Best of Show

Why bother with wine competitions? It’s a fair question. Entering a competition means putting your wine up for evaluation against those of other winemakers, and that can be a bit daunting. Some people are unwilling to risk the rejection that might come if their wines are not considered to be winning quality. Sadly, the result is that a lot of very well-made wine never enters competitions or receives the recognition that it’s due. On the other hand, others will readily enter on the assumption that no other wine could possibly be any better, because “it’s made exactly the way Grandpa used to make his!” As a result, many not-so-good wines also end up in competitions.

If you are at all curious about where on this spectrum your winemaking skills lie, I urge you to take courage and enter your wine in a competition. A well-run competition will ensure that, even if your worst fears are realized, you won’t be humiliated, but instead will receive valuable feedback on how to improve your technique. On the other hand, if you win a major award, think of the pride you’ll feel!

Gene Spaziani of Mystic, Connecticut, who has won dozens of regional and national medals, provides this bit of sage advice: It is important to maintain your equanimity whether you win or lose. “Competitions are arbitrary and can vary a great deal,” he says. “So don’t get too high when you do well and don’t get too discouraged if you don’t win medals at first. It takes time to learn how to make award-winning wine. Plus, many times a great wine will not get a medal or an average wine will win! This will balance out over time if you are making decent wine.”

Preparing for a competition should begin long before you pitch the yeast. Bear in mind that in most competitions, there will be some really good wines vying for recognition and medals. If you intend to be in that group, plan in advance; there is not a high chance of success for those who simply go down to the cellar and pick their competition wines based on what they have sitting around.

Use quality ingredients to make quality wine:

Quality ingredients are essential to making quality wine. Fresh grapes are available to most people who live within a reasonable distance of commercial vineyards, and chilled grapes shipped by refrigerated rail or truck from the West Coast are sold by special order through many home winemaking supply stores. Quality fresh grapes, shipped chilled direct to your door, are also available from Wild Rose Vineyards (www.wildrosevineyards.com) and A1 Wine Grapes (www.a1winegrapes.com). Top-quality California grapes are also sold by Peter Brehm Vineyards in crushed and frozen form (www.brehmvineyards.com). (For more information on finding and buying fresh grapes, see “Amazing Grapes” in the Fall 2000 issue of WineMaker.)

In addition, a number of suppliers sell chilled European juices from grapes and other fruits, and fine concentrates are available from many suppliers. Check the ads in this and previous issues.

Select a style and develop your plan:

Next, decide on the style of wine you are aiming for and the treatment you will give it. This includes factors such as the choice of yeast, length of skin contact (if using whole or crushed grapes), acid level, and whether to oak your wine or not (and if so, which approach you will use, whether barrels, oak sticks or oak chips).

Finally, consider how long you will be aging it. The experts advise that grape wines should typically be one to two years old for a white, and around three years for a red, when they are entered into a competition. Of course, some competitions have been won by red wines that were ten years old, and others by whites under 12 months of age. Earmark and set aside the wines you intend for competition, and make sure that they are sparkling clear (which will require fining or filtering before bottling) and stable.

If you don’t fancy waiting two or three years before entering a competition, there is certainly nothing wrong with examining your cellar — and your tasting records — for wines that you believe will do well on the show bench. However — and this applies also to wines that have been “groomed” from inception for a competition — before submitting them, taste one of the batch carefully to ensure that it is sound and does not have sediment or  sludge in the bottom.

Assuming that it is sound, and  of competition quality, there is still the unstated fear that — while the batch as a whole is great — the bottle entered may have an unsuspected fault such as a bad cork, leading to mustiness. The common term for this is a “rogue bottle,” and there are two approaches to eliminate the problem. Some contestants take the step of uncorking the one they are entering to verify that it is sound and stable. If necessary, they top up from a second bottle, then immediately recork with a clean, sterile cork. However, this could cause problems, such as a leaky cork, if the bottle is shipped immediately after recorking. The alternative, favored especially in commercial competitions, is to submit two bottles per entry. If one is faulty, the second can be opened as a backup. Even with this approach, take the time to taste a bottle of the same batch to ensure that the wine is good. Faulty wines are a waste of the entry and shipping fees.

Pick a class carefully:

If you want to maximize your chances for recognition, try to find a less-crowded playing field. There are a number of classes in many competitions which are not well-subscribed. These include non-grape sparkling wine, flavored fruit wine, sweet aperitif, and so on. There is nothing wrong with these classes, and in some jurisdictions with limited access to vinifera grapes they are encouraged. Unlike the United Kingdom, we are not likely to see entries such as “parsnip sherry,” “potato champagne” or “tomato wine,” thank heavens, but the fact is that some of these offbeat wines can be surprisingly good (dandelion and mead, for example). And entering them in a competition may enhance your chances of success, since there are fewer competitors, as well as giving a check on your winemaking skills.

It should be pointed out, however, that more competitions are moving away from the first, second and third-place rating to gold, silver and bronze medals. This means that multiple awards are possible in classes with a particularly high number of top-quality entries, and fewer or none in those in which the overall quality is low. So this strategy is not a sure thing.

Select a competition:

Back to the business at hand. A couple of years have now passed from when you started the wine, and you are ready to enter it into competition. There are many types of these to choose from. Wine clubs often organize local competitions among their members to recognize the winning winemaker of any given year. Local ethnic groups, with a winemaking tradition, also often sponsor competitions, some open to non-members. There are regional, state or provincial and national competitions. Others are organized by interest groups such as the American Wine Society, or by private organizations such as Intervin, which primarily rates and grades commercial wines, but also has an amateur category.

Understand how the judging system works:

Judging in these competitions can vary. In some, whoever might be available is drafted in to serve. Others use members with a recognized (but untested) judging ability — the so-called “peer review” concept. Still others use a cadre of judges who have been qualified through examination and serve as a quasi-independent body from the sponsoring organization. For example, the American Wine Society (AWS), the Amateur Winemakers of Ontario (AWO), the British National competition, and Intervin all employ judges who have passed a rigorous examination process that looks at both their knowledge of wine in general, of wine faults in particular and their demonstrated ability to judge. This latter skill is demonstrated by practical, hands-on judging of wines with the applicant required to identify the top-quality wines and the faults in those containing them.

Most of these — including AWS and AWO on this continent — also offer a training program in which prospective judges are instructed in the judging process and have their sensory thresholds, their ability to discriminate flavors and aromas, and their consistency evaluated in a series of tests prior to taking the examination. The passing rate is typically low; in some organizations only about one or two in ten of those entering the training program become qualified as judges after the examination. Your choice of which type of competition to enter depends  on which ones are available to you, which level of judging sophistication you are seeking and on the cost of entry, which can range from as low as $3 to $25 per entry.

Understand the rules:

Whichever you decide to try, there are several universal rules. One of these is anonymity; the judges must have absolutely no idea of the identity of the winemaker. In some competitions, particularly commercial ones, this is assured by having the wines poured “off site” and served to the judges in glasses; in others, the bottles are on the table (this is particularly the case in competitions, such as those in the UK, where “presentation” is important). In these cases the type of bottle, closure and label are controlled to ensure anonymity. Others place the bottles on the table, but only after they have been stripped of entry label and marked instead with an entry number. Here, the type of bottle — for example, Bordeaux, green or clear according to class, with no ornamentation or identifying marks — will be specified.

To avoid rejection before the wine is even seen by a judge, a few precautions are essential. First, read the competition instructions carefully. Follow them to the letter. If the rules call for a particular style and size of bottle, do not try to take any shortcuts. In most competitions this will result in disqualification without further consideration. Many competitions require that the bottle be free of all identifying marks, except for the official competition label, affixed as directed. Again, seemingly innocuous marks such as a dab of paint or an embossed bottle will likely ensure that your wine never sees the show bench. In some states, such as California, that is not the case since the wines are served to the judges in glasses, with the pouring being done away from the competition area. The essential point is: Follow the instructions carefully and fill out all documentation, including the label, completely.

The next imperative is to read the class descriptions and make sure that your wine conforms to your chosen class. Any experienced judge can tell you about the wine with noticeable sweetness entered into a dry white class or the overprimed sparkling wine that sprayed everyone within sight when it was uncorked. Know the requirements and conform to them.

Certification of origin is also important. Only the winemaker identified in the entry form can have provided any part of the wine. Any commercial wine, blended into an amateur wine, is cause for disqualification and — if flagrant — for banishment for life from further competition by that organization. Similarly, while some classes in some competitions permit addition of brandy for fortification, others do not, and its presence is an equal violation. Some competitions  employ a random sampling approach, with laboratory analysis, to detect adulteration. Anyone “caught” once can be sure to be included in all further samples.

Most competitions offer a variety of classes, ranging from dry to sweet, red through rosé or blush to white, from grape-based wine to “country wines,” from table wine to dessert. While some judges have a bias towards particular styles of wine, a well-run competition will minimize this factor by careful selection of judges, and by team judging in which the highest and lowest scores are discarded.

Know what the judges are looking for:

When the wines are judged, the judges will typically examine it on several levels. First is color, in which the primary requirement is suitability to the class. An overly-golden wine in a white table class will lose points, while the same color in a sweet white class would not, or at least would do so to a lesser extent. A brownish wine would lose in any table wine class, except a sherry-style one.

The wines are next assessed for clarity, with points being lost for lack of total clarity, ranging down through slight haze to hazy to murky. Bouquet and aroma are next, with the judges looking for the classic aroma of the grape and also for the bouquet produced by the complex interactions of fermentation. Points are given for strength and appropriateness, and lost for weakness or off-odors such as oxidation, sulfur, mercaptan and a variety of other factors (For a definitive and easy-to-use guide to assessing these factors in wines, see the “Aroma Wheel” developed by Dr. Ann Noble at the University of California at Davis; contact [email protected]).

Finally the judges look at overall balance and quality. Here the considerations are body, depth and appropriateness of flavor; balance between acid, sweetness and tannin; and avoidance of off-flavors such as oxidation, yeast autolysis, sulfur, mustiness and other nasties.

The approach that the judges use to come to a final ranking also varies between competitions. In some, the judges are expected to come to a consensus on the basis of discussion. In others, scores are anonymous but a ballot is taken to determine the final ranking, based on a mathematical formula in which extremes are discarded. In either case, for most judges the point score that they assign is simply a kind of memory aid. They use points only to distinguish between wines, and the numeric score is only significant for that particular judge. As long as there is internal consistency, it doesn’t matter if one judge routinely gives 80s and 90s on a 100-point scale, while another judge, more experienced in the great growths of France, Australia and California, never rates an amateur wine above 75 unless it is truly exceptional. The point is this: Don’t be overly concerned about the marks. Instead, be interested in how the wines were judged and what the results mean. Internal consistency is the key.

Know how to keep score:

Point scoring can be done in one of two ways, which for the sake of simplicity we term “subtractive” and “additive.” In the subtractive approach a maximum score of perhaps 20 is possible, but points are deducted for faults such as inappropriate acid, sweetness, tannin or oak; lack of balance; lack of body or flavor; poor or weak aftertaste; and more grievous faults due to bad winemaking or poor-quality ingredients. Some subtractive competitions are now going to the 100-point scale instead of 20 points.

Some wine judges do not favor the subtractive approach because it seems overly mechanistic and does not permit differentiating between an innocuous wine with no major flaws and an otherwise excellent wine with one or more serious faults. The additive approach, on the other hand, is usually based on a total of 100 and assigns, for example, five points for color, 10 points for clarity, 25 points for bouquet, and a final 60 points for flavor, balance and quality (these are examples only; other competitions may use other marking schemes).

Ship your wine with care:

Before your wine ever reaches this stage, of course, it has to get there on time and intact. Shipping can be a problem, since some shippers will not accept a box labelled “wine.” (Creativity is called for here; an identification such as “testing solutions; non-toxic, non-corrosive” sometimes works. Gene Spaziani says that he usually ships UPS and marks the contents as “balsamic vinegar ”and has had no problems with this approach.)

In addition, proper protection is essential. Some suppliers sell shipping containers which comprise a foam slab, split in two, with niches formed in the shape of bottles. These provide excellent protection. Otherwise use a fairly rigid outer container and wrap each bottle in bubble wrap, with at least one extra layer of bubble wrap or a layer of plastic foam on all six interior sides of the container. Seal the container thoroughly on all seams, using either shipping tape or duct tape. If shipping in winter, a “keep from freezing” label on the outside is a good precaution as well, although, if possible, it is wise to arrange for shipping outside of the depth of winter or the heat of high summer. Try to ship your wine at least two weeks in advance of the actual judging. Some wines, particularly delicate ones, can react negatively to the handling shocks they may receive in shipping, and can take a couple of weeks to get over it — like an extended case of jet lag!

Good luck and have fun!

Entering your wine in competition can be very satisfying. It can provide you with valuable feedback — professional advice — on the strengths and weaknesses of your technique and personalized suggestions on how to improve it. This alone can be worth the price of entry. In addition, it can give you tangible evidence of your abilities in your hobby, a source of pride for years to come. Good luck!