Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Does a Blue Ribbon Mean?

What does it mean when a winery advertises it’s “Blue Ribbon” Cabernet? Or another winery invites you to taste their “award-winning” wines?

I’ve always been something of a skeptic but got a brand new appreciation May 16 at the Indianapolis International Wine Competition. Indy’s wine competition is the largest in the U.S. outside of California. They had 3,064 wines entered this year from 42 states and 10 countries.

They invite members of the press and wine press to join the judging tables as “judges in training.” I jumped at the opportunity. I tasted 52 wines in about an hour and a half. I judged the wines, participated in the judges’ discussion, but my vote didn’t count. The personally rewarding part of the experience was that I was very close to what the other judges thought about the wines most of the time.

See photos from the Wine Judging Competition here.

But what does it mean for the consumer when you see “award winning wines?”

“To me it’s a signal you’re doing things right,” said Jeanne Burgess, VP of Winemaking Operations for two Florida wineries and someone who has judged wines for 20 years. “No matter what the medal is, if you’re consistently winning medals you’re doing something right in the winery. The competitions can vary but as long as your wines are winning medals that means your quality is at a certain standard.”

I was impressed with the diversity and qualifications of my judging panel. We had a wine distributor, a college professor teaching in the field of viticulture, an Indiana winery owner, and Jeanne – a winemaker.

“It’s eye opening the way the panels are designed,” said Michael Palmer, a wine distributor. Palmer grew up in the wine business in Madison, Indiana, where his father owns Madison Vineyards. “When you work on just the wholesale or retail or even production side you get a narrow focus. This gives you a different perspective to see what the consumer sees.”

The competition is amazing up close. There are five judges to each panel, More than 80 volunteers, largely Purdue University employees, prepare the wines and serve the judges who blind taste all sorts of wine. The judges never know the winery, just the varietal and the vintage. They blind taste the wines and rate each wine individually and not against each other.

Our table tasted Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chambourcin, berry wines, and naturally flavored wines during my hour and a half of tasting.

The competition, sponsored and held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, began in 1973. It has grown to an international competition since the early 1990s.

The Indiana Wine Grape Council, based at Purdue, helps market and organizes the event. Jeannette Merritt, Marketing Specialist, said the competition is particularly important to Indiana’s 43 wineries.

“We use the term gold equals sold,” Merritt said. “If they get a medal here it helps sell their wine. For some of the wineries they can take that back and maybe mark it up a dollar because it now has a little more value. The wines have been judged by 80 professional winemakers, wine writers, and wine educators. For 80 other people to say your wine has won a medal, it’s probably going to move off the shelves very quickly.”

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, In., is a wine enthusiast who writes about wine for Indiana newspapers. Read his blog for more on the wine industry and the wines he’s regularly drinking at:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Great 'One Tank Trip' to Southern Indiana

Of the nearly 40 Indiana wineries, there isn’t another like Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Vineyards in Starlight, Indiana, atop a hill just northwest of Louisville and across the Ohio River.

Huber’s family found its southern Indiana roots in 1843 and now is in its seventh generation of tending the land. Huber grows 18 different varietals leading to about 400,000 pounds of grapes each year.

I’ve visited Huber’s for several years now and their wines are getting better and better. “Most of the vineyards at Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Vineyards are starting to show their maturity as the roots expand deeper into the limestone rich soils we find on the Knobstone escarpment,” Ted Huber said. “These vines typically start showing complex flavors developing in the wines after their seventh year in our soils giving the wines much richer texture and complexity. This allows us to better manage our barrel and blending program giving our Heritage and Generations a more interesting flavor profile.”

The Heritage and Generations wines are their two flagship dry red wines. Those two labels are easily the best dry red wine I’ve tasted from any Hoosier winery. Huber’s grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Blaufrankisch, Chambourcin, as well as many of the other grapes you’d expect from an Indiana winery. But in 2000 they planted Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Pinot Gris. It will be fascinating to see how Ted uses those grapes in coming vintages.

But Huber’s is much more than a winery. They have nearly 900 acres of Christmas trees, apples, strawberries, peaches, berries of all sort, pumpkins, and vegetables. They make their own cheeses and ice cream, jams, jelly, and they have a bakery.
They also have a Children’s Farm Park, cafĂ©, gift shop, and a distillery producing Brandy and Grappa.

“In the mid 1970s as my father and uncle started to plan for the winery, they understood there was a much diversified need among our customer base,” Huber said. “They understood that having a variety and diversified product list would keep things interesting for our customers and for all levels of the wine-drinking public.

“We see approximately 400,000 people each year to our farm and the diversified wine list helps us retain repeat customers. We are not just focusing on Dry wines or Sweet wines – we have a range of wines to taste and select from.”

The Huber name is an iconic label in this hilly corner of Indiana overlooking the river and Louisville. But Huber will admit there are plenty of people north of Columbus, Indiana, still unfamiliar with their operation. “They are often customers that we refer to as the “one tank trip” customers. There is a complete different look and feel to our area than the central part of Indiana. Our growing conditions and topography are conducive to growing grapes much different than other wineries in Central Indiana.”

This is one of my favorite “one tank trips” for any Saturday and I try to make it 3-4 times a year.

Howard’s Picks:
2006 Generations – Huber’s basic dry red wine is full flavored and nicely balanced. It’s Indiana’s best dry red wine at the $14.99 price point.
2004 Heritage – I mention this particular older vintage of their best blend simply because it is the best glass of red wine I’ve ever had from an Indiana producer. The 2004 is $24.99 but the current 2006 release is available for $18.99.
2008 Traminette – Indiana’s answer to Gewurtztraminer is produced by most Indiana wineries. This semi-dry, floral and spicy white wine is awesome for $14.99.