Finger Lakes International Wine Competition – Judging Experience
From Winemaker, Phil Plummer
Award Winning Wines
If you’ve spent any kind of time visiting tasting rooms in the Finger Lakes, you’ve probably noticed competition medals proudly displayed on bottles of wine. Every year, New York wines are entered into competitions all over the world and consistently come home with hardware. While the awards are fairly straightforward (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Double Gold medals), many wine drinkers may not be aware of how these competitions are structured or what goes into the determination of what medal a wine will receive. Recently, I had the opportunity to work as a judge at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and the experience got me thinking that a blog post about my experience that weekend might be a great way to shed some light on how these competitions work.
How the wine competition works…..
The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (FLIWC) took place in Rochester, NY, and featured wines and judges from all over the world. Over the course of the weekend, over 3000 wines and spirits were evaluated by several 3-4 judge panels. When organizing the competition, judges were assigned to panels based on experience level and background. Prior to the competition, wines were categorized into flights that were arranged by varietal and/or style. In the interest of fairness, the flights were judged blind—judges were provided with a list of wines on the flight with information including blend components/varietal, residual sugar, and vintage, but there was no other information (including producer and region of origin) provided. When the flights arrived at the panel each judge was given time to independently evaluate each wine and assign a medal value to it. Once all the judges had completed the flight, the results were discussed and debated prior to awarding an official medal. After all of the awards had been finalized, a new flight was delivered to the panel and the process was repeated.
So now that I’ve described the process, I think it’s time I answer some frequently asked questions that relate to wine competitions and judging. One of the first questions that people inevitably ask when they hear about the volume of wines evaluated is “How drunk did you get?” The answer to this one might be a little bit unexpected: not at all. At wine competitions (and in the cellar at the winery) spitting is essential in order to continue to evaluate wines fairly and effectively. Another question that comes up in regard to this process is “Doesn’t everything taste the same after a while?” The answer to this one is a bit more nuanced: palate fatigue is a very real thing, but the competition organizers make sure to keep the judging tables well-stocked with palate cleansers in the form of breadsticks, olives, and rare roast beef. Next on the list of questions is usually something to the tune of “You won a gold medal, how many wines did yours beat?” At the base level, these wines aren’t really evaluated against each other; wines are awarded medals on their own merits but aren’t judged comparatively until the best of class/category rounds of the competition. Finally, and probably most important to clear up: “You judged in a competition that you entered wines in, isn’t that a conflict of interests?” In addition to having all of the wines tasted blind, the flights are organized to avoid serving wines to the winemakers that produced them. If there’s ever a question like this about one of the wines on the flight, judges are encouraged to recuse themselves from evaluating that one in the interest of fairness.
Such a great honor!
I was incredibly honored to be involved in this event, and I feel that it was an unbelievably valuable experience for me as both a winemaker and wine enthusiast. It’s always great to be in a position to taste and discuss wines with people who have such great experience and diverse backgrounds. I learned a great deal and met some wonderful people over the course of the weekend, and I look forward to judging more competitions in the future.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that proceeds from the FLIWC benefit Camp Good Days, a local summer camp for children with serious illnesses. The competition would not be possible without the efforts of an army of volunteers who are affiliated with the camp, and seemingly every one of those volunteers has a story about how Camp Good Days has positively impacted their families or selves. For more information on Camp Good Days, visit https://www.campgooddays.org/
We brought home some awards!