The Indy International Wine Competition is the biggest outside California. It’s been around awhile too! For the second year, I was a “guest judge” Thursday morning and found the second time around a bit easier.

No question it’s a real challenge for the judges to taste wines over three days and maintain some sensory perception on the palate. I stayed about two hours and during that time my panel tasted eight Nortons, nine Rose, 10 Sangiovese, and nine Port wines.

As you might expect, some were very good – and some were not.

The makeup of each panel fascinates me. The Purdue folks who run the show put together a very balanced group. I was taking part as a media person so I participated in discussion and rated each wine, but my vote didn’t count.

For the average wine drinker, I’ll offer this before proceeding. Last year I really struggled evaluating the wines because I had never had to spit before. It took me nearly an hour of an hour and a half of tasting to have any idea what I was doing. This year I found it easier. I struggled with some wines but largely had some handle on the taste and characteristic of each glass poured.

I was really happy that on most wines I was pretty consistent with the rest of the panel. Now, the fun is always when one person hated what everyone else loved or vice-versa. That has happened to me both years.

But back to our judges panel. I was seated at a table with Michael Palmer, President of The Venture Wine Group (a wine distributor), his family owns Madison Vineyards in Southern Indiana. Marco LiCalzi, an Italian native, is an assistant Professor and Enology Program Leader at the Univeristy of Missouri. Mark Fisher has a great job at the Dayton Daily News as its wine columnist. The leader at our table was Donna Adams, owner with husband Dan of Winzerwald Winery in Bristow, Indiana.

This was the 19th year for the competition with wines from 40 states and 14 different countries. As way of explanation, the judges receive wine in numbered glasses without ever seeing the bottles or knowing where the wines were made.

We started by tasting Norton which is grown around the Midwest. I found most of them a bit astringent reminding me somewhat of Indiana’s Chambourcin. (That will probably get me in trouble with somebody!)

Next came the Rose wines which I really love. There were some unique ones, including one made of Petit Verdot and another from Chardonnay. The judges couldn’t agree on a couple of those wines which makes for fun discussion. I really learn in such situations as the group debated a particular wine’s merits.

We moved next to Sangiovese, which I always enjoy. It probably represented the best quality across the board of any of the flights of the morning. The panel awarded several gold medals and one rare Double Gold. Right before the group broke for lunch we had Port, something I really don’t enjoy. I’ve tasted very few.

I found the category the most difficult. I’m just not used to wines with such high residucal sugar, up to 17 percent in this category. I liked a couple and the rest of the panel struggled finding consensus. There was a Chardonel Port and a Niagra Port that has to be pretty rare.

The judges were very welcoming and lots of fun. We had a great time with the Niagra Port. Mike Palmer insisted it wasn’t as bad as the rest of the panel leading Adams to ask for a re-pour. The panel thought the wine had gone bad. The second pour had a strong and recognizable nose of the sweet Niagra grape and moved from not scoring to a Bronze medal.

These competitions are controversial in some circles. The judging and consistency is debated, and fairly so. But I remember Wine Marketing Specialist Jeanette Merritt of Purdue University telling me last year Gold Medals equal dollars for midwestern wineries.

Donna Adams speaks to that in the video I put together at the top.

It is a great learning experience – but if you ever have the chance to participate in something like this, perfect your spitting skills before going the first time. That skill will also serve you well in the great wine regions of the world if you’re going tasting.

I felt like I fit in this year. Last year, I was just lost.

I’ll post the results from the competition here as soon as released.

In photos: Upper right: Fisher, right, and LiCalzi. Lower left, Palmer takes another taste.

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