For anyone who thinks judging a wine competition sounds fun — you’re right.
On July 26, I had the honor and pleasure of serving as a judge for the second year at the Michigan Wine Competition in East Lansing, where I tasted through more than 100 Michigan wines over the course of eight hours. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday.
Oh, sure, there are drawbacks. Your teeth turn a hideous shade of purple. You eat your weight in graber olives and water crackers (which are meant to be palate cleansers, but become a compulsion after a few hours). By the end of the day, your tongue feels like it lost a battle with a creme brûlée torch, and you’re so wine-d out you swear you won’t touch a glass for weeks (unlikely, but still…).
As occupational hazards go, though, those are decidedly first-world problems.
For a geek like me, there’s nothing more fascinating than trying dozens of wines in similar style, side by side, and seeing what’s new and evolving in the world of Michigan wines. It’s like taking a virtual trip around the state without leaving my chair.
If someone had asked me years ago to describe my picture of a wine competition, I would have imagined a very quiet, tense room filled with bespectacled wine aficionados, noses buried in glasses. But when you have the right panel, there is laughter and animated discussion. There is contemplation, but not snobbery. There is marveling over the transcendent wines and, occasionally, polite-but-heated debate over medal worthiness.
How It Works
This year’s 25 judges were about half Michiganders and half out-of-staters. They included wine writers, winemakers, enologists, distributors, retailers and restaurauteurs. Some are newer, like myself; others have been around since the days when the competition was held at the Michigan State Fairgrounds.
“The quality of the judges is really impressive, and we’re delighted that they’re excited to come to Michigan to try these wines,” says Karel Bush, program director for the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council. “They hear about what’s going on here, and we have a waiting list of these judges from other places that want to come to Michigan to try these wines. I think that’s probably one of the most exciting things about this for us.”
As in previous years, judges were subdivided into smaller panels and assigned various flights to assess throughout the day, with each panel reviewing 67-74 wines apiece. My panel kicked off our morning with Cabernet Francs (arguably the best lineup of the day), then worked our way through Dry Red Blends, Syrahs, Semi-Dry Reds, Semi-Dry Hybrid Whites, Medium-Dry Rieslings, Fruit Wines, White Dessert Wines, Dry White Blends, Unoaked Chardonnay and Semi-Dry Rosés. For anyone impressed by our livers of steel, we spit the wine — otherwise we’d be unconscious and/or awarding everything a gold medal by the end of the day.
Wine judging isn’t about determining which wines you’d want to kick back with on your patio. Judges are trained to set aside personal preferences for assessment of whether a wine is varietally correct, well made, balanced, harmonious, complex, etc. So while you won’t find unoaked Chard in my glass on a Friday night, I have no qualms about evaluating a flight of them.
Any wines that received a gold or double gold (unanimous gold vote within a panel) advanced to a sweepstakes round, where all judges weighed in via acclimation to choose the winner of Best in Class for each category.
Like last year, the big story in the latest competition was the field of dry red Best of Class contenders. Last year, we gaped as one of the largest dry red flights in the history of the competition — 17 wines — was laid out before us, arcing in multiple layers and occupying nearly the entire table. Little did we know what we were in for this year: a record-setting 26 dry reds, arranged three layers deep — a number Competition Superintendent Chris Cook deemed “extraordinary.”
Evaluating 26 reds side by side was “a pretty daunting task … That was a pretty exciting moment,” says Bush. She pauses, then laughs. “Well, more than a moment. It took several moments for them to get through all of those wines.”
We marveled that no one upended any wine as we navigated between the rows, the crystal glasses clinking together constantly like wind chimes. It was yet another milestone for a state long known for whites — and steadily gaining acclaim for its reds.
In all, there were 352 entries in this year’s competition, down from last year’s 370, which was, in turn, down steeply from about 450 the year prior. Bush attributes the decrease to the back-to-back brutal years for Michigan vineyards, including extended subzero temperatures, late spring frosts and hailstorms. But with 2016 shaping up nicely, she sees that number going back up in the future.
“I expect that we might have a little bit more next year, as long as our growing season continues as it is,” says Bush. “We’re hearing from a lot of the vineyards that they’ve got a lot of fruit on the vine, it’s looking good — as long as this nice warm season continues and we don’t get too much rain in September or a really hard frost.”
With the judging over, the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council now turns its attention to the public portion of the competition: the Gold Medal Reception on Thursday, Aug. 4. Held at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center in East Lansing, the same venue as the judging itself, the reception allows consumers to sample the Best in Class wines paired with food, taste gold medal winners and many silver medal winners and mingle with winemakers and other industry folks. For the first time, guests also will be able to purchase Best in Class wines during the event to take home.
“It’s the best place to be able to try many of the best wines that are being made in the state,” says Bush.
Tickets are available for $40 in advance ($35 for Vintage Michigan members) or $45 at the door. For more information or to get tickets, visit michiganwines.com/reception.
This Year’s Winners
Best in Class Dry Red: Chateau Grand Traverse 2012 Merlot Reserve
Best in Class Dry White: Chateau Fontaine 2015 Woodland White
Best in Class Semi-Dry Red: St. Julian Red Heron
Best in Class Semi-Dry White: Fenn Valley 2015 Traminette
Best in Class Sparkling: L. Mawby Grace
Best in Class Dessert Wine: Black Star Farms Sirius Raspberry
Best in Class Fruit Wine: St. Julian Sweet Nancie Sparkling Peach
Best in Class Rosé: Verterra Winery 2015 Rosé of Cabernet Franc
By the way, it has been a bittersweet year for St. Julian: The winery is proudly celebrating its 95th anniversary, but the team is still mourning the sudden loss of President David Braganini, who passed away in early July.
“We are elated that we won not just one, but two Best of Class honors,” says Nancie Corum Oxley, St. Julian’s winemaker and namesake for the Sweet Nancie line of wines. “It’s been several years since we’ve won a Best of Class in this competition and it always feels good to bring one home on our own turf.
“(David) was always proud when we took home a big award, so I’m sure he’s smiling down at all of us, still more proud than ever.”
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, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries and located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak and Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.