A Tasting of the Grape, Among Other Things

An amateur wine competition in Manchester, Vt., features vintages that surprise the palate

Bottles of wine at the tasting event (Photo courtesy of winemakermag.com)
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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.

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.

judges at the wine tasting
Judges tasted and evaluated over 4,300 submissions. (Photo courtesy of winemakermag.com)

Each taster ranks the wines by five criteria: appearance, aroma & bouquet, taste, aftertaste and overall impression. The wines are scored from one to twenty points in each category and then given an overall, average score. Anything over 15 is very good.

The judges fill out a scoring sheet on every wine they taste and the results are later sent to the wine maker. "It gives people a pump if they score high," Ring says. "Something to work on if they don't."

And, he adds, there are a few soreheads who write back; communicating exactly how they feel about the judges who got it so badly wrong about their handsome wine.

I spent several hours, over those three days, at the Equinox and I can report one thing with absolute confidence: A wine tasting—even the largest wine tasting in North America—is not exactly a spectator event. There is nothing especially suspenseful or thrilling about watching someone sip a little wine, let it sit on the tongue for a while, swish it around, then spit it out, ponder for a moment and finally write a number on a printed form.

There was much sipping and spitting and cracker eating and cleansing of the pallet with bottled water, and after you've seen a little of that, you've seen entirely enough.

Still, there are things to be learned if you talked to Ring and to the judges when they were on break. Among them:

• There are some 1 million people making their own wine in North America. (The hobby is very strong in Canada.)

• A wine made at home is not necessarily fit only for amateur consumption. "Some of what we get here, at this tasting, is every bit as good as some of the famous commercial table wines," one of the judges told me. "In fact, we put a few bottles of decent commercial wine in the mix just as a control. It scores where it should and a lot of the wines that are entered here score the same. Or even a little better."

• The popularity of kits for wine making at home has led to a lot of "sameness" in the wines the judges work their way through. "The kits guarantee that you won't go very far wrong if you do everything the instructions tell you to do. But you won't come out with anything unique or inspired, either."

• You don't have to spend a lot of money to make your own wine. A couple of hundred bucks will get you started. But if you get the fever, you can spend your retirement money on French oak barrels, high-end bottling equipment, a cellar, etc., etc.

• Making wine works fine as a hobby but not as a way of saving money. "It's something you do for yourself. And so you can impress your friends."

• If you need an excuse to get started, use the one that worked for many, many before you. Say you are doing it for your health. "We saw a big surge in interest," Ring says, "when people started reading about the ‘French paradox.'" Which is, I learned, not the title of some impenetrable book by Sartre but the medical evidence that red wine improves coronary health.

By lunch on Sunday, the dumpster was nearly filled with broken glass and I was ready to go pull dandelions instead of drink them—or, to be precise, watching while other people drank them. The winners in each of 50 different categories would be announced later, and they would be feted at an awards dinner in California in late spring or early summer.

Before leaving, I did sample a little mead, something I've wanted to try ever since I was compelled to read Chaucer. It wasn't bad, either. And, thought I, there is the guy I know who raises bees. So a supply of honey wouldn't be a problem and every man needs a hobby, they say. With a little practice, some water and yeast, I might just take Best in Show in the Mead division—next year at the Equinox.

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