Earlier this month, I traveled to Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake to judge this year’s New York Wine Classic — colloquially known as the Oscars of New York wine. It was a great and eye-opening experience, and something I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to do.
Why? Well, over my decade-plus writing about New York wines, I’ve had what I guess you could call a contentious relationship with the Classic and I’ve never been one to be shy in sharing his opinions. I’ve been vocal about my reservations about all wine competitions, the Classic included.
The types of medals that are handed out at these sorts of events are valuable if you are a winery and can use them to sell wine. If that’s the goal, wine competitions do that. As a winery, you pay your fee, send a couple of bottles of wine and get a medal back. Then you can use that medal to sell more wine, because it “proves” your wine is good. That’s pretty simple, right?
But as a wine consumer and someone who approaches writing about wine from that point of view as much as possible, the medals are much more problematic. If you walk into a winery and hear about a wine that just won a gold medal, what does that really tell you? It sounds great on the surface. We all grew up watching the Olympics. We know that gold medals go to the best — except that’s not always the case with wine competitions. “Double Gold” is better than gold. And some even hand out “Platinum” medals now for the top wines.
And, are you going to go to that competition’s site to confirm the medal? Will you look to see who judged the competition? Were they qualified? Do their palates map to your own? Were there biases of any sort? How many other wines won gold?
There are a lot of problems with these types of competitions. I still feel that way, overall.
You may be wondering why I even wanted to judge the Classic, given my general attitude toward wine competitions.
It’s really pretty simple: I wanted to.
I wanted to see how the competition was run. I wanted to know how many wines judges are asked to taste and judge. I wanted to see if I’d be the most critical judge — or the most forgiving judge — in the room and I just wanted to see what wines were submitted.
It’s one thing to critique — maybe unfairly at times — from afar. I wanted to experience it for myself.
It was an incredible experience. One that I hope I can repeat next year and beyond.
I’ve judged other competitions and seen judges lists for others as well. Sometimes there are people judging who honestly shouldn’t be. That wasn’t an issue with the Classic this year, however. The judges, all 21 of them, were passionate wine lovers, people who know wine and — while open-minded to the diversity you’ll find in New York wine — no one was going to make excuses or grade on a curve. It was an impressive group. I wasn’t the hardest grader in the room either, though I was probably close.
As expected — as with with most wine-tasting experiences — there were the good wines, the bad wines and the ugly wines. I found some wines that I loved that I wouldn’t have expected to love, while other groupings like cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc were surprising in their mediocrity — though I didn’t taste every wine in those categories.
Throughout the course of the competition, the wines we tasted were identified only by numbers to eliminate any potential winery bias. Only after the event was over did I get a full list of every wine in the competition with their assigned numbers.
What did seeing the wine list show me?
While I’ve changed my mind about the New York Classic — it’s well run and judged by great people — it’s clear that many of the state’s best wineries need to have their minds changed as well. Without participation from a greater number of the state’s most respected and acclaimed wineries, which are making many of the state’s best wines, the New York Wine Classic can’t reach its full potential.
Now that I’ve seen the Classic in action, trust me when I tell you that no one should question the final results. I was there, and while I didn’t vote for every wine that eventually won the various “Best of” awards, there weren’t any wines that didn’t deserve to make it to that final round.
And yet in many categories — including merlot and cabernet sauvignon — I know there are wines being made that are better than the wines that won. The same is true for several other categories too, by the way.
But those wines weren’t part of the competition because, for one reason or another, those wineries don’t take part in the Classic. It’s like the lottery — you can’t win if you don’t play.
Or, they did submit wines and they just didn’t show well on that particular day. That happens, too and there isn’t much anyone can do about that.
I’d encourage producers from across the state that maybe aren’t regularly submitting wines to the Classic to at least consider doing so next year. Any real or perceived regional biases simply aren’t there. I was looking for them.
I’ve been as vocal as anyone about the issues surrounding this competition. But the team that organizes it an runs it does an excellent job — and the judging panel was top notch. If I can change my mind, I hope more of the best wineries in the state can, too.
A version of this column first appeared in The Suffolk Times/northforker.com