This past Friday I was a judge at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition hosted at the University of Minnesota. I’ve helped out at the event before and honestly enjoy being on both sides of the competition because I think it is well run. They use ranked voting in the final round to determine winners which even those who think very little of wine competitions tend to agree, works out pretty well. Here are the results for the top awards:
Top White Wine: Parallel 44 (Kewaunee, WI) for their La Crescent
Top Red Wine: Shelburne Vineyard (Shelburne, VT) for their 2011 Marquette Reserve
Top Specialty Wine: Illinois Sparkling Company (Peru, IL) for their “Stereo” sparkling wine blend of La Crescent and Frontenac Gris
Top Minnesota Wine: Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery (Kimball, MN) for their 2012 Little Iza (La Crescent)
Overall, I think there were a lot fewer moments when judges were impressed by the wines this year compared to the last, but I don’t think it was caused by a drop in quality; just a rise in expectations. I was involved in a debate about whether to award medals to wines simply because they were free of faults or not. I stood on the side that technical proficiency should certainly set the bar, but was not necessarily a determinate of medal-worthiness. There’s always debate in the wine world as to whether or not some faultiness is acceptable. We don’t judge the most influential albums on the technical execution by the musicians do we? Yes, they have to be good enough, but do they need to be perfect in order for us to get the point?
The most surprising thing I learned from the judging experience was how little people know about what goes on during a wine competition or how they work. To help the general public I have composed an FAQ made up of actual questions I have received to hopefully clear up some misconceptions.
The Wine Judging FAQ
1. Aaron, how do you hold all that alcohol? You’re drinking like 40+ wines in a day. Are you Russian or Irish?
Truth is, I have a little of both in me, but that’s not relevant. As expert wine judgers, we spit out all the wine that enters our mouths after we have tasted it. Yes, that’s gross, and no, we don’t make mistakes about which glass to reach for.
2. Can I watch? I’d love to see you in action! You’re soooo dreamy and handsome!
Wine competitions are usually closed events and for good reason. I’m not sure anyone would really want to watch a bunch of people sitting around tasting wine and then spitting it out all day. Although, I do suppose people watch golf and fishing, which are at the same excitement level, but I don’t think most reasonable people can handle it. After all, it’s not like you’d get to participate. The press shows up and takes awkward photos or video of you swirling and swishing, but they usually look like they’d rather be drinking the wine. However, if you’d like to get a group of adoring fans together for my next event to do some tailgating, crazed cheering during the breaks, and maybe some autograph signing if I’m in a good mood, then that’d be just fine.
3. Is the International Cold Climate Wine Competition truly international?
Yes. 300 entries were received from commercial wineries in 12 different states and Canadian provinces (Count: 2 countries). We even had Canadian judges! Some “international” competitions can’t claim this. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are some “international” airports that can’t support their claim either. The ICCWC is unique in the fact that only wines made from cold hardy (French-American hybrid grapes) varietals and fruits are allowed.
4. Anybody can judge wine, right? You’re just saying which ones you like?
No and no. Wines should be judged on two aspects: one the technical details of the wine (Appearance, Nose, Palate, Finish, Faults) and the other is whether the wine is a good representative of what it is. Knowing both of those items takes a great deal of experience and knowledge. Personal preference should always take a back seat. Just to toot my own horn a little bit here: I was able to correctly identify through blind tasting that a Marquette that I felt most represented what a Marquette is was actually from Vermont. I knew this because I have had a lot of experience with Marquette (not unique in the room of judges) and also I had a lot of experience of tasting Vermont Marquette (unique in the room of judges). This was in fact the Vermont Marquette that won the Best Red award.
5. How do you keep tasting things all day? Are you a super taster?
Very good question. Most wine competitions limit the number of wines judges can taste because palate fatigue is a very real thing. Varying the kinds of wine being tasted certainly helps, but going over 50 wines is just asking for some lazy tasting at the end. If judges are tasting some astronomical number of wines you can be assured that there will be a high margin of error. And to the second question; no, I am not a super taster. I have yet to count my taste buds, but my preference for whiskey neat probably puts me in with the more tolerant tasters. In other words, I’m not overly sensitive to certain things.
6. How can I become a wine taster? That sounds like a pretty neat job.
Through hard work and dedication, kid. Keep at it.
6a Keep at what? What am I supposed to work hard at?
The work that needs to be done, of course! Just work hard at everything you do.
6b But what should I work hard at? Can’t you give specifics?!?!
DON’T MAKE ME REVEAL ALL MY SECRETS!!!!!
***I am no longer taking any questions at this time. Thank you.