Being a Wine Judge: It’s not about what you like

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - When I received an email invitation to be a “celebrity” judge for the 2016 Alabama Commercial Wine Competition, I’ll admit my posture became more erect and I thought, “How cool is this?”  Thirty seconds later, reality set in and my excitement turned to trepidation.  My head filled with the statement of self-doubt, “I’m not qualified to be a wine judge.”

I haven’t studied to be a sommelier, received any formal training in viticulture nor have I enrolled in any wine judge certification programs.  The only qualification I could potentially claim is that I regularly (Okay, more days than not) consume wine.  You might say that I’m a “dedicated wine enthusiast.”

The initial invitation came from Stephanie Mell, co-owner of the Church Street Wine Shoppe.  I proudly participate in Church Street Wine Shoppe’s monthly wine club.  Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that a few co-workers and I frequent there so often that our code name for the shop is “WHNT North.”  Stephanie convinced me that I had something to offer as a judge and I eagerly accepted the invitation and wryly informed my husband I would HAVE to study in advance of the judging.

In truth, I suppose I do have “some” qualification.  My husband and I consider ourselves “garagistes.”  That’s a fancy way of saying we’re home winemakers.  Garagiste is actually a French term originally used in the Bordeaux region to denigrate renegade, small-lot winemakers who sometimes produced their wines out of their garages.  We nurture a budding micro-vineyard and nascent orchard in northeast Madison County.  Our specialties include pear, plum and muscadine wines for personal consumption.  I dream that one day we will own and operate a winery in Madison County and produce wine commercially.

Stephanie introduced me to Steve Young, the Director of the Alabama Wine Competition and we arranged to meet at Church Street Wine Shoppe for a wine judge training session.

Steve sent me several documents to read in advance of our meeting.  They included the competition rules, judging guidelines, wine categories and perhaps most importantly a wine evaluation chart.

The wine evaluation chart explained the essence of evaluating wine for:

  • Appearance
  • Aroma and Bouquet
  • Taste & Texture
  • Aftertaste
  • Overall Impression

Sight. Swirl. Sniff. Sip. Spit. Score.   

During my training session at Church Street Wine Shoppe, Steve Young instructed me, “It’s not about what you like. It’s about what’s the wine supposed to be that the winemaker was going for.”  At first that didn’t make sense.  Then, the proverbial lightbulb went off.  I queried, “So, to put it in terms I can understand as a journalist.  What you’re saying is… I need to remove my bias?”  “Exactly!” Steve replied.

For my training, Steve arranged for us to do a blind taste test of three white wines (Chardonnay) and three red (Pinot Noir) wines. In judging, you don’t have to guess the grape variety.  You’re informed of that so that you evaluate the wine based on typicity.  Typicity is as a term used to describe the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins and therefore demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced.  For example, how much a Merlot wine tastes like a Merlot.

In addition to typicity, Steve instructed me on the finer points of evaluating balance, length, intensity and complexity.

It was all beginning to make sense.

I was already familiar with the tasting techniques of sight, swirling, sniffing and sipping.  Swirling the wine is not for show.  Agitating it in the glass gets more oxygen into the wine to open it up.  As it opens up, it gives off its aromas.

Spitting, on the other hand, was not something I was accustomed to doing. I mean that seems like such a waste of perfectly good wine. Right?

Steve proceeded to explain the dynamics of judging and scoring as a group.  First you do those steps as an individual and then you compare your scores with your judging partners.  If your scores are dramatically different, you have to discuss your reasons and justify your score.  During the deliberation, you either convince the other members of your judging team that their score needs to be raised or lowered to get reasonably closer to your score or you have to alter your score based on their convincing arguments.

Six wines scored and Steve deemed me to be satisfactorily trained to participate as a judge in the Alabama Commercial Wine competition.

Judgment Day

The time, date, place for judging the 2nd Annual Alabama Commercial Wine Competition was set for Saturday, August 6, at 1892 East Restaurant in Huntsville’s Five Points.

Kristen Lindelow, Chief Judge for the Alabama Wine Competition, informed me, “The competition will begin at 9:00am with judges’ instructions and should finish by 1:00pm.”

Wow! Four hours of judging wines.  Should I have arranged for someone to drive me home?

Uncertain what to expect, I arrived a few minutes early.  Immediately, the friendly face of Matt Mell, co-owner of the Church Street Wine Shoppe, puts me at ease.  I’m relieved to learn that Matt will be one of the four judges at my table.   The feeling of intimidation subsides.  American Wine Society judges Marj Ducoté and Jaime Zapata round out the judges assigned to my table.

A fifth person positioned himself at the head of our table to be the official scorekeeper.  A Pit Cru comprised of volunteers organized, poured, and served the wines to our tables to taste “blind.”

Thirteen wineries submitted entries in the competition.  We started off with sparkling wines and worked our way through multiple varieties – mostly Muscadines. Carlos. Noble. Dry whites, dry reds, semi-sweet. Blends. Fruit wines – blueberry, blackberry, apple, peach cranberry and prickly pear.  We had a mead and a couple of ciders too.

During the judging process, I observed a fellow judge burying her nose into the bend of her arm as if she was shielding a sneeze.  I finally deduced this was the wine scholar’s method for performing the olfactory equivalent of cleansing her palate.

Fifty-seven samplings later, we had awarded 50 medals.  Twenty-one entries received the gold medal distinction.

Following a lunch break, we returned to the judging room to determine which of the gold medal winners would earn the “Best of Class” and “Best of Show” titles for 2016.

By early afternoon, our duties were done. The pressure was off and we could all reflect on the experience.

I slipped into journalist mode and began interviewing the judges.

“Oh man. There are some really good wines being made in the state,” proclaimed Scott Montgomery, one of the wine judges.  “What amazed me was the diversity. We had a dry, blush muscadine that was outstanding.  We had dry reds. Peach wines. We had what I wanted to call fruit salad in a glass. It was an apple, pear, blueberry wine that was just tremendous.  It was sweet. But, lovely,” Montgomery said.

“I was surprised, frankly said, of the quality of wines and the diversity of wines being produced in the state of Alabama,” stated Elina Coneva, a wine judge with a unique perspective.   Coneva works as an Extension Fruit Crop Specialist for the State of Alabama and an Associate Professor of Horticulture at Auburn University.  Her research in conjunction with a grape breeder from the University of California-Davis has led to the introduction of disease-resistant European grape varieties that are now being successfully grown in Alabama.

From my perspective, I was proud and inspired.  Proud of the quality of wine being produced in our state and inspired for the future of our state’s industry.  On a global scale, Alabama is not known for its winemaking.  And, muscadines are not widely respected in wine circles.  My assessment.  Wine snobs don’t know what they’re missing.  Perhaps, I will pursue that dream of starting a winery one day.

Big Spring Crush

If you’d like to judge the wines for yourself, you need to come to the Big Spring Crush wine festival today (Saturday, September 24) in downtown Huntsville’s Big Spring Park.

The eight top gold medal-winning wineries will pour their gold medal wines at Big Spring Crush.

Wineries winning “Best of Class” and “Wine of the Year” have been invited to attend a VIP awards ceremony at Big Spring Crush to receive their awards. Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries Commissioner, John McMillan, will present the Commissioner’s Cup to the maker of the Alabama Wine of the Year and to the Alabama Winery of the Year.

If you’d like to go, there are some tickets still available for this year’s Big Spring Crush.  Tickets purchased today will cost $60.  I hope to see you there.  Cheers.

2016 Gold Medal Winners:

  • Bryant Vineyard – Dixie Blush
  • Bryant Vineyard – Autumn Blush
  • Hidden Meadow Vineyard – Smith Ridge Red
  • Hidden Meadow Vineyard – Meadow Rose
  • Hidden Meadow Vineyard – Peach
  • High Country Cellars – Skeeter Piss
  • High Country Cellars – Blackberry
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Lenoir
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Southern Blend
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Sweet Peach
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – High Tide
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – Dog at Large
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – Watermelon
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – Born Dixie
  • Maraella Winery & Vineyard – Riesling
  • Ozan Winery – Peach
  • Ozan Winery – Shelby Blanc
  • Ozan Winery – Magenta
  • Salty Nut Brewery – Vern’s Pomegranate Cider
  • White Oak Vineyards – Scarlet
  • White Oak Vineyards – Norton

2016 Silver Medal Winners:

  • Bryant Vineyard – Dixie Gold
  • Bryant Vineyard – Festive Red
  • Hidden Meadow Vineyard – Blackberry
  • High County Cellars – Black Currant
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Carlos Sweet
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Sunset Sweet
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Muscadine Blush
  • Hodges Vineyards & Winery – Noble Sweet
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – White Trash
  • Jules J. Berta Vineyards – Mauvis Juju
  • Lewis Lake Vineyards – Serene
  • Mad County Winery – Blackberry
  • Mad County Winery – Cranberry
  • Maraella Winery & Vineyard – Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Maraella Winery & Vineyard - Muscadine
  • Ozan Winery – Blueberry
  • Ozan Winery – Norton
  • Perdido Vineyards – Blueberry
  • Perdido Vineyards – Honey
  • Red Clay Brewing – Lakeside Hard Cider
  • Vizzini Farms Winery – Pinot Grigio
  • Whipporwill Vineyards – Harvest Moon
  • Whipporwill Vineyards – Cynthiana
  • Whipporwill Vineyards – Lenoir
  • Whipporwill Vineyards – Sunset
  • White Oak Vineyards – Rosé Muscadine
  • White Oak Vineyards – Southern Gold
  • White Oak Vineyards – Sparkling
  • White Oak Vineyards - Chardonel

Judges for the 2016  competition included:

  • Steven Bunner, Chef/Owner of 1892 East Restaurant
  • Elina Coneva, Associate Professor of Horticulture at Auburn University
  • Marj Ducoté, American Wine Society Judge
  • Kristen Lindelow, Chief Judge
  • Matt Mell, Owner of Church Street Wine Shoppe
  • Scott Montgomery, American Wine Society Judge
  • Denise Vickers, VP of News for WHNT News 19 & Home Winemaker (Note: That's me.)
  • Jaime Zapata, American Wine Society Judge

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