The event took place in southern Vermont, late in April, on one of those weekends when people tell each other, "it is a crime to stay indoors." The sky was high and so blue it gave you vertigo to stare into it. The first tentative leaves were unfolding on some of the birch trees and a few daffodils bloomed for some of the more fortunate gardeners. Most people did, indeed, get outdoors where they did yard and garden work, played golf, or rode a bike.
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There were, however, fifty visitors to Manchester's stately Equinox Hotel who remained, resolutely, indoors all weekend. From shortly after breakfast until almost dinner, they sat around tables, drinking wine.
Well, they were actually tasting wine; not drinking it. Which is a good thing because even though they were fifty in number, they had a formidable 4,321 varieties of wine to taste, evaluate and judge. And, then, there was another consideration. A lot of this wine was a little, ah, unorthodox. These fifty hardy souls would be called on to taste wines made from, among other things, jalapeños, dandelions (just like the ones the gardeners around town were doing battle with), muscadines, peaches and honey. These were wines one would definitely not want to sit around drinking, glass after glass, for an entire three days. Unless, that is, one had some notion of embalming himself before dying; perhaps to cut down on the funeral expenses. You might enjoy a glass—even two—of wild plum wine from a Florida Panhandle vintner. But you would not, of your own volition, spend an entire weekend drinking the stuff.
And, in point of fact, the fifty tasters spent only a small fraction of their three days in Vermont sampling wines made from fermented exotics. Most of those 4,321 bottles held what had begun life as traditional wine grapes—merlot, cabernet, pinot, etc.—and had been transmogrified through love and fermentation into something the maker took enough pride in that he (or she) had entered this, the largest wine competition in North America. The previous year, wines had come from 44 American states, 8 Canadian provinces and 4 countries.
"This is the first year when we've actually been the largest," said Brad Ring, whose WineMaker magazine sponsored the event. He was between chores which included taking empties out to a dumpster that was the size of a boxcar and that was slowly filling up with broken glass. The scent off that dumpster was like the morning after a dinner party that had gotten slightly out of hand.
"There is a tasting, for wines that come from commercial vineyards, and it is out in Sonoma. They get about 4,100 entries. So…we're number one."
Up, he explains, from obscurity. "We judged about 600 bottles five years ago, the first time we did it. By last year, we were up to 3,400."
WineMaker's publisher, Ring is an amiable man with much to be amiable about today. Every one of the 4,321 tasting submissions came with a $20 entrance fee. Ring's expenses included hiring the hall and picking up the tasters' travel costs. But most of them are from New England and they do it for the love so "we make a little money," Ring says.
Plus, the event gives him a bump in circulation (which is now 40,000 subscribers), additional advertiser interest and additional credibility in the winemaking community. "And," he says, "it is a lot of fun. There's an element of drudgery. We have a small staff at the magazine and we spend a lot of time opening packages—people want to make sure the bottle doesn't break during shipping, so the packaging can be pretty substantial. And we have to catalog everything that comes in. So there's a lot of pure paperwork."
Still, it is about wine. Not clerical chores. By Friday, when the thing gets underway, there is a festive spirit you can feel in the hotel meeting rooms that Ring has reserved for the occasion. The tasters sit in clusters of three around tables arranged in horseshoe shape. Volunteers and magazine staffers bring around the wines— six bottles to a flight—and the tasters go to work. There is no way for them to know who has made any one wine. All the bottles are identified by a numerical code.