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Shelf Talkers:
An Inside Look at Wine Judgings
© 2000 by Randy Buckner

So you walk into the wine department and are assailed by the amazing array of wines before you. Trying to choose a bottle for dinner can often be a daunting task. A host of shelf talkers, those little tags hanging from the bottles or from the shelves, try to entice you to "purchase me."

These placards usually tout ratings from a respected wine writer or wine publication. Other times they promote Gold, Silver or Bronze Medal Winners from the various wine fairs. Their value is debatable. If your palate happens to agree with that particular writer or magazine, then you are pretty well assured of obtaining a pleasurable bottle, if not, then you are on your own.

But what about those medal winners? How do they earn their ratings? Who decides who gets what? Are they of any value? Letís take a look inside a wine judging and then you decide.

The Indy International Wine Competition is the third largest in the United States, and the second largest amateur competition, with 1,949 commercial entries and 556 amateur entries this year, ranging from Merlot to the obscure Lion Millot. Well respected and well organized, the credit goes in large part to the hard work of Dr. Richard Vine and Ms. Ellie Harkness of Purdue University. It is a real pleasure to see people remain so enthusiastic after being involved in the industry for many years. You cannot be around these two for long without being uplifted.

Fifty judges from across the US (one from Canada), ranging from educators to winemakers, restauranteurs to wine writers, met in the Farm Bureau Building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. They received their instructions, and set about the formidable task of evaluating over 2,500 wines. The judges were divided into ten panels, with care given to ensure at least one woman judge and one knowledgeable wine enthusiast (to represent the wine buying public) on each panel.

These panels evaluated different wine "flights." Each flight consisted of 8-14 wines (depending on numbers of entries), marked only by a number. The panels knew that they were judging Chardonnays, or Nortons, or Kerners, or whatever varietal they happened to draw, nothing else, neither price nor country. They may judge 8-10 flights over the course of the day.

It may sound like a "tough job," but in reality, it is hard work, both for the judges and for the excellent backroom staff. The backroom staff did a blue-ribbon job in keeping spit buckets emptied, water containers full, bread, cheese and roast beef plates filled, and ensuring a smooth transition from flight to flight.

The wines of the flight were judged independently by every member of the panel, then awards were decided by majority vote. If every panel member awarded a gold medal for a particular wine, then that wine was set aside for later judging at the Best of Red, Best of White, and Best of Show awards. There was also a Best of Fruit Wines, a Mead Champion, as well as Best Hoosier Red, White and Fruit wines.

After two full days of evaluations, the judges managed to reduce the pack from 2,505 wines down to 51 red and white wines that competed for the American Airlines Best Commercial Red, White, and Grand Champion Wine. There was also a separate Fruit Winemaking Quarterly Magazine Best Fruit Wine of Show.

Trying to get fifty judges to reach a consensus best wine from 31 red and 20 white gold medal winners was a daunting task. After many very close votes, the winners were finally ascertained.

The nod went to the 1999 Wild Goose Gewurztraminer (British Columbia) for best of white, the 1997 Concannon Limited Bottling Syrah (California) for best of red, and the 1997 Haywood Rocky Terrace Zinfandel (California) for best of show. The best fruit wine went to Mountain Valley Vineyards for their Blackberry wine.

The awards ceremony was held on Aug. 3, and Judy Matulick-Weist, winemaker for Haywood, came to receive her trophy, as well as Hagan Kruger, from the family owned and operated Wine Goose Vineyards & Winery, who flew all the way from Okanagan, BC.

So what about these medal winners? Are they the best that wine has to offer? Not necessarily. The winning wines have to appeal to a host of judges with varying tastes. A beautiful, but stylistic wine may not win a medal at all, whereas a less dynamic, but sound wine may win a Bronze medal. It is safe to say that medal winners are solid wines that have the ability to charm a wide range of palates, making it a little easier for you to decide on that bottle for tonightís dinner.

Aug. 20, 2000

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