Competing For the Feedback
I’ve met amateur winemakers from all over North America, both online and in person. Together the community of home and amateur winemakers make almost every style of wine imaginable, using obvious ingredients like grapes and fruit to more unusual items like elephant heart plums, sage, ginger persimmons and prickly pear cactus. Plenty of these same producers also make wine from concentrate kits and juice, resulting in an amazing range of aromas, flavors and styles.
One thing that also varies within this group is whether the winemakers enter their wines in competitions, and the reasons why or why not. There are many reasons to enter a wine competition: fun and excitement, recognition, prizes and feedback. None of these reasons alone are wrong, and for the most part people I have interviewed have offered more than one reason for their own personal participation. Throwing your proverbial hat in the ring for fun is a good way to go about it. Even though there is an entry fee and bottle of wine on the line, nothing is guaranteed. I’ve heard winemakers say that they didn’t think their wines were good enough for a competition, but then couldn’t explain why. I have met some competition entrants who were merely looking for recognition and didn’t think much about what they could learn about their wines from merely participating. I think you might be able to see where I am going here.
I first entered the WineMaker Magazine wine competition in 2008 after reading the results from 2007 edition and realizing that people were winning medals using the same kits I felt that I was just getting good at making wine from. I wondered, “can my wines be any good and will entering my wines in a competition help me get better at making wine?” With that my entries were boxed up and ready to go. I also entered the Indy Amateur competition in the Indiana State Fair that year. I went 8 for 8 (with 4 golds!) between the two competitions and was stunned at that result. But here’s the thing - I was fascinated by the judging notes. I didn’t know how competitions worked at the time so when these little gems arrived I was elated. Getting feedback in that form became the driver for me to enter wine competitions. The medals, when I win them, are nice, and if you win a category or best in show award there are generally prizes involved which are also exciting. For me though, getting feedback on what worked and what didn’t is worth so much more!
I’m an engineer and data analyst by day, though, so you can imagine how excited I was to get a picture into how the scoring worked and be able to break the performance (good and bad) of my wines down into the different facets. The questions I was able to answer from the notes gave me many new considerations about those wines, wines I felt were similar; allowing me to really evaluate my own judgments from tasting them. In recent years I have entered two or three competitions per year and have placed with at least one wine in each outing. The judging notes have increased in value as my winemaking has gotten more complex. I have gotten less right with some of my recent process changes and experiments than I would have liked, but the notes have always steered my back in the right direction.
Now, I’d like to share some situations where my competition judging notes have prompted me to make changes in my process or recipes in hopes of increasing the quality of future wines:
Strawberry wine has become my signature variety and I have made at least one batch of it in each of the last five years. The judging notes from the competition of my very first batch of strawberry were instructive. Although it won a gold medal, several judges thought the color had shifted too much to orange and the taste was slightly bitter. I reflected on my winemaking process and made two changes. First I used more fruit to amp up both the color and the flavor. The wine ferments dry and requires back sweetening to balance it. Doing that with a strawberry syrup where the berries had been boiled resulted in some unexpected bitterness. Now I allow the berries to sit in hot (not boiling) water to break down before using them the same way. Since then I have gotten judging notes on strawberry wine six additional times and changes made to improve the color, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and balance as a result have generally netted positive results. It is my most successful wine with seven medals in nine tries.
One trend I have noticed from my judging notes is that many wines that had rapid and active fermentations lose some of their aroma (here is where having your own notes to compare to competition feedback is a huge asset); presumably it gets “blown off” in the fermentation process. I don’t have the facilities to do cold fermentation, but I have taken to doing the majority of my winemaking during the cooler months in hopes of keeping fermentations a little less active and retaining more aroma.
A wine that I had high hopes for this year has only medaled once in three tries, and until I took a look across all the judging notes I didn’t initially know why. A Blackberry Cabernet that my wife Margot made is, to me, one of the best grape/non-grape blends we have ever made. We gave it a touch of oak to help anchor it on the red wine side of the line, and the acidity from the berries gives the wine a nice punch. Why the lower than expected results? Concentration of fruit flavor. It needs more fruit. Several judges noted that and after drinking it again I don’t totally agree, but can see how more would be more here. So in 2011, when our wild blackberry crop comes around, you better believe that we will make it again - this time with double the fruit!
Overall, thanks to judging notes, I’ve learned that some wine I make is best suited for casual drinking. While the balance of aroma, flavor and texture suits a category fine and consumers are not evaluating it, the wines might not fare well in competition. How do I decide this? Wines with subtle and un-developing aromas aren’t going to score high in that dimension. Low aroma also affects the perceptions of flavors so the same wine is likely going to lose there too. If the fruit character in the wine struggles to come through and doesn’t seem to be emerging over time, assume the judges will note this. Wines that have been fussy to clear and present within even a slight haze won’t score well on appearance. Such a wine might be the most fantastic drinker in the world, and could likely win a medal, but judging notes have helped me be objective about these types of considerations. I might not risk the money and bottle of wine when I fear one or more facets will have sinking scores.
The final and most recent scenario stands as a reminder about the importance of sanitation. I entered a Brett-infected Chardonnay in competition and all the judges picked up on it. Upon another taste (actually just a smell would do) I realized the truth and had to take a look around to see what else might be affected. Unfortunately, the Brett was caused by dirty equipment and another wine that I started before this realization also had to be dumped. I have since replaced all of my plastic equipment (buckets, hoses, siphons, spoons, etc) and stepped up my vigilance with my sanitation. The result has been a round of cleanly fermenting wines with pleasant aromas and no trace of the problem. Whew! Competition judging notes saved my skin here, and I will be eternally grateful.
If you enter wine competitions, what have learned from your experiences and how has that helped you in your winemaking? If not, what are you waiting for?
JasonJason Phelps is an avid home winemaker and homebrewer. In addition to his blog for WineMaker, Jason blogs at www.ancientfirewines.com, where you can read about his food, travel and of course winemaking and wine tasting adventures.