Staging area for 2,600 different wines

 A few years back someone in Jeanette Merritt’s office, probably Jeanette, had a great marketing/PR idea. The Indiana Wine and Grape Council, along with Purdue University, hosts the biggest wine competition in the United States outside of California.

Ann Miller and Todd Ranier between flights

Several years ago they started inviting “guest judges” to join a tasting panel for a few hours. The guest judges were bloggers, wine writers, foodies, and such. The guests taste right along with the judges and offer their opinions from no medal, bronze, silver or gold awards. But the guest’s vote doesn’t count.

I have done this several times now and besides great fun, learn a lot each time. Thursday at Purdue’s Memorial Union building I sat down at a judging table with Donna Adams, Winzerwald Winery, Indiana, Todd Ranier, Kahn’s Fine Wines, Ann Miller, St. James Winery, Missouri, and Don Crank, winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards, Oregon.

Donna was our table’s lead taster.

I was there for two hours and tasted through five flights of wines with the judging panel. The judges are only told the variety, vintage, and residual sugar of the wines place in front of them. The Thursday morning flights were American White Blends, Red Blends, Traminette, Chambourcin, and Vidal Blanc.

Judges rank the wines based on clarity, color, aroma, taste, aftertaste, and then overall opinion. Most flights range from five glasses up to 12-14. Let’s just say you learn how to taste wine and spit often in this game.

We had wines we hated, loved, and simply confused us. I like the experience because I learn so much. Crank makes wines at one of the Willamette Valley’s premier wineries and geeked us out several times even talking about a process or machine with “scorpion” in its name. Four pair of eyes were glazed over during that discussion.

Crank offered up plenty of technical expertise

But Dan also had the best line of the day I sent out via social media. We were talking about start up Indiana wineries and whether anyone hired professional help. Donna Adams shared one story of a start up which hired winemaking pro from U.C. Davis on a one-year contract to teach them all they needed to know.

“The wine business is very expensive but knowledge is a good thing to spend yr money on,” Don said. Ranier quickly suggested that was social media wisdom so I Tweeted and updatded. I wish more Indiana wineries heeded Crank’s advice.

I also have some comments from Crank about these wine competitions versus magazine point ratings. I’ll get that up in the next day or so.

The other thing I seek when attending this event is affirmation, not that I’m right in agreeing on a medal but do I taste, see, and smell the same things as the judging pros? Everyone is going to like different things whether you’ve ever judged wines or not. For the most part, I was right on this year and largely awarding the same level medal as the other judges. That gives me a little more confidence when recommending what I think is a well-made wine – whether it suits my palate or not.

Some numbers to ponder: 2,600 wines entered this year (up 200), 41 U.S. States, 14 countries. The competition started in 1992 with 454 entries. The contest was held for years at the state fairgrounds but moved to Purdue in 2010.

Jeanette will have the winners tallied and out in a press release very soon. I comb it for Indiana winners and other wines of interest.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com