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Joel's Blog

Monday, 10 August 2009 20:00

There's been lots of blowback since the Michigan Wine Competition judges, on a close vote, decided last week not to award a trophy for Best Sparkling Wine -- for the second year running.

Dan Berger
Dan Berger
A Twitter comment by a winery employee pretty much typifies the industry reaction: "I still have issues with the Michigan wine Comp not awarding a best of class sparkling wine for the SECOND YEAR IN A ROW. Explain someone?"

Respected California writer and wine-world Renaissance man Dan Berger dissented loudly and publicly after the judges refused to vote the trophy to the class's lone gold medal winner, 2007 Be Dazzled, from Black Star Farms.

Two days later, Berger remained over-the-top apoplectic. "To not vote for this wine to get a sweepstakes award is a cowardly act," he fumed in his subscription newsletter, Vintage Experiences.

OK, then, I'm a coward. I voted "No". Here's why.

In the Michigan Competition, every gold or double gold medal winner is eligible for its Best of Class trophy. [See comment below for an exception.] When that's four or fewer wines, a new rule this year has judges first vote on whether to award a trophy at all. 

We had just one gold medalist in the Best Sparkling class: Be Dazzled. (There's an interesting irony that I'll get to it in a moment.) We voted -- very closely -- to award no trophy.

Dan Berger calls Be Dazzled "a brilliant example of precise winemaking... it will age." But Black Star Farms' own website says it's "a fun sparkler with fresh, crisp fruit flavors and an off dry finish," and advises us to "enjoy this wine now."

That's much closer to the mark. Be Dazzled is fruity, delicious and well-made. It's also light and simple -- what you'd expect from a $12.50 bottle of bubbly. I'd pour it for friends in a New York second with some cheese and fruit to kick off a casual summer supper.

It's clearly a very good wine -- arguably in gold medal turf -- but well short of "brilliant". And not trophy-worthy.

Now here's the irony. We came within a hairsbreadth of sending a second sparkler into the trophy round. The most divisive wine our four-judge table tasted all day was a semi-dry bubbly that some of us found complex and highly gold-worthy, others thought to be over-the-top with yeast and oak. After a lengthy discussion, we gave it a silver medal. 

Had it made the trophy round, it would have provided a stark contrast with Be Dazzled. I kinda wish we'd had the chance to taste them side-by-side, even though I think it typifies something else that Berger fulminated against: " the 'complexity' ... in a few other Michigan sparklers was related to what I call 'artificial yeastiness' that is a common trait in some wines that are occasionally praised, but which can turn strange with any bottle age."

My guess? He would have hated this one.

Berger rightly points out that every trophy contains a "Send 'em a message" agenda: This winemaker did a great job. Other winemakers should find it a wine worth emulating.

But to the consuming public, there's a third message implicit in a trophy: This wine represents the finest of its type that Michigan is currently able to produce.

In the past, I've tasted several top-tier Michigan sparklers -- from producers like L. Mawby, Black Star Farms, Shady Lane and Tabor Hill.

This year, I didn't taste anything that good. So I voted "No".

 
Tuesday, 04 August 2009 01:21

8: 15 AM First tastings supposedly start at 8:30 this morning.  I'm judging at a table with Roz Mayberry (D&W Markets), Doug Frost (from Kansas-- both a Master of Wine AND Master Sommelier) and Amanda Danielson (owner of Traverse City's Trattoria Stella, currently studying for her Master Sommelier).

Our table is tasting Semi-Dry Sparkling (4 wines), 2008 Pinot Grigio (8 wines), 2007 Chardonnay (6 wines), and "Dry White" (5 wines).  Then we join together with all the judges to award three Best of Class Trophies: Sparkling, Dry Whites, and Michigan's first-ever Best of Class Rosé. For the trophies, every judge in the room will taste every wine that's been awarded a Gold or Double Gold at any of the judging tables.

8:40 AM  Ooops -- just announced that the Bubblies didn't get chilled overnight. Starting with Pinot Grigio. We'll taste sparkling in an hour or two, once they're cold enough.

10:40 AM Whew! Went through 5 flights of 30 total wines in the last two hours: 2008 Pinot Grigio, 2007 Chardonnay, "Dry White", Semi-Dry Sparkling, Gewurztraminer -- plus a "send-out" Sauvignon Blanc from another table that they couldn't reach agreement on. We gave it a silver medal.

Our table is taking literally Chris Cook's admonition to be tough on awarding medals. We've only given out two Gold medals from 30 wines we've tasted this morning: one 2007 Chardonnay and one 2008 Gewurztraminer. We won't know which wines they are until the judging is done, later this afternoon.

We're now on break, waiting for the other tables to finish their morning flights. Once that's done, all the judges will taste Gold medal winners to award the  Best of Class trophies in the classes we've already finished: Best Sparkling, Best Dry White, Best Rosé.

Very disappointed we didn't get to taste the preliminary Rosé flights at our table. 

Hugely amusing: we have a ten minute break while they prepare the "swepstakes" wines. Our of four judges at our table, three of us madly tapping on our electronic devices: one PowerBook, one iPhone, my Dell.

Any questions? Throw in a comment and I'll try to answer them as we go.

11:00 AM Just got the tasting sheet for Best of Class Dry whites: 3 2008 Dry Riesling, 1 2008 Pinot Blanc, 1 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay, 1 2007 Chardonnay. These are the Gold Medal winner contending for the trophy.  Gotta sign off and go taste.

11:20 AM Just voted a 2008 Pinot Blanc as trophy-winning Best of Class Dry White.Very close vote -- just beat out a 2008 Dry Riesling.

11:30 AM Just turned down the only Sparkling Wine Gold Medal Winner. No Best of Class sparkling this year -- 2nd year in a row.

11:35 AM Voted a GREAT 2008 Pinot Noir Rosé as Best of Class Rosé. My palate's guess: it's from 45 North. If it is, the same wine took the Best Rosé trophy at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition a couple of months back.

11:40 AM By way of explanation, after much controversy last year, the Competition introduced a new rule this year: if there are fewer than 3 Gold Medal wines in a class, a majority of the judges (i.e. 13 of 24) has to vote for a specific wine in order for the Competition to award a Best of Class trophy. Only one sparkling wine received a gold medal at a judging table, and it failed to receive a majority of the judges' votes for Best of Class. Result: no Sparkling trophy this year.

Off to lunch a little early -- we'll pick up  with the best semi-dry white afterwards, and start a new blog post then.

 
Tuesday, 04 August 2009 01:21

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12:45 PM Judges still talking about the decision not to award a Best of Class Sparkling. California wine writer Dan Berger says it was a mistake -- that the wine we turned down was a great example of a winemaker doing a lot by not trying to put too much yeast or too much aging on a fresh, fruity bubbly. He thinks that's just the sort of wine be ought to be rewarding, that it would send a message to the industry.

1:10 PM Just voted a 2008 Semi-Dry Gewurztraminer as Best of Class Semi Dry White.  It was a tie vote the first time around, with several other wines in the running -- so we did a revote and it beat out a semi-dry 2008 Riesling by a single vote, 12 to 11, with one judge not voting.

2:25 PM On a 15 minute break while they prepare samples for the afternoon sweepstakes -- Best of Class Dry Red, Semi-dry Red, and Fruit.

Judged cherry wines. Preceded by a discussion at our judging table on "why" -- as in why does MI make so many cherry wines. Answer: Because it's our state fruit, take it or leave it.

Wines range from insipid and syrupy to cinnamon-spiced to fairly deep and complex -- for those who scoff, this is actually a range of wines with some serious variety and quality variations. Difficult for people who don't drink it regularly to judge it, but we managed to give out two Silver medals and a Bronze among the 6 samples.

Don't mean to grumble, but I was really looking forward to judging the 2007 reds this year -- and our table has been assigned everything but. Before the Cherry, we judged five Merlots and Merlot blends from 2005, 2006 and 2008. Total awards: one bronze medal. Some other lucky bastards at another table are getting to judge the 2007 Merlot -- we'll get to taste their Gold Medal winners when everyone gets to vote for Best of Class. 

Starting to pass out the Dry Reds for Best of Class -- looks like a lot of them! Seventeen!  Gotta go taste...

3:30 PM Just awarded Best of Class Red to a 2007 Meritage -- blend of Merlot & Cab Franc.

Major league disputations. With 17 dry Gold Medal reds in the running for Best of Class, 5 finished within two votes of each other, but none got a majority of the judges' votes. Judges didn't especially like the rules that don't require the winning wine to get a majority for Best of Class, just a plurality. When there are 17 wines in the running, it's difficult for any one to become a clear winner.

Gotta go taste fruit wines...

3:55 PM A cherry wine Gold Medal from another table just got best fruit wine. No disputes here. Next up: dessert. We're running REALLY late today; supposed to be done an hour ago.

4:25 PM Finished our last flight -- Late Harvest wines. Gave a Gold Medal to a 2007 Vignoles -- really great pear flavors and 7.1% RS. 

4:55 PM Best of Class Dessert Trophy just went to a Vidal Ice Wine -- 2008 Vintage, 18% RS.

Now waiting to vote on the Judges' Merit Award, and optional award for runners-up from the different categories.

Now in a 10 minute hiatus; then we vote Best of Class Dessert wine and decide whether to give any Judges' special awards. Then we can leave, though I'm planning to stick around to see if we can get a list of Best of Class winners and get some photos of them for the website.

5:30 PM Here are the winners in all classes:

Best Dry White: 2008 Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc, Island View Vineyard, Old Mission

Best Semi-Dry White: 2008 Bel Lago Gewurztraminer, Leelanau

Best Dry Red: 2007 Gills Pier Merlot / Cab Franc, Leelanau

Best Rose: 2008 Forty-Five North Pinot Noir Rose, Leelanau

Best Dessert: 2008 Fenn Valley "42" Vidal Ice Wine, Lake Michigan Shore

Best Fruit: NV Longview Reserve Cherry Wine

Judges' Merit Award: 2008 Black Star Farms "Arcturos" Dry Riesling, Old Mission

 

 
Sunday, 02 August 2009 20:00

Winemaker Scott Harvey & writer Dan BergerEAST LANSING -- Several bits of news trickled out the evening before the Michigan Wine Competition.

Final total number of entries in the Competition: 395. That's an increase of more than 40 from last year. Superintendent Chris Cook said that 400 was the "crisis point" that might begin to create logistical issues, so he anticipates everything should run smoothly.

Wineries entering: 42 this year, up from 35 last year.

We'll start tasting a few minutes earlier than usual tomorrow morning, to accommodate the high count. If things go as planned, the first pours will hit the table at 8:30 AM, sharp.

But the biggest news of the Competition: with 21 wines entered in the dry & sweet Rosé categories, for the first time Rosé wines will be eligible to receive a Best of Class trophy from the judges in 2009.

That doesn't mean one will be given out. Since only gold medal winners are eligible for Best of Class, judges must still award at least one gold among those 21 wines. 

At right, two of the Competition's visiting judges from California -- winemaker Scott Harvey and writer Dan Berger -- chat over dinner at East Lansing's Kellogg Center.

 

 

 
Tuesday, 28 July 2009 20:00

At 8:30 A.M. on Tuesday, August 4, Michigan Wine Competition Superintendent Chris Cook will stand in front of 24 judges at MSU's Kellogg Center. I'll be among them, and here's what I'd like to hear him say.

Michigan Wine Competition Superintendent Chris Cook
Michigan Wine Competition Superintendent Chris Cook
"Thank you for agreeing to judge the 32nd Annual Michigan Wine Competition. This room contains some of Michigan's top tasters, plus a number of respected wine professionals and journalists from across North America. All of us have the ability to differentiate excellent wines from merely good, and good wines from merely adequate.

Last year, this competition handed out medals to 73% of the wines that entered.

But what does that mean? Nearly a third of those medals went to wines that we ranked below the median. To put it another way, the overwhelming majority of bronze medal winners actually fell below the average wine entered in the competition.

Frankly, that's an embarrassment. Michigan makes a lot of good wines today, but no competition should hand out that many medals. And few of them do -- except ours.

I acknowledge that we face a delicate situation. Unlike other, independent competitions, ours is industry-sponsored, under the auspices of the Michigan Grape and Wine Council. And like third-generation welfare recipients, many Michigan wineries have learned to depend on touting their medals as a marketing tool in their tasting rooms and promotional literature.

But I'm tired of hearing Michigan winemakers say -- in private -- that they enter out-of-state competitions for credibility, to see how their wines actually stack up, and they enter Michigan's so they can take home a stack of medals for use in their marketing.

That's not how things should work.

Some competitions take draconian steps to control their medal count. For example, the All Canada Championships limits awards to 10% gold, 10% silver, and 10% bronze. Period.

We're not going down that road, which leads to other issues. Instead, I'm asking you, our expert judges, to exercise that rarest of virtues among oenophiles -- self restraint -- when you vote to award medals today.

Please don't hand out a bronze medal simply because a wine is palatable, without major flaws. That's the base line for any competition entry, not the criterion for a medal.

Please don't hand out a silver medal simply because you find a wine slightly interesting. That's why we created the "Honorable Mention" category.

Those practices date from earlier years of this competition, when Michigan wines couldn't always stand on their own and the industry needed an extra boost from folks like us.

But today's Michigan wines have come of age, and regularly earn recognition at competitions around the country, open to all comers. Our best can hold up their heads among the world's top cool-climate wines. Earlier this year, a Leelanau Peninsula Rosé came home with a specially-created trophy from a competition in California!

Now it's time to turn the medals from our own Michigan Wine Competition into more than a marketing tool for the wineries that receive them. Let's make them truly represent a quality standard that both we and our state's industry can proudly stand behind.

Thanks for being here today, and good judging."

---------------------------------------

Update 7/30: It's been brought to my attention, by Chris Cook and others, that this year's competition will eliminate the Honorable Mention category and tighten up the criteria for awarding bronze medals, changes in the works for some time. These represent serious steps in the right direction.

 
Monday, 20 July 2009 20:00

Imagine the blow-back if a respected media outlet hired a movie critic with a day job producing studio publicity.

How about a food writer whose primary paycheck comes as executive chef for a restaurant chain? Or a book reviewer who works for a major publishing house?

People would object faster than you could scream "Conflict of Interest!" How can you ask journalists, even those of genuine integrity and good will, to objectively cover the industries they rely on for their main income stream?

Yet this sort of ethical quandary gets overlooked constantly when it comes to wine journalism -- a fact that hit home twice last week.

One came on the phone with a wine-writer acquaintance. Since neither of us realized at the time that our conversation would be grist for this piece, I'll protect his privacy, though many of you would recognize the byline.

"I don't see myself as a journalist," he told me. "I see myself as a promoter."

At first, I was surprised. Sure, the person in question is paid to promote wineries. But he's also paid to write about them in various media.

Which begs the question: when readers see a magazine article or wine column with his name attached, how many stop to parse whether the author's role is one of "journalist" or "promoter"? Perhaps more relevant: how many other fields of journalism require the reader even to consider a question like that?

The week's second "Aha!" moment came via the high-profile web startup soon to replace my local newspaper. AnnArbor.com recently began to trickle out names of its "digital journalists" and bloggers on various subjects. Their wine writer came as an eye-opener: he's the head wine guy for a company that runs five restaurants in town, and more elsewhere.*

I've never met Eric Arsenault. As a certified sommelier, he doubtless has the chops to write about wine. And I can understand his appeal to an operation like AnnArbor.com, looking to save money with unpaid or low-paid "citizen journalists". They get someone qualified to cover a specialized topic without having to shell out serious dollars.

But at what cost to their journalistic credibility?

His ethical standards may be impeccable. But the position he'll occupy -- highly-visible wine writer for a dominant local news outlet --  presents an insurmountable appearance of conflict with the interests and demands of his nicely-paid day job. Or, as retired Michigan journalist Jim Smith asked in his "Free from Editors" blog, "Will the writer slant columns to favor or benefit his own company and who at AnnArbor.com will monitor that?"

That question just scratches the surface; those who know their way around the Three-Tier Shnook System realize that potential conflicts run way deeper than blatant self-promotion.

What editor will notice if a writer drops favorable mentions for a few slow-moving distributor closeouts into the blog, and thereby gets first access to a highly-allocated, Parkerized wine from the same book -- soon to feature on his flagship restaurant's by-the-glass list?

How many editors at AnnArbor.com even understand what the last sentence means? How many folks in the biz could deny that similar sorts of quid pro quo happen every day?

It boils down to this: does a media outlet jeopardize its credibility by publishing writers whose ability to self-deal -- and the appearance of possible conflicts of interest -- will dog everything that appears under their bylines? Or where the reader has to head-scratch and wonder what a writer got in return for a story's positive slant on a wine or winery.

__________________________________________

*For the record, I write a monthly wine column for another Ann Arbor news outlet, The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

 

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Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.