purposes, you could never acquire outside of the Finger Lakes International.
Of course, the winning bidder cannot have the wines until they are assembled and packaged, which brings us back to the warehouse at Camp Good Days where we started a few months ago. For each lot, a volunteer picks up the paperwork, as well as a pull sheet that directs us to pull wines 602, 1138, 45, . . . , from boxes 27, 39, 212, . . . Yes, only rarely is more than one wine in the same box, and by “box,” we really mean “stack.” And each stack starts off with the Competition “B” box (backups from the judging) on top, with Auction “A” and “B” underneath.

Stacks containing auction wines to be sorted.

Stacks containing auction wines to be sorted.

Post competition, most of the boxes are full, with Competition “B” slots being empty where there was damage or a judge requested a repour from a second bottle. Volunteers who are lucky or clever enough to sort on the first day generally find most of the wines they need on the top box. Afterwards, all bets are off, since the same wine may be offered in different packages, for instance a red wine in a red lot, the same red wine in an all New York lot, the same red wine in a Cabernet Franc lot, or whatever.
As a result, wine 602 from the Competition “B” box may already be gone, and the volunteer must remove the top box, and open the next one. And, if not found, repeat, and then restack. Between walking endlessly around the stacks and grappling with boxes, it takes perhaps five minutes or more to fill up a case, after which you take another set of papers for the next lot and begin the journey again. Muscles begin complaining in fairly short order, especially since most of us are, well, somewhat advanced in age.

Strays. A crashing sound indicated why this is not the best idea.

Strays. A crashing sound indicated why this is not the best idea.

As a box gets close to empty, it is tempting to leave a remaining bottle or two on the floor next to the stack, rather than replace the box only to have to remove it for the next pull. This approach has its advantages, but also, as the caption suggests, some disadvantages. Few things are as incompatible as glass and concrete.

Liquid gold.

Liquid gold.

While pre-competition sorting was mostly the work of an army spread over two weekends, auction sorting is the work of individual soldiers. In fact, given the random walks through the warehouse, at some point more is not better, and it’s good that there is a willing pool of people to show up, spend a day or a few hours, and help the cause. This activity will continue every day through mid next week.

Just Rewards

Today was the first day of medal stuffing day at Camp Good Days. The judges having bestowed 3,108 medals and counting (judging of some late entries will occur on Friday, with no doubt some additional medals to be awarded), it fell to staff and volunteers to express our recognition for an amazing array of quality wines. Based on experience, order for medals and ribbons were made well ahead of the competition, so that there would be no delay after the results were known.

Double gold medals, ribbons attached, ready to stuff.

Double gold medals, ribbons attached, ready to stuff.

Like just about everything else in a wine competition, stuffing and mailing is yet another exercise in assembly line operations. And, like everything else with the competition, special care is needed. We have an Alexander Valley Vineyards in California, and an Alexander Vineyards in Texas (no, the U.S. Postal Service does not read our minds). Double Gold and Gold medals are identical except for the purple ribbon. Silver and bronze are not as far apart visually as you would think, especially after the pace picks up. And with many wineries earning 6 or more medals of various colors, getting the right count is really important. After all, this is the point where we either look like a professionally run competition worth entering again, or Amateur Hour.

Part of the assembly line.

Part of the assembly line.

The basic process is:

  • Assemble letter, award sheet, medals, and package (envelope or box, depending on the number of medals).
  • Pass to another person who checks the package.
  • Pass to an other person who stuffs and seals the package.
  • Pass to another person who checks the the award package for Winery X is complete.
  • Group packages separately by number of medals so that each package does not need to be weighed. The exception here is the case of a two medal package that might cross into the next ounce depending on the type of medals.
First box ready for USPS. Just about one-fifth of the A's, sigh.

First box ready for USPS. Just about one-fifth of the A’s, sigh.

The first pass is U.S. wineries that are done alphabetically. Then come the international wineries that are done one country at a time. Although we needed to leave as lunch approached, it was clear that the team of about 8 staff and volunteers was finding its groove and getting in rhythm. Aside from the judging, the next activity at Camp will be assembling auction packages, probably next week.

All Eyes Turn To the Real Prize

With the competition almost over (will return to that momentarily), the committee meeting this past Monday evening shifted its focus to the dinner and auction to be held at the Rochester Plaza on Saturday evening, May 2. The dining space allows us to have 53 tables, each with 10 guests. At this time we are already 80% full, with many other tables in the works!

Opening the meeting, Peter Parts reviewed the competition and, not surprisingly, the feedback from the judges through David Male and Ron Dougherty was uniformly positive. This was a real testament to the many volunteers in the “back room” who made this all possible. Though results were released from the judging of 3,708 wines last week, some entries did arrive late from Russia and other far flung places, and a second judging will be held in a few days staffed by judges from the competition. Next Monday will be yet another opportunity for volunteers to help by assembling and mailing over 600 packages of medals. Expect the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, DHL, and other carriers to have a good day!

In preparation for the auction, the checklist consists of many tasks, including these:

  • Finalizing the senior and junior sizzle items.
  • Building the packages of wines to be offered at auction.
  • Posting items to be made available on line on the FLIWC web site.
  • Printing the auction booklet.
  • Finalizing arrangements with the hotel.
  • Arranging for posters, projectors, and other audio-visual equipment.
  • Making assignments for ticket takers, greeters, and pourers at wine tasting stations.
  • Training new volunteers.
  • Arranging for media coverage.
  • And so on!

Regarding the sizzle items, volunteer Mary Coon and Camp staffer Brittany Wilson were in the final throes of bedding the items down. Among the fabulous opportunities are:

  • A four night Cincinnati Reds package including 3 baseball games, practice round with Reds, two 5 course dinners & wine pairing with master sommeliers.
  • Six days/five nights on a gourmet chuck wagon ride in the Sierra Mountains.
  • Three cases of sparkling wine from Glenora, where you have the opportunity to disgorge, add your own dosage, and select your own private label.
  • Tickets to the College World Series in Nebraska.
  • Tickets to the 15th annual Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival in San Francisco, including 2 nights at Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, plus wine tasting at nearby wineries.
  • 2 Nights’ accommodation at Excelsior Wine Estate and Manor Guesthouse in Ashton, South Africa.  Package includes breakfast each morning, one homemade gourmet dinner, 2 Rounds golf and wine tasting and blending at Excelsior.  
  • Speed run at the Watkins Glen race track in a Datsun 240-Z powered by a Corvette engine.
  • Four nights at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas,.
  • Airplane rides from single engine propellers to jets.

We previously noted the appearance of Carl Palmer, who will make his musically inspired art for sale, and Wendy Bleier-Mervis showed us her own personal Palmer print. And no, it is not for sale.

Something this cool could be yours!

Something this cool could be yours!

A Bit of Medal Geekery

As we have noted a few times, one of the goals of the competition is to bring positive attention to all the New York wineries, which begs the question, so how did we do? The answer seems to be: quite well, but there is always context. And at this point we are obliged to offer a disclaimer that what follows is nothing more than the opinion of your blogger.

Overall, New York wineries earned 528 medals, including the John Rose Award for best of show and best Riesling (Dr. Konstantin Franc), best fruit (21 Brix), and best icewine (Sheldrake). This was in addition to 22 other Double Golds, 35 Golds, 265 Silvers, and 203 Bronzes. This is nothing but good news for the wineries and for New York State, and you will be hearing statistics like this a lot in the coming days.

While the results are encouraging, it is also true that there is strength in numbers.
With 624 entries, New York was by far the largest presence in the competition. California was second at 422. We provided 17% of all entries, and 40% of all Rieslings. On the other hand, if you were to look for New York Zinfandel or Malbec, you would be at it for a long time. Given this disparity, how might we go about comparing grapes to grapes?

NYPctEntries

New York entries for selected classes.

We decided to adopt a metric where we assigned 0 points for no medal, 1 for bronze, 2 for silver, 3 for gold, and 4 for double gold, and then compute an average for the selected classes above. As an example, if New York had 1 gold, 3 silvers, 1 bronze, and 1 no medal for a particular class, then the average merit would be 1 x 3 + 3 * 2 + 1 * 1 (total 10) divided by the number of entries (10 ÷ 6 = 1.67). Applying this formula, and comparing New York entries against all entries, the results are shown here:

Average merit for selected classes.

Average merit for selected classes.

By this measure, our signature white (Riesling) and signature red (Cabernet Franc) came out exactly where we would expect. Beyond the sheer number of medals earned, our wines scored better on average than those of our competitors in the same class. The clear takeaway is that we should recognize our strengths and build on them. Perhaps just as clear on the other end is where we stand on Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. There are certainly terrific Cabernets to be had (silvers went to Baiting Hollow, Belhurst, Ben Ish, Chateau LaFayette Reneau, Halfmoon Cellars, Hazilitt, John Estate, and Ventosa), but a winemaker who is working with this grape might be more inclined to use it in a red blend than a varietal. New York Pinot Noir actually garnered 3 golds (Colloca Estate, Hosmer, and Martha Clara), but more than one Finger Lakes winemaker has noted that Pinot is the grape that makes you lose sleep at night, especially here.

Perhaps the varietals that are most interesting to ponder in this analysis are Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. As consumers have backed away from high alcohol, over-oaked wines that led to the ABC (anything but chardonnay) generation, there could be an opening for Finger Lakes winemakers to put some focus here. The major competition would be the cooler climate regions out West, such as the Russian River and Alexander Valley, but Chardonnay might be a better bet than Pinot Noir, where these regions have been dealt such a great hand. Gewürztraminer pits us against the same regions where we compete well with Riesling, and this might be another area where we could pool our collective talent and amp up our game.

Regardless on the conclusions one might draw—and we would be delighted to hear back from winemakers and judges—it is through events like the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition where one even has the opportunity to ask the questions. For better or worse, Robert Parker and those who followed managed to carve out an important role in wine appreciation when they introduced the 1 to 100 scale. Well, as a practical matter it’s more like the 88 to 100 scale, but we digress. Periodically, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and other magazines conduct regional tastings, award a handful of wines coveted scores, and life for some of the wineries becomes very good. However, we would argue that a competition such as FLIWC, where similar wines from all over the world share a table consisting of a distinguished international judging panel, offers so, so much more.

And The Winner(s) Is(Are) . . .

Earlier this afternoon, results were released from the competition. Of the 3,708 wines entered from 50 states, 27 countries, and 6 Canadian provinces, the scores sorted out like this:

2015 medal distribution.

2015 medal distribution.

From the highest ranking wines in select categories, these best-ofs were awarded:

Best Fruit 21 Brix Winery (NY), Raspberry
Best Cabernet Franc Boordy Vineyards (MD), 2012
Best Riesling Dr. Konstantin Frank (NY), 2013 Semi-dry
Best Chardonnay Fetzer, Bonterra Vineyards (CA), 2013
Best Cabernet Sauvignon Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards (TX), 2011
Best Merlot Romeo Vineyards & Cellars (CA), 2012 Sempre Vive
Best Icewine Sheldrake Point Vineyards (NY), 2014 Riesling

The Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling also won the John Rose (best of show) award, honoring one of the founders of the competition, who also founded Heron Hill Winery on Keuka Lake. Full results, including a downloadable Excel workbook can be found at the competition web site.

It will be interesting to comb through the data in the next few days, but this much is certain: No one country, state, or region has a lock on anything these days. That a Texas Cabernet Sauvignon surpassed dozens of entries from California, that a Maryland wine took best Cabernet Franc, and that gold medal wines were entered from Russia, Slovenija, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are testament to the explosion of knowledge and the sharing of practices between winemakers around the world who, while in competition with each other, are also friends and colleagues. The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition serves as a wonderful showcase for all, and did we say earlier what fun it is?

Invasion of the Wine Judges

Goal #3 of the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition is: Bring positive attention to all the New York wineries. The thing about having goals is that achieving them requires a plan, and built into each competition’s schedule is a tour of Finger Lakes wineries for our judges. Today, many of them piled into vans provided by Pulse Limos in Rochester and spent the day at Ventosa Vineyards, Swedish Hill Winery, Waterloo Container, Hunt Country Vineyards, and Dr. Konstantin Frank.

We caught up with the group at Hunt Country, after they had finished lunch at Waterloo Container. Waterloo is one of our major sponsors (for which we offer a tremendous “thank you.”) and is the major supplier for glassware and packing solutions to wineries of the Finger Lakes and elsewhere in the U.S. Aside from providing lunch and discussing the ins and outs of wine packaging, they also sponsored a best packaging contest at the end of the competition. Company executives, their partners, and several wine judges were given the opportunity to vote on the best wine packages, which consisted of the glass, the label, the closure, and many other fine points of wine packaging aesthetics.

Finalists in the Waterloo packaging contests.

Finalists in the Waterloo packaging contests.

Arriving at Hunt Country, the judges were greeted by owners Art and Joyce Hunt and offered samples of Ice Wine, Pinot Gris,and Cabernet Franc. Art and Joyce were pioneers on Keuka Lake, have created quite a nitch with Ice Wine (a rarity in the Finger Lakes despite our cold temperatures), Valvin Muscat, Seyval, and other offerings, and oversee a lovely multi-generational winery outside of Branchport.

Art Hunt welcoming judges atHunt Country.

Art Hunt (right) welcoming judges at Hunt Country.

Fittingly, the judge tour ended where the Finger Lakes revolution began, at Dr. Konstantin Frank. While the Dr. Frank stories could and do fill books, the short version is that Konstantin was the first grower and winemaker to make European (vinifera) grapes work in the forbidding (for vinifera) environment here. Only part of the problem was cold. Beyond cold was phylloxera, mildew, and a host of other problems about which we need not digress. Suffice it to say, though, Konstantin persevered, and after releasing its first vintage in 1962, the winery is entering its fourth generation, sparing consumers from way too much Pink Catawba, which formed the foundation of bad college parties in the 60s and 70s.

The golden age of Finger Lakes winemaking started here.

The golden age of Finger Lakes winemaking started here.

Peter Parts and Fred Frank at Dr. Konstantin Frank.

Peter Parts and Fred Frank at Dr. Konstantin Frank.

Judges enjoying Fred's selections.

Judges enjoying Fred’s selections.

The lineup at Dr. Frank consisted of Célebre (a sparking wine made from Pinot Meunier) Rkatsetilli (an Eastern European grape of which Dr. Frank is one of only a handful of U.S. producers), Riesling, and Saperavi. The latter is also rare in the U.S.. not only because it is not widely planted (although it has been part of the McGregor Black Russian blend for a few decades), but also because it was only recently that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed it as a recognized varietal on wine labels. This would be an example of your taxpayer dollars at work.

After visiting Dr. Frank, it was back to Rochester for the group, and tomorrow they will start their individual voyages back to elsewhere in the U.S. and to the countries they represent. We at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and of the Finger Lakes wine region have been touched by your presence, and we look forward to seeing you next year. Bon voyage!

Competition Day Two

Starting again at 9:00 A.M., judges and volunteers somehow managed to complete making their way through 3,700 wines. Between initial pours and several “best of” rounds, about 20,000 glasses went through the washing station, people and carts moved in seemingly random directions at the same time, people laughed, and collateral damage was kept at a minimum.

Glass Station

One of the two glass washing stations. Rinse, soap, rinse, rinse, done.

 

Collateral damage.

Collateral damage.

After lunch, the 72 judges and 120+ volunteers assembled in the control room for a group photo and to receive thanks from Peter and from Camp Good Days founder and leader Gary Mervis. Gary recalled fondly the first time Peter, Scott Osborne, and a few others broached the idea of holding a wine competition as a fund raiser and asked what he thought. His answer, succinctly, was “not much.” Since then, he has of course warmed to the idea, and he also warmed to the people in the room for helping the camp perform its mission.

Prepping a flight.

Prepping a flight.

Judging room with everyone hard at work.

Judging room with everyone hard at work.

As the last score sheets were turned in, it fell to Simon and Peter to begin the process of checking the results prior to releasing them on the web site. Part of the process is making sure the number and distribution of medals passes the sanity check, part of the process is spot checking, and part of the process is simply sleeping on it. Peter promised the results would be up by Wednesday, and he also told the judges to expect their scanned score sheets to arrive in their email shortly afterwards.

From this point on, the focus will return to the auction dinner on May 2, and we are looking for yet another sellout.

Hanging With the Judges

At every team meeting, Peter Parts restates the goals of the competition, the last of which is: “Provide a fun and rewarding experience for the volunteers.” One of the ways this is done is by providing opportunities for our distinguished judges and volunteers to spend time together at meals or by participating as a “guest judge” on a panel. My turn came during a flight of Riesling followed by a flight of Cabernet Franc.

Judge Ivana Kovarikova from the Czech Republic.

Judge Ivana Kovarikova from the Czech Republic.

Competitions vary in their scoring methods. Some, such as the American Wine Society, use numerical scores that translate to a medal (e.g., 16-18 on a 20 point scale being a silver). Of the 20 points, 3 are for color, 3 are for nose, and other points are awarded for taste, finish, and overall impression. For our competition, judges score qualitatively from no medal, to bronze minus (B-), bronze (B), bronze plus (B+), S-, S, S+, and then G-, G, G+. Individual scores are entered into the data system, which assigns the medal through an algorithm. However, judges discuss the wine before finalizing their evaluation, and through a consensus process the final award is almost always what they agree the answer should be.

When the wines are served, the judges go through their seeing, swirling, sniffing, sipping, and spitting routine, mark their initial scores, and then the panel chair leads a discussion to see where there is agreement, where there is disagreement, and what the basis for any disagreement is. Judges have an opportunity to modify their scores, but they are not required to. As a guest judge, I was able to go through the same process as the professionals, and it was a thoroughly rewarding and educational experience. I was mostly in the zone, but there were a few wines for which I was at the high or low end, which begs the question of what makes a judge a judge.

On the one hand, wine appreciation is simply a matter of what you like and what you don’t like, and at some level any opinion is as good as any other opinion. However, one of the qualities that judges bring to the table is their ability to describe the “whys” in a more or less standard way, and also to evaluate a wine based on what it should be. A judge may not care for sweet Riesling, but he or she must be able to identify what constitutes a good one and what constitutes a bad one. Likewise, there is a world of difference between a hot climate (say, Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon and the same varietal from a cool climate. The judge must be able to evaluate the wine in the context of what it is, not simply based on personal preferences.

During our brief discussion period, I was able to describe in some cases why I reached the conclusion I did, and even though I was low or high relative to the professionals, I did not get serious pushback. The takeaway was that with more practice my calibration would get better. On the other hand, there were one or two wines where, listening to the other panel members, I realized that I had missed a serious flaw or a quality that simply went over my head. As the cabbie replied when asked how to get to Carnegie Hall, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Lunch wines.

Lunch wines that were judges earlier in the morning.

Lunch break at the Rochester Plaza.

Lunch break at the Rochester Plaza.

Dinner with the judges at Max of Eastman Place

Dinner with the judges at Max of Eastman Place.

Sharing meals with the judges is another way to learn about wine and to learn about the judges as people. From buyers, to sommeliers, to journalists, to PhD scientists, they are in interesting lot.

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