There are hundreds — if not thousands — of wine competitions organized annually and within each of them hundreds — again, if not thousands — of wines that are tasted and judged at each. An enormous amount of work goes into the invitations, receipt, storage, handling and pouring of the wines, as well as the management of venues, judges, the data compiled and the publicity surrounding the event.

Still, with all of that investment, many continue to ask, “do wine competitions matter?” If that’s the case, why would anyone consider starting a new competition dedicated to New England wine?

The former question is a thorny one, and arguments for and against are many. If competitions are worth anything…it depends on the frame through which they are viewed and who you ask. Ryan Opaz has opined on the value of the competition process, while Alder Yarrow has derided it. Richard Auffrey has proffered that awards have little value for wine critics and buyers, while Nomacorc posts that it has positive effects on consumer targeted sales.

We’re going to focus on the latter question, as to why the lesser known wines of New England should meet in an arena to face the thumbs up or down from a panel of judges. Simply put, there may be no other venue where these wines might be drawn together for evaluation, and that in itself has some value. One event that I watch for each year, for just this reason, is the International Cold Climate Wine Competition held in Minnesota. It’s the only place where 300+ wines from north of the Vitis-vinifera line can gather for evaluation. The most recent results are out from this 9th year of the trial…while I will take solace that the wines from my home state of Vermont did very well winning gold, silver and Bronze, this is the first year since its inception that Vermont has not taken one or more “Best in Show.”

Sharpe Hill Dry Summer Rosé

[ Sharpe Hill Rosé ] Now THIS is the way to handle St. Croix – Soft strawberry black currant nose. Palate is wild strawberry, watermelon where flesh meets rind, more currants. Round, juicy, lively acids in the sour spectrum, herbaceous tinge. Quite nice, and at $15 a great price for local pink. ( See the hummingbird who photobombed the shot? )

Richard Leahy is a veteran proponent of local wines east of the Rockies and has for years done a yeoman’s task in promoting them. He’s written about them, consulted with wineries, and helped create the successful Eastern Winery Exposition. Richard was also kind enough to scoop me under his wing at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2011 in Charlottesville, VA on the first evening, and led me to an extra-curricular downtown tasting where I first found Keswick Vineyard’s intriguing Verdejo. So when I asked him why he held a first “Best of New England” competition in the spring of this year, the response was not surprising. He’d collaborated with the proprietor of Hermit Woods Winery on the project because,  “there’s an unfortunate and huge disconnect in the New England culinary scene from thinking of craft beverages like wine, mead, cider and fruit wines as appropriate locavore drinks that should be promoted with local foods, and celebrated for their diversity…the competition is a vehicle to promote wider awareness of New England craft beverages as being high-quality and made with a diverse range of fruits, so that consumers, the trade, and those in the tourism industry can get behind them…” he also added “The emergence of high-quality fruit wine (especially dry), mead and cider as “siblings” to regional wine, is the biggest surprise I’ve had, but I’m also encouraged by it…Why not serve local fruit wines or mead, if they are higher quality than hundreds of critter label Chardonnays and Merlots?”

Having judged a couple of times myself, spoken to people who have done so much more frequently and assessed the results of such events, its seems the general axiom of the competition is that any good wine has a chance of inconsistently winning medals, while the poor wines are consistently filtered out in their inability to show. Outliers to the far good and less good ends of the bell curve have the potential to either be overlooked or over-touted depending on circumstance. So results should be tasted with a few grains of salt. That said, we were intrigued to receive samples of some of the ‘Best of Show’ and ‘Best of State’ winning wines for review.

I tasted the samples that were sent to me with local folks who had particular experience with the categories and we were quite favorably impressed by the quality and presentation of the products. Clean, enjoyable and interesting ferments that clearly showcased their base materials. All well-built and well-handled wines. There is only one caveat and a point that the editorial board agrees upon. We offer a suggestion to red wine makers of all kinds east of the Rockies, while your wine may be very fine and deserving of the best quality vessels you can afford, you really can save yourself some serious cash if you dial back the barrel and are more gentle with the use of new oak. Let the lovely fruit cores of your handiwork shine through the darkness, and you will be even bigger winners in our books.

There is only one caveat and a point that the editorial board (that being me and Lenn) agrees upon. We offer a suggestion to red wine makers of all kinds east of the Rockies, while your wine may be very fine and deserving of the best quality vessels you can afford, you really can save yourself some serious cash if you dial back the barrel and are more gentle with the use of new oak. Let the lovely fruit cores of your handiwork shine through the darkness, and you will be even bigger winners in our books.

Wineries should proudly display their awards in their tasting rooms, as that’s an appropriate place for them to tout their achievements or take some to farmers markets and festivals where they hand-sell their wares. When it comes to trade tastings and marketing events, or communicating with critics, it is best to let the wines speak for themselves. While the perceived value of competition results may be in contention, their awards do have a place…provided that medal winners know that these accolades are indicators not absolutes, and only serve as partial guidance towards finding their own space in a very large wine world.

Cellar Door Winery 2912 Vendage Sparkling Rose
Creamy red fruit in a kind of wildflower mist. Great mouth bead, dried cherry soda jolly rancher center palate, melon and green apples on the rim. Crispy palate cleanser, with long invigorating chalky arc.  Aperitif application.

Crispy palate cleanser, with long invigorating chalky arc.  Aperitif application.



Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery  “Barn Red” Leon MIllot
Right aromatic notes of nutty sour cherry, varietal correct, French oak spice has a heavy showing.

Good fruit mid palate, nice weight, light richness, , salivating bright acidity.




Hermit Woods Winery Three Honey Gold
Seductive waxy floral aromatic shroud surrounds undeniable raw honey core. Dry, limpid, refreshing like spring water, and dissolving into a layered recall of the aroma profile, with an herbal citrus twang that lingers where so many meads go medicinal. This is just good medicine, and sublime at that, no spoonful of sugar necessary.

Aaronap Cellars Forest Gold
Sublime earthy, nutty, lemon rind nose. Sense of boiling sap steam fresh off the arch.

Raw maple life force, slick viscosity, earthy citrus. Wonderful acidity. Great pair for winter squash soup or aperitif, cheese intermezzo, dessert replacement.





Caroklyn’s Sakonnet Vineyards 2015 Vidal Blanc
Vivid racy candied stone fruit aromatics. Succulent and ambrosial crackling citrus, bright nectarine flesh, apricot pit. Great balance of tempered sweetness and acid framework.
Very lively and quite a palate pickup.





Best of Category results were:

  • Shelburne Vineyards of Vermont with Best White Wine, for their 2015 La Crescent;
  • LaBelle Winery of New Hampshire with Best Red Wine, for their Amherst Vineyard Red 2015;
  • Sharpe Hill Vineyards of Connecticut with Best Rosé for their Dry Summer Rosé 2015;
  • Cellardoor Winery of Maine with Best Sparkling Wine for their “Vendage” 2012;
  • Stowe Cider of Vermont with Best Cider for their Dry Hopped Cider;
  • Copper Beech Winery of New Hampshire with Best Fruit Wine for their Country Crabapple;
  • Hermit Woods Winery of New Hampshire with Best Mead for their Three Honey Gold:
  • Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard of Rhode Island with Best Dessert Style for their Amrita 2014;
  • Aaronap Cellars of Massachusetts with Best Specialty Wine for their Forest Gold maple wine.

Best of State awards went to LaBelle Winery in New Hampshire, Stowe Cidery in Vermont, Sharpe Hill Vineyards in Connecticut, Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery in Maine, Aaronap Cellars in Massachusetts, and Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard in Rhode Island.

About Author

Todd is a north country native, and lifelong inhabitant of the northeast. Growing up in the Mohawk river and Lake Champlain Valleys, then attending Binghamton University, youthful adventures to ‘the city’ were more likely to target Montreal, than Manhattan. He made a lateral move to Vermont in 1991 for graduate school, and while he still lives in the Green Mountains, he is frequently found within the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park, or floating on the big lake in between. As a third-generation Polish-Italian American, with family lore of Prohibition era winemaking on both sides, the probability of predisposed wine interest was high. A 1976 family trip through the Finger Lakes left a young Todd wondering why there weren’t vineyards back home on Lake Champlain, and in the Hudson Valley. He trained his palate on the rise of the microbrew wave, and by rummaging wine racks in old country stores, searching out forgotten bottles. Numerous relationships with folks in the wine and restaurant trades, provide an ongoing education about food and wine culture in the north country, which he shares through the Vermont Wine Media project. For ten years, Todd has kept his ear to the ground for any signs of wine growing in the far north. He is a volunteer and test winemaker at the Cornell Baker Farm, a cold-hardy hybrid trial vineyard, in Willsboro, NY, where his extended family resides. He home vinifies grapes harvested from the trial, as well as fruit acquired anywhere from Vermont to Chile. Author of 'Wines of Vermont: A History of Pioneer Fermentation', he lives and gardens with his wife, canine, feline, and donkey friends, at an old farmstead in Stockbridge, VT.

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