Michigan Wines Face Off in Annual Competition

Top contenders reflect industry’s diversity

Two decades ago, Tasters Guild International President Joe Borrello wrote that Michigan wineries should stick to what they were good at — namely, whites.

Judging for the 2014 Michigan Wine Competition at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center in East Lansing Aug. 5, Borrello acknowledged a shift in sentiment since.

“They learned more, they got more confident about what they’re doing, and they’re creating a lot better-quality wines,” he said of Michigan’s winemakers.

Raving about a flight of cabernet francs tasted during the morning session, he added, “I’ve eaten my words a number of times, but so be it.”

The 450 wines entered from 51 of Michigan’s 100-plus wineries represented a range of styles, from dry rosés to bold reds to fortified dessert wines and everything in between.

Chris Cook, the competition’s superintendent, said there’s “no comparison” between when he became involved with the event in 1984 and today.

“It’s completely different wines,” he said. “What’s happened is … the wineries in Michigan have gotten so sophisticated in what they’re doing, and they understand what they’re doing, whereas before they were trying to find their way, years ago, when Joe (Borrello) and I were first doing these judgings. It really was an old farmer’s State Fair competition, initially … We’re seeing vastly improved wines that are on par and the equal of the best wines in the country that are made from the same grapes.”

Quality is no longer what’s impeding Michigan’s ascension in the world of wine, said Cook.

“The quality is here,” he said. “The exposure is what’s needed.”

In the early days, Michigan wines were primarily produced from grapes imported from other states, added Cook. To qualify for consideration now, submitted wines must contain at least 75 percent Michigan fruit — meaning they should be providing a true snapshot of Michigan’s terroir and capabilities as a wine region.

Inside the Judging

When Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council, extended me the opportunity to sit as a guest judge for the afternoon, I jumped at the chance. I found myself stationed at Table No. 6 with Borrello; Todd Steiner, enology program manager for Ohio State University; and Eduard Seitan, sommelier and partner at Chicago-based Blackbird, avec, and The Publican. The table captain, Borrello has served on the judging panel for 36 of the competition’s 37 years. Seitan has judged at the Michigan event for four. While Steiner was making his Michigan Wine Competition debut, he’s a veteran judge at other competitions, including Indy International.

The remainder of the judges’ group — about two dozen in all — represented a similar mix of sommeliers, restaurateurs, wine educators, and wine writers hailing from both inside and outside of Michigan, along with several out-of-state winemakers.

Arranged in flights by style and/or varietal, the wines were whisked in via cart and placed before the judges. Judges tasted all of the wines blindly, armed solely with information on the vintage and varietal or blend composition. Per wine evaluation protocol, all judges expectorated their wine. To consume everything sampled would have led to more than a few unconscious folks by the end of the day.

Each judge appeared to have his or her own methodology for determining medal caliber. Assessing varietal correctness — whether the wine was an accurate representation of the classic qualities attributed to that particular grape — and balance were key.

For Steiner, a simplistic way to frame the medal decision was in terms of how much of the wine he’d commit to purchasing in a real-world scenario. If he’d only buy a glass, it was bronze-worthy; a bottle, silver-worthy; an entire case, gold-worthy.

After the table agreed on gold, silver, bronze, or no medal for each wine in a particular flight, Borrello recorded the verdicts on a sheet, held it aloft for retrieval by competition organizers, and awaited the next series of samples.

After the wines made their first pass through judging, those christened Gold or Double Gold were poured once more — this time for all judges present — to determine the Best in Class winners (see sidebar). Some were close calls, with a winner snagging the top prize by only a vote or two. Others were runaway victories.

A Point of Pride

Jones was excited by the vast range among the Best in Class contenders, which included a diverse lineup of vinifera, like riesling and pinot grigio, as well as hybrids, like frontenac and vidal blanc.

“It wasn’t all one variety,” she said. “I was pleased to see we had excellent wines from a number of different grape varieties. It shows the strengths that Michigan has; it’s a very multi-faceted industry.”

The medals are undoubtedly a point of pride for the winemakers and wineries, but what do they mean for the average Michigan wine drinker?

“What I would hope the consumers would take away from this is an understanding, by looking at these results, of how far Michigan wines have come,” said Cook, “and (that) we’re completely on par with a lot of other states that make similar wines.”

Consumers can sample all of the Best in Class, double gold, and gold medal-winning wines, along with some of the silver medalists, during the annual Gold Medal Reception at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center in East Lansing on Thursday, Aug. 14, from 5-8 p.m. Kellogg Center chefs will prepare gourmet dishes to pair with the Best in Class wines, and many of the winning winemakers and winery owners are expected to be in attendance.

Tickets are available at a discount of $40 in advance, or at the door for $45. Vintage Michigan members can get an additional $5 discount when buying advance tickets.

For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit www.MichiganWines.com. Advance tickets also are available by calling Sherri Goodreau at 517-284-5733 on weekdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

2014 Michigan Wine Competition Best in Class winners

  • Dry Red: 2012 Cabernet Franc, Peninsula Cellars
  • Semi-Dry Red: 2012 AZO Red, Lawton Ridge Winery
  • Dry White: 2013 Riesling, Blustone Vineyards
  • Semi-Dry White: 2013 Riesling, Gill’s Pier Vineyard & Winery
  • Rosé: 2013 Cabernet Franc Rosé, Chateau de Leelanau
  • Sparkling: 2011 Brut, Aurora Cellars
  • Fruit: Peach Cremant, Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery
  • Dessert: 2012 Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling, Black Star Farms
  • See the complete list of medal winners at http://www.michiganwines.com/docs/Competition/2014_medal_winners_web.pdf

Cortney Casey 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, a joint offsite tasting room in partnership with six Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township. Contact her at cort@michiganbythebottle.com.

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