Blending tradition with innovation was the theme this year at the Michigan Wine Competition, as organizers overhauled the voting procedures and added a new Best of Class category.
Held at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing, the annual competition — put on by the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council — celebrates the best the Michigan wine industry has to offer across a variety of categories.
More than two dozen wine writers, sommeliers, restauranteurs, wine merchants, and other industry professionals, both in-state and out-of-state, assemble to serve as judges for the daylong event.
Speaking to judges at the July 31 competition, Superintendent Chris Cook said there were 413 wines from 53 wineries entered for 2018, edging closer to the all-time record of 450 entries. This was a positive sign after a few lean years triggered by the abnormally brutal winters of 2014 and 2015.
“This year was definitely an indication that production is back up to normal,” says Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “There were 145 entries from the 2016 vintage, and 40 from 2017. The reds from 2017 aren’t quite ready, for the most part, so I would expect to see a nice increase in 2017 entries next year.”
This year’s competition also saw a swell in gold medal winners.
“In 2016, we had 29 gold medals from all the wines. This year, we had 40 gold medals out of all the wines,” Gordon Wenk, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, told the crowd at the Aug. 9 Gold Medal Reception, a soiree celebrating the winning wines. “So that’s a kudos not only to the grapes that were grown, but the winemakers who turned them into wonderful wine.
“I think we were, total, this past year, 3 million gallons of wine in Michigan,” he says. “I think this is the first year we cracked the 3 million level. So, 3 million gallons of wine — that’s pretty amazing.”
During the competition, the judges — divided into a handful of smaller panels — decide whether to award a wine gold, silver, bronze, or no medal. Judges typically critique factors like complexity, finish, aromatics, varietal correctness, etc., to arrive at their medal decisions. The lead judge on each panel goes around the table to hear each judge’s ruling, with the average of the verdicts prevailing as the panel’s overall medal for a wine.
Under the previous voting rules, all wines receiving a gold from their original panel ascended to the Best of Class “sweepstakes” round. This has led to several sweepstakes flights over the past few years that exceeded 20 wines, presenting a challenge for the judging panels.
“We’ve refined it, and I think it makes so much more sense than what we used to do,” Chris Cook told attendees at the Gold Medal Reception, adding that he believed the change made the competition fairer.
Bush says organizers also conducted research and discovered that the Michigan Wine Competition was the only one in the country advancing all golds to the sweepstakes rounds.
“That wouldn’t be reason enough to change, but we also were experiencing a record number of gold medal wines in some categories: 26 dry reds in 2016, 25 semi-dry whites in 2017,” she says. “When there are that many wines in one flight, it’s difficult for even experienced judges to evaluate each wine fairly.”
Starting this year, wines now must earn a double gold — an unanimous gold vote on its original panel — to advance to the sweepstakes. Or, the panel also can vote to send a “regular” gold to the sweepstakes if the majority feels it deserves the honor.
The change brought the sweepstakes rounds down to a more manageable level: “This year, the largest flight in the sweeps round was 12 dry white wines,” Bush says.
Organizers also amended the rules for bestowing double golds. In the past, the entire panel had to agree unanimously on gold upon the first round of table votes. Now, judges can discuss among themselves after that initial vote, allowing those who originally opted for silver to potentially change their minds.
For the first time, the competition also had an ice wine category, separating those wines from the general dessert wine category.
“Michigan is one of the few regions in the world where ice wine can be produced, and we realized we ought to be promoting that more heavily,” Bush says. “I’m actually surprised we didn’t think of it years ago!”
Veterans, newcomers on the pedestal
Paw Paw-based St. Julian Winery was among the Best of Class winners, claiming top honors in both the Fruit Wine and Dessert Wine categories for their Sweet Nancie Sparkling Peach and Solera Cream Sherry, respectively.
The Solera Cream Sherry has won numerous times in the past, including in 2017. The Sparkling Peach, a nonvintage wine, also was declared Best of Class in 2016.
“We are honored to receive these awards from such an esteemed panel of judges at the state’s longest-running wine competition,” says Nancie Oxley, St. Julian’s head winemaker. “It’s always humbling to receive confirmation from our peers that we are doing well. A competition of this caliber validates that we are doing our part to help shape the Michigan Wine Industry with Michigan-grown, Michigan-made, award-winning wines.”
Oxley notes that St. Julian’s solera system — by which older vintages of sherry are kept in barrels and added each year to the latest blend — has been ongoing since 1973.
St. Julian’s weren’t the only familiar labels at the top. For the second year in a row, Leelanau Peninsula-based Verterra Winery claimed Best of Class Dry White for their Dry Riesling.
“It’s just been fantastic,” says Verterra co-owner Paul Hamelin. “We were so tickled last year … to get the award for best dry white wine. And then to repeat again, it was almost like, this is impossible.”
Meanwhile, a rosé made from Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger) took Best of Class for what Bush says is the first time in the competition’s history. In fact, she says, it’s the first time a Blaufränkisch rosé has even been entered.
Speaking at the Gold Medal Reception, Left Foot Charley Assistant Winemaker Wes Mateusiak said he was “incredibly proud” of the Best of Class honor for their Blaufränkisch Rosé.
“It was our first attempt at making a rosé from Blaufränkisch,” he said. “Luckily, it turned out well. This is a completely dry — bone dry — rosé, but it’s very fruit forward, so it’s a very approachable wine that anybody could enjoy, from the dry wine drinker to a sweet wine drinker.”
Bush says Blaufränkisch, Grüner Veltliner, and Sauvignon Blanc “are showing up more frequently, and doing well” in the competition.
Other emerging trends included a rise in wines submitted from the Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area. The state’s fifth and newest AVA, Tip of the Mitt — approved by the federal government in July 2016 — spans several counties in the northern Lower Peninsula, with the majority of wineries using the designation concentrated around the Petoskey area. The AVA began appearing on wine labels several months after the approval.
“This was the second year for Tip of the Mitt AVA wines; seven were entered last year, and 20 this year,” Bush says. “The production in that region will just continue to grow.”
Dustin Stabile, head winemaker at Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey, says he’s pleased with the representation from his region, including a number of golds, silvers, and bronzes.
“I’m hoping long term that you’re just going to see more and more from the Tip of the Mitt,” he says. “I know there’s three new wineries opening next year, so that’s going to put us at around 17 wineries in our AVA. So it’s really exciting, and I think this was our first showing of what we can actually do.”
As for the future, the fate of the Michigan Wine Competition remains up in the air due to the impending dissolution of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. The existing council, which promotes wineries and ciders, will be replaced this fall by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, adding breweries and distilleries to the mix.
At the July 31 competition, Cook said several groups were discussing possibly taking over the events to ensure it continues.
“Nobody,” he said, “wants to see this thing go away.”
The 2018 Best of Class winners:
- Dry Red: Mari Vineyards 2016 Bel Tramontoâ€‹
- Dry White: Verterra Winery 2017 Dry Riesling
- Semi-Dry Red: Lawton Ridge Winery 2017 AZO Red
- Semi-Dry White: Aurora Cellars 2017 Medium Sweet Riesling
- Rosé: Left Foot Charley 2017 Blaufränkisch Rosé
- Sparkling: L. Mawby Sandpainting
- Fruit: St. Julian Winery Sweet Nancie Sparkling Peach
- Dessert: St. Julian Solera Cream Sherry
- Ice Wine: Chateau Grand Traverse 2016 Riesling Ice Wine
Cortney Casey — who has served as a Michigan Wine Competition judge for the past four years — is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related: Trending: Wine in a Can