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:

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