( Research leftovers. Read on for an explanation. )
Since 2008 my wife and I have entered our wines (and more recently beers, ciders and meads) in to several national, regional and local amateur competitions each year. The format of the competitions differs a bit depending on the host organization but the majority are executed using judging protocols like those from UC Davis, the American Wine Society or the Beer Judge Certification Program. We began doing this as a means to get objective feedback on our wines. We love to win medals, but the feedback we get teaches us things about our wines that we may not get anywhere else. No matter what great things our friends and family might say about our juice, it won’t ever be as objective as the feedback from an anonymous judge who tastes our wines blind. The feedback we have received, both good and bad, has been immensely valuable in directing our focus on improving our creations. The outcomes are still governed partly by luck (quality of product differs years to year, my personal attention span isn’t consistent, you get the point) but the feedback always gives us something to consider the next time we get ready to make something new.
( Summer 2011. We've taken home some hardware over the years. It's always an honor. )
I’ve gotten more objective about the resultant quality of my products over the years as well, and some fans think I might too harsh at times. This self imposed pressure is my way of trying to keep my head in the game. This isn’t all I need to make a good wine or beer, creativity and quality ingredients are also required, but some amount of ruthless self criticism is just part of the equation for me.
Prior to each competition we obviously need to determine what we are going to enter. Bottles that have won in prior editions of the same competition are excluded, this is often in the rules although cheating is common from what I understand, and products that are just too young are also disqualified because they typically get judged as such. As we have gotten more serious about the quality of our entries we have taken to pulling bottles of everything we think might make the cut, opening them and giving them a good once over. We are looking for high clarity, good color, bountiful aromas, discernable flavors and of course balance. If a wine (or beer,cider and mead) doesn’t have enough of the combination of these facets we won’t enter it. It could still contend, but since entering competitions costs money and requires at least one bottle to be surrendered, it isn’t worth entering wines that you don’t feel are truly worthy. We just drink those. And if they truly don’t merit, meaning they suck, we might parlay them into sangria, use them for marinades or dump them.
This year we ended up opening more than two dozen bottles in our search for wines and meads that we thought would show well in the WineMakerMagazine Annual Competition, the largest amateur competition in the world. We have placed in this contest every year we have entered, four years running. We ended up selecting only twelve (we have an entry limit of fifteen) bottles, feeling those were the real contenders and thus worth the money. Here is a rundown of both the wines that made the cut, and those that didn’t and little something about why.
( Gold from 2010. Here's to hoping luck strikes again in 2012! )
Made the Cut
- Dry Gewurztraminer 2011 – Decent aromas, good clarity and overall a nice dry, clean wine.
- Winexpert Estate Series Dry Creek Chardonnay 2011 – This wine saw some lees aging and no oak. The balance of fruit with a wildness in the nose is exceptional. It pours a nice deep, gold color and tastes great.
- Winexpert South African Chenin Blanc 2011 – This is a subtle wine, but with a tad of breathing time opens up in a way that says to me it has potential. We've won a bronze medal for this the past which moved it up on the list.
- Strawberry 2011 – Strawberry wine is the longest running style we make. Until 2011 we had medaled for it every year (in the WineMaker competition specifically). Last year the Berry Fruit category had no 100% strawberry winners which we found odd. This in my opinion is our finest version ever and I hope it helps us regain recognition for this style.
- Concord Rose 2011 – This is the second year we have made this wine from grapes a friend grows in his yard. Last year the color was too pale and it was also too sweet. I fixed both of those issues this year and it paid off!
- Purple Plum Dessert Wine 2011 – After the success of our 2008 Golden Plum Dessert Wine I wanted to try the same thing with purple plums. This is a different wine, but expresses plum very well and deserves a shot.
- Raspberry Fortified Dessert Wine 2011 – This is on a short list of things that will be the best of 2011 once we really start sharing it. Massive raspberry in color, aroma AND flavor. Well balanced, with just a hint of the Cognac we used to kick it up.
- Dandelion/Chamomile 2011 – This might be a second dark hose scenario for dandelion wine for us. We nailed a surprise gold for our 2010 version last year. This year I added some chamomile and the result was a wine with an herbal tea quality to it. It is more than drinkable.
- Maple Dessert Wine 2011 – This was inspired by a friend’s win for a Maple Ice Wine style wine in 2011. He wouldn't share his recipe (while I freely do share mine), but I nailed something here that might be even better.
- Cherry/Currant Mead 2011 – Clear, deep red color with fruity aromas. Big flavors with a dry, tart finish. The honey will come up in time, but this is very spot on for style to me.
- Cinnamon Cyser 2011 – The aromas of apple, honey and cinnamon are what get me. All other elements are polished and balance is good.
- Orange/Vanilla Mead 2011 – This was our surprise first place finisher last fall, and probably one of the best things we made in 2011. We didn't need to open this to be sure, but we did because we wanted something to drink!
( Entries for the 2010 WineMaker Magazine Competition. Huge recognition with 9 medals that year! )
- Blueberry Fortified Dessert Wine 2011 – The balance is off. The neutral alcohol I used for fortification comes through too much. I am going to back sweeten this with some organic blueberry concentrate and add some oak chips for a bit. It might move in a port-like direction.
- Dry Riesling 2011 – The acid is out of balance. Not sure what will happen with this wine.
- Riesling/Gewurztraminer Blend 2011 – Slightly hazy, otherwise a pleasant, drinkable wine.
- Winexpert Estate Series Yakima Pinot Gris 2011 – Oxidized. Not sure of the future of this wine.
- Winexpert New Zealand Pinot Noir 2011 – Just didn't pop. Going to revisit this wine in six months.
- Winexpert Special Edition Pacific Quartet 2009 – This wine has lost its nose. It tastes great, has good clarity and is balanced. Just not worth the expense.
- Peach Dessert Wine 2010 – This batch of peach wine is drinkable, but doesn't have the total package.
- Malbec 2010 – All three batches of Malbec from 2010 are a little funky. We are going to let them age for a while.
- Syrah 2010 – A lighter wine with a bit of cured meat in the nose. Didn't feel like it was typical. It drinks well for me and that’s just what I am going to do with it!
- Winexpert Rioja 2010 – Kind of a dullard. It just doesn't influence me in any tangible way. I won’t fuss to drink it as an everyday wine, but it ain't gonna bring home any hardware.
- Viognier 2010 – Way out of balance. Something about this wine changed shortly after the fermentation was completed. It was trending well up until then. We used quite a bit of it in a blend so it is almost gone.
- Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – Only a few bottles of this were bottled varietally. It is typical, if not a bit acidic, and I didn't feel it was a winner.
- White Blend 2010 – Not a bad wine, except when one of the stinky bottles gets opened! Too much risk therein.
- World Vineyard Australian Riverland Reserve 2009 – This wine doesn't have enough of everything. Very subtle, plenty drinkable but not in a pay attention to it type way.
One wine that we didn’t open is our 2010 Cabernet/Syrah, and as I drink a glass while I write this I am wondering if we might have missed one. It isn’t a big wine, more European in style, and has a moderate nose solid flavors, chewy tannins and a healthy does of acidity. This is at the top of the list for the next competition!
( Enjoying last year's WineMaker Magazine Competition awards dinner with friends. See you in June! )
Several wines from 2011 were too young to enter, but are coming along nicely and will see themselves in the ring in 2013.
- Cellar Craft Red Mountain Cab
- Cellar Craft Amarone
- Winexpert Sonoma Valley Pinot
The above list doesn’t include the fresh juice Amarone and Zinfandel we made in the fall of 2011 that have not yet even gone into the bottle.
While the effort we went through might seem fun, it really was hard work and required my wife and I to be brutally honest with each other and ourselves. I am really happy with the selections we picked and can’t wait to see what turns up our first medals of 2012 in June when the results are announced. No matter what I have improved my own ability to judge my wines and am looking forward to the feedback these wines bring.