Monday, July 28, 2008

It's 25 years and counting for Woodhall

While I was immersed in my journalism workshop at the paper, I somehow overlooked a 25th birthday celebration at one of our favorite wineries in the region: Woodhall Wine Cellars, in Parkton, Md. The party ran the past two weekend and included impressive discounts on cases, free tastings and a lot of fun. They also released a Vintner's Prestige line of wines. Maybe give Debbie or Chris a call (410.357.8644) and see if they'll extend the party another weekend because your trusted wine blogger fell down on the job. As if dropping my name would get anybody anything except grief, but give it a whirl anyway.

Meanwhile, they report on their Web site that three Woodhall wines -- Seyval, Riesling, and Copernica Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon -- have been selected as Best of Show at the Maryland Governor's Cup Wine Judging. Woodhall Riesling was selected by the Goddard Space Center as one of three "40th anniversary" wines. Maryland Public Television selected Woodhall's Cabernet Sauvignon as its "30th anniversary" wine. Woodhall Seyval was the "Aquarium White" of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and most recently, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon was selected by the National Federation for the Blind as the dedication wine for it's new training center in Baltimore.

To Debbie. Al. Chris. Chris. And the rest of the Woodhall staff that has treated us so well through the years, congratulations and here's to many, many more. We'll be down soon for a bett-erlate-than-never toast.

Trezise provides a taste of life as a judge

While I didn't create this blog to steal from others, I don't mind sharing original content. Again, thanks to Jim Trezise of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, here's a rather comprehensive look into the world of wine judging. You can sign up for the e-letter at the foundation's Web site.

Each year, I judge in about a dozen different wine competitions throughout the United States, but mostly in California. I also get many questions from consumers about wine competitions: What are they? How are they run? Who are the judges? What do the results mean?

This special edition of the Wine Press will answer those questions, and probably raise more. In most cases, I’ll be referring to the competitions in which I serve as a judge, but may also note what we do in our own “New York Wine & Food Classic,” which has attempted to adopt the “best practices” of other competitions.

What is a wine competition? It is a “blind” tasting by wine experts of large numbers of wines to determine their relative quality on that day.

What’s a “blind” tasting? No, we don’t wear blindfolds, or even Lone Ranger masks. A blind tasting simply means we have no idea what specific wines we are tasting. We usually know the varietal (or type of wine) and the vintage (year the grapes were harvested), and a few (but not most) competitions include the price category as well. But we never know the brand, rarely the country or region of origin; and we never see a bottle, even in a brown paper bag (because the capsule could give away the winery’s identity).

Instead, all of the wine samples are poured in a separate room by the “back room staff” into identical glasses that are coded by number or letter, then brought to the judges’ tables—usually about 10 glasses at a time. By the way, the back room staff is just as important as the judges; without either group, there would be no competition.

Which wines are judged? The ones that are entered. This may sound obvious, but it really depends on the scope of the competition, and especially on which wineries choose to enter. The competitions where I judge are mostly international in scope, inviting wines from around the world. There are a few regional competitions (e.g., Great Lakes or Atlantic Seaboard), and many state competitions (e.g., California, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and our own New York Wine & Food Classic) which are limited to wines produced in that state. There are also a few competitions which are limited to one type of wine, like the Canberra Riesling Challenge in Australia or Chardonnays du Monde in France.

Within the parameters of each competition, it is really the wineries themselves which determine the wines that are tasted. Some wineries submit many wines in many competitions; others just a few wines in a few competitions; and still others none at all. The decision may depend on the winery’s size, marketing strategy, or opinion about the value of wine competitions in its overall business plan or philosophy. One highly successful California winery publicly admitted spending $20,000 annually in entry fees, and said it got that back in spades in terms of tasting room sales and trade support. A successful New York winery has chosen not to enter any competitions at all. Obviously, if you don’t enter, you can’t win, but that may simply not matter to some.

Who are the judges? They are a diverse group of “wine experts” from many different professional areas—wine makers, wine educators, wine writers, sommeliers, wine retailers, and more—who all have two things in common: a passion for wine, and daily exposure to it. In most competitions, the judges also represent many states and countries, which provides broader perspectives and protects against “viticultural racism”. Some judges have specific academic credentials like Master of Wine or Master Sommelier, but most do not. They are simply immersed in the world of wine, with regular tastings of many wines as an integral part of their professional life. Ideally, the panels have judges from different aspects of wine’s professional life because they bring different perspectives to the table, which is how we learn from one another. For example, a wine maker might evaluate a wine on the basis of technical aspects, a restaurateur on how well it would pair with food, and a wine educator on how typical it is of its varietal type.

How are the wines judged? Most competitions have two basic phases: the medal round, and the “sweepstakes”. For the initial, medal round, the judges are split into panels of 3, 4 or 5 people. Some competitions prefer the odd numbers because it’s easier to get a decision by a simple majority. Others (including ours) prefer panels of 4 because when there is a split, it must resolved by discussion and consensus.

Each wine is judged on its own merits—color, clarity, aroma, bouquet, taste, aftertaste, and overall quality—rather than as part of a ranking. In other words, 10 wines will not be ranked 1 to 10, but rather recommended for specific medals. In a particular flight, there might be 1 Gold, 3 Silver, and 2 Bronze medals, for example, and 4 receiving no award; but there are no predetermined numbers or percentages of medals. Normally, sparkling wines and white wines are tasted first, followed by Rosé and red, and finally dessert wines. When there are different levels of sweetness, with Riesling for example, the wines are tasted from dry to sweet, because tasting the sweeter wines first would make the dry wines taste bitter. Palate cleansers include lots of water (still or sparkling), unsalted crackers or French bread, mild cheese, rare roast beef (for red wines), and Graber olives from southern California—a soft, fruity olive like none you’ve ever tasted that is the best overall palate cleanser of all (as well as being addictive).

The back room staff brings out “flights” of about 10 wines of the same type (like Chardonnay) in coded glasses which each judge separately tastes in silence, making notes (if desired) and deciding on the appropriate medal for each wine on its own merits—Gold, Silver, Bronze, or No Award. Some competitions, like ours, also have a “Double Gold” category, which requires unanimity among panelists that the wine deserves a Gold medal, whereas a Gold medal just requires a majority. Simplistically, you might consider Double Gold as “exceptional”, Gold as “excellent”, Silver as “very good”, and Bronze as “good”.
When all judges have finished tasting, they compare notes to decide on a final, group medal for each wine. When there is agreement on their individual scores (80-90% of the time in most cases), no discussion is needed and the medal is assigned. When there is significant disagreement, the judges discuss and often retaste the wine to arrive at a consensus. (NOTE: In most competitions, judges will taste 100-120 wines per day, and sometimes more, beginning at 9 am. With appropriate palate cleansers and an efficient backroom staff, this is eminently manageable, but long discussions hold up the process.)

(But don’t you get drunk?! No, not even tipsy. When you’re judging wines, you didn’t swallow the samples, you spit them into a container. By the end of the day, you want a beer. During my 20 years of judging, I have only encountered a handful of judges who don’t spit, and they don’t last long. They fall asleep at the table, start slurring their words and are dismissed, but in any case are never invited back.)

In addition to the medals given to each wine, the panels normally determine which Gold medal wines advance to the “sweepstakes” round to determine the Best of Class (like Chancellor, Chardonnay, or Catawba), Best of Category (Red, White, Rosé, etc.), and at some competitions Best of Show (that is, the single best wine of any type) like our “Governor’s Cup” trophy. The “sweepstakes” round is the grand finale of the competition,
with all judges (not just a panel) tasting all the wines that have been advanced.

How does the “sweepstakes” round work? This is definitely the most fun for the judges, because all of the wines to be tasted are the best wines of the competition. Dan Berger, a prominent California wine journalist who chairs the Riverside and Long Beach Grand Cru competitions, introduced “acclamation voting” as the fairest way to determine the best wines in large categories (like white, or red) when there are often 20 or more different types of wine. Each judge may vote as many times as he or she likes, since the wines are of different types (e.g., Chardonnay, Riesling, Seyval, Catawba), with the knowledge that the more one votes, the less each vote means. This system has been adopted by many competitions, including ours.

Many competitions end with a Best of Category (e.g., Red, White, Rosé), but ours also elects a “Best of Show” among them as well, which is known as the “Governor’s Cup” trophy.

What do the results mean? Basically, a wine competition is one moment in time. The results reflect the collective opinions of expert judges about a specific group of wines on a particular day. But there is a lot of consistency among different competitions held in different places at different times, so wine competitions really do provide good guidance for purchasing wines. On our Web site (, the “New York Gold” section lists all Gold medal wines which you may sort by competition or type of wine—and you’ll see lots of the same winners in different competitions.

Wine competitions are a unique blend of objective and subjective. The objectivity involves several people in a blind tasting process which eliminates personal bias for a region or winery. The subjectivity involves the personal taste sensitivities and preferences of different people. If everyone tasted the same, and preferred the same nuances in wine, there would be no need for more than one person.

Over the years I have judged in about 200 wine competitions and tasted about 50,000 wines. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also hard work if you’re conscientious about being fair to every wine, which requires a day’s worth of concentration. You can also get “palate fatigue”, just like an athlete can get muscle fatigue, so you need to learn when you can no longer be fair, which means it’s time to stop. And after tasting lots of red wines, you end up with purple teeth!
It has also become harder over the years, for the wonderful reason that wines from everywhere have become so much better. There used to be much more variation in quality, but research into grape growing and winemaking, plus the commitment to quality by producers worldwide, has raised the bar, making it harder to discern a Gold from a Silver, or a Silver from a Bronze. This is good for consumers, and it’s good for producers because consumers are more likely to see wine as a positive experience.
Another major trend has been the increasing acceptance and respect for non-traditional grape varieties and wines, even in California where they’re not produced. Years ago, entering a Concord, Catawba or Seyval in most competitions guaranteed no medals for those wines because the judges were either unfamiliar with the taste characteristics or outright biased. Thanks to the efforts of many people, and to the ever-increasing quality in the bottle, those wines new often win major medals.

I’ve judged in over 200 competitions, and every time I learn something new—about wine, wine making, taste perceptions, and more. Judging has also been a very valuable experience for me in my role of promoting New York wines. I have come to know my own tastes, how others may differ and why, and especially to have a better understanding of the competition we face and the trends in the big world of wine that we live in.

IRF announces 'Riesling Taste Scale'

Courtesy of Jim Trezise of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, this report arived in my mailbox today from the International Riesling Foundation, of which he is president. Trezise has been dificult to nab over the past 30 days, but reading this release explains part of the reason. Obviously he's been doing some serious traveling. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie tops my "most wanted" list at my regular job as an editor at the Philly Daily News; I'd say Trezise holds the similar honor atop the list of folks I'd like to reach for this blog. We'll see who I manage to reach first.

The International Riesling Foundation (IRF) has completed the first phase of a “Riesling Taste Scale” designed to make it easier for consumers to predict the taste they can expect from a particular bottle of Riesling. The first phase involves voluntary technical guidelines for wine makers and winery owners in describing their wines for consumers.

Riesling is the fastest growing white wine in the United States, and second only to Pinot Noir of any wine, yet market research has shown that many consumers think of Riesling only as “a sweet white wine” despite the wide range of tastes it can represent.

“Riesling may be made in many styles from bone dry to sweet, and this versatility can be both a strength and a weakness,” said California wine journalist Dan Berger who spearheaded the IRF project in consultation with many Riesling wine makers. “Riesling’s many styles can fit almost any taste preference, but consumers may be put off if they are expecting one taste and get another. The taste scale will enhance Riesling’s strength by letting consumers know the basic taste before they open or even buy the bottle.”

The first stage of the project was to identify appropriate terms for describing the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine. After extensive deliberations, the five categories selected are: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

To help wine makers consider which terms to use for various wines, the committee developed a technical chart of parameters involving the interplay of sugar, acid, and pH which helps determine the probable taste profile of a particular wine.

“It is important to understand that these are simply recommended guidelines which we think may be helpful, but the program is entirely voluntary,” said Berger. “We hope that over time many Riesling producers will use the system because it will help consumers, and therefore help the wineries as well.”

The next step is to develop a simple graphic design showing the five levels from Dry to Sweet, and a simple indication of where a particular wine falls. This design may be used on back labels, merchandising materials, web sites and elsewhere. The goal is to have a common, simple, consumer-friendly system for identifying Riesling tastes.

“This is a very important project, and we’re grateful to Dan Berger and others who have spent many hours on this,” said Jim Trezise, the current President of the IRF. “With Riesling’s surging popularity, making this versatile wine more understandable for consumers could accelerate its growth.”

The Riesling Taste Scale was first announced publicly on July 27 at the Riesling Rendezvous at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington to Riesling producers from around the world. Full details of the taste scale will be made public when the other steps are completed in the near future.

Market research on consumer perceptions of Riesling, conducted for the IRF by Wine Opinions, was also presented at the July 27 meeting. The next major project is to create a web site portal to guide consumers to the best information on Riesling.

A small luncheon meeting of industry leaders at the first Riesling Rendezvous a year ago created the concept for the IRF, which was officially formed in November 2007 and now includes a Board of Directors of more than 30 major Riesling producers from around the world.

The IRF’s mission is: “To increase awareness, understanding, trial and sales of Riesling wines through a comprehensive, integrated system of industry cooperation, research, trade education, and consumer communication.” At this time, the IRF is based entirely on voluntary efforts by its Board members.