Confessions of a First Time Wine Judge
This is the first column from Midwest Wine Press publisher Mark Ganchiff. Ganchiff started Midwest Wine Press in September 2011. He has traveled all over the Midwest during the past eight years visiting hundreds of wineries and grape growers. The warm reception Midwest Wine Press has received is gratifying, he said.
Recently, I served as a judge at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition in Springfield. My original assignment for the contest was to pour wine and observe, but when one of the judges dropped out due to illness, I was pressed into service as a wine evaluator.
Midwest Wine Press doesn’t critique wines because I don’t like wine reviews that tell people what style of wine they should like. One of the things that attracted me to Midwest wine is the lack of pretension. In the Midwest, if you like sweet wine, or fruit wine or wine that has limestone notes (minerality rocks!) there’s no stigma.
In my opinion, too many people have eschewed wine because of wine snobbery. I don’t ever want to become a wine snob.
So, being a wine judge was a test of my objective view of wine. Fortunately, Brad Beam, who managed the Illinois contest, provided judges with rules and guidelines to follow. First, he told us to take subjectivity out of the scoring process. To level the playing field we used a scorecard to rank all wines numerically so every wine got the same analysis. (For those who are unfamiliar with wine contests, all wines are tasted blind.)
Brad, who is the Illinois state enologist, also said that if a wine was “reasonably well made” it should get a medal. His marching orders also included an admonition that wines with residual sugar were to be judged on the same merits as dry wines. So my fellow judges and I took this advice to heart and awarded medals to almost all unflawed wines that conformed to accepted varietal characteristics. (However, when you’re tasting wines like “Lemon Mint” or “Apple Coffee” defining “accepted varietal characteristics” is tricky.)
In a recent Midwest Wine Press column, sommelier Paul Gospodarczyk, who helped start the Mid-America Wine Competition, conducted a detailed analysis of the medals awarded at Midwest wine contests. He found that some wine contests are very generous with medals. Paul opined that one objective of some wine contests is making the wine makers who enter wine contests happy.
See related story: How to Make Wine Contests Work for Your Winery
Call me heartless, but I was not thinking about winemakers and grape growers while judging Illinois wines. As I tasted hundreds of wines from the Land of Lincoln, I was thinking about the Illinois wine industry. One of the reasons I started Midwest Wine Press is the meteoric improvement of Illinois wine and Midwest wine in general. The mission of Midwest Wine Press is to get more people to try (or re-retry) Midwest wines.
So if a medal from a state wine contest functions as a seal of endorsement that causes one person to have an open mind about a quality Illinois wine, then I’m glad the wine got a medal.
Wine contest medals are not the same as Olympic medals where only the three top contestants win. A well run state wine contest, like the Illinois Competition, is a combination of quality control and product promotion. Unlike big national and international competitions, state wine competitions are meant to promote the state’s wine. In my opinion, Midwest wine competitions should advocate for Midwest wines. Like the Olympics, the wine business is a global engagement. Most other players in the global wine game have a big head start so I am proud to root (and drink) for the home team.