The wine bottles stretched as far as the eye could see. For a wine lover, this was Xanadu, Shangrila or Valhalla. This was the Pit Cru room of the Indy International Wine Competition for which I was serving as guest judge. The competition, held on the campus of Purdue Univeristy, is the largest scientifically organized and independent wine competition in the U.S. There were 2,637 entries from 40 states and 14 countries.
After surveying the Pit Cru room, where more than 70 volunteers help prepare the wines for the judges and work behind the scenes, Jeannette Merritt, marketing director for the Indiana Wine Grape Council, brought me into the judging room to meet the rest of the panel members. There are more than 50 judges tasting about 120 wines a day to select the best of the best.
I served in judging panel 9. As a guest judge, I participating in the tastings and shared my scoring on each glass, but my verdict on each wine didn't count in the official tally.
Serving on the panel were Tina Caputo, editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, Stephen Somermeyer, assistant winemaker at Chataeu Thomas Winery, Michael Pyle, vice president of National Wine & Spirits and Bill Whiting, director of wine education for Banfi winery. This was a great panel with a wide range of palates.
All judges were garbed in white lab coats, setting the professional atmosphere for the event. The head judge had a trio of flags for him or her to raise to indicate finishing a flight or needing help. The Pit Cru would roll in a cart with the wine glasses and clear the previous round. We were also kept supplied with water, crackers, cheese and olives as well as San-Tasti, which is a palate cleansing drink that's a bit like club soda.
My first flight was 10 different Pinot Noir samples. This is a blind judging, so glasses were marked with an entry number and each flight also had a number. We filled out a scoresheet for each flight using a 20-point scale. The judging scale is as follows:
Scores for medals were 18-20 gold, 15-17 silver and 12-14 bronze. If one judge rated a wine "no medal" it was not eligible to receive one -- even if the other judges rated it highly. There were several situations where a wine was on the bubble and a retasting and discussion resulted in a slight shift in the score.
During my judging appearance, I tasted 50 different wines. My strategy was to take a "micro-sip" and then taking a larger drink which I then spit out. I found that spitting alone didn't let me evaluate the finish properly. I sat in on the deliberations for Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sherry, Chardonnay, Niagara and Red French- American Blends. I opted to pass on the berry wines (although I did swirl and smell them) and left before the tasting of the Concord wines.
Before we tasted each round, Stephen would give us the vintage year as well as the residual sugar percentage for each sample.
Wine judging seems to be a bit like art appreciation. Some artworks are so great that they transcend genres and everyone agrees they are masterpieces. However, some people dislike modern art or may be enamored of photorealism. Judging the Niagara was tough for me because, in general, I don't think this type wine is medal-worthy -- it's sweet and has the foxy flavor of the labrusca wines found around Lake Erie. In short, I just don't like them.
My judging scores were usually in sych with at least one other judge on the panel for each entry. My trips to the Finger Lakes and around Ohio have given me an appreciation for the French American hybrid grapes, but they weren't finding much "love" from the other judges. One entry was a Frontenac and Marechal Foch combination that I thought was great. My scoring in general was pretty low for most entries, but I'm a sucker for Marachal Foch and this was the only wine I rated high enough for a gold. However, one judge was of the strong opinion that no medal should be awarded.
I think that is the beauty of the judging panel, no one style preference rules and concensus usually involves discussion and retasting. Some of the wine samples were just bummers. One judge quipped, "This wine owes me an apology." We did encounter a few "corked" bottles where we sent back for another pour. The best wines from each judging panel are then combined to select the "best of the best" in the second day of judging.
My wife immediately looks for medals when she selects a wine to sample at a winery. This judging experience really opened my eyes to the effort it takes to put on a major judging event and to the careful consideration judges give to their work. All in all, I rate it a 20 with a double-gold!