Posts Tagged ‘marquette’

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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?!?!


***I am no longer taking any questions at this time.  Thank you.


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Despite the blustery snow of the Tuesday before the extended New Year’s holiday weekend, people still steadily streamed in to the Four Daughter’s Winery in Spring Valley, MN.  A mother and her son, diverted from reaching Rochester to do their holiday shopping appeared to be successfully accomplishing their mission between the wine-related trinkets in the gift shop and the quickly disappearing bottles of wine lining the western wall.  An elderly couple seemed slightly overwhelmed but curious about the menu items from the chef and a delivery driver deliberated whether to hold tight or press on as he acquired a bottle of wine for his wife.  Yet, it was noticeable each time the staff patiently went through the wine offerings; no one was there specifically for the wine.  Perhaps that crowd would roll in after noon.

The wine from Four Daughters, however, is what has recently been making a name for itself.   At the International Cold Climate Wine Competition this past August, five of the winery’s seven entries received a medal.  Their La Crescent took home the top honor of best wine at the competition.  Not bad for an operation that recently celebrated their first anniversary.  Much of this success is owed to their winemaker, Justin Osborne, whose winemaking history spans only as long as the winery’s.    Justin, a Twin Cities native, was asked by his wife, Kristin’s family to be the wine maker of their future dream and fortunately for the Minnesota wine community, he accepted.

The question is: How did someone with little experience end up besting some with 10+ years of hard work and dedication?    “I’m not the smartest winemaker in the world,”  Justin modestly declares as he struggles to illuminate his process. “You do these four things well, and stay within the lines…you’ll have a good end product.”  His goal is not to reinvent the wine making world, but to entrust solid wine making practices that have been proven to work.  Yet, instead of taking large leaps and just hoping things work out, he takes small, measured steps at each point along the way. The content sigh of someone fully dedicated to their craft comes out as he points back to a little room off of the production that he has no doubt spent countless hours in. “I do a lot of testing.”  The lab room at Four Daughters may be his second home or first depending on whom you ask.

So what are those four things needed to make good wine?

  1. Grow good grapes
  2. Get good juice out of those grapes
  3. Have a healthy fermentation
  4. Have a deft hand when refining (finishing the wine)

Simple, right?  OK, there may be a few other factors going into the success.  Being able to start off with some good equipment certainly helped.  Additionally, Justin’s wife, Kristen is part of how the winery got their namesake.  She’s one of the eponymous four daughters and her family’s agricultural background has certainly served them well in pursuing their dream to have a winery and vineyard not to mention the aid of Kristen’s marketing skills.  The family and their expert staff didn’t walk into this venture unprepared.  It also helps that the vast majority of the grapes they are purchasing are grown within 50 miles of their location.  Their location also just happens to be within the largest wine region in the world: The Upper Mississippi Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA).  See Justin’s number 1 rule.

Those visiting the winery may spot a life-sized cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe in a glimmering pink ball gown leaning on a wall of oak barrels.  Is it inspiration for his Frontenac Rose? He shakes his head and begins, “My mother-in-law collects them…”.  And really, that’s the only explanation a married man needs to give sometimes.  He then relates the story of how the local police department, responding to a security alarm breach on the premises almost shot the cardboard version of John Wayne hanging out near the bathrooms.  Clearly, it’s not just the customers who are pleasantly surprised by what they find what the find at this winery.

For the full audio interview check out the podcast below.  Justin spills all of his secrets…well, almost.  Regardless, if you make wine in the Midwest or just like drinking it you’ll enjoy the whole thing.

Download the podcast from iTunes


Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery

Minnesota Grape Growers Association

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