September 14, 2019

Behind the Scenes of the Idaho Wine Competition

The 10th Annual Idaho Wine Competition was held on August 20, 2019.  I have volunteered at all of these that have been put together by Eric Degerman of Great Northwest Wine Magazine.  While it really sounds great to be part of a wine competition there is a lot of planning and hard work that goes into making the judge's life so simple that all they have to do is taste wine and come up with some decisions.

Check out the award-winning wines page to see which wines from the Sunnyslope Wine Trail earned medals this year! I will leave the rest of the results out of this blog, and direct you to Eric’s great article covering the entire event. What I want to give you is an idea of what goes on behind the curtains in the back room of a wine competition. The photo above is also by Eric!

While Eric coordinates the judging panels, the Idaho Wine Commission has the work of putting out the call for entries and gathering up all the wines.  The logistics are impressive.  This year there were 151 wines entered from all across Idaho! If you want to enter a wine in this competition, you need to submit three bottles of each wine.  One is tasted and judged.  One is a spare in case the first bottle is corked, or tainted by air as a result of a faulty cork (this happened twice this year and the second bottle was fine). The third bottle gets saved for promotional uses throughout the year.  Each bottle gets a specific code as well.  That adds up to over 37 cases of wine that need to be wrangled into one location that the Judges will never see.  Ashlee Struble of the Idaho Wine Commission did an amazing job this year making that happen.  The past two years the competition has been held at the beautiful Koenig Vineyards tasting room located in the heart of Sunnyslope.

How the Competition Works

The wines need to be sorted into general categories that the judges panels do get to see. The four judges (including one moderator that keeps track of the results and comments) get wines presented in stemmed wine glasses with a coded sticker on them. The groupings keep like wines together while the codes keep the individual wines anonymous to the judges.

To keep things fair and balanced the wines are judged blind. The panels can’t even see the bottles before the judging. All the whites are chilled the night before and each red wine is opened, poured into a pitcher and poured back into the bottle so they all benefit from equal aeration. Each judge has a plate of cheese, oyster crackers, mushrooms, and apple slices to help keep their palates clear between flights of wines along with some neutral sparkling water for hydration.

The judges are comparing what is in their glass to what the standard for that wine should taste like. It is not just about what they like to drink. Does it smell right? Does it look right? Does it taste as the specific varietal should? Is it flawed in any way? Obviously the judges have to have a lot of experience tasting wine to have the sensory memory to make these decisions. This year’s panel included the Director of Winemaking from College Cellars in Walla Walla Washington, a Seattle restaurant chain wine buyer, a wine chemist/educator and a candidate working on her Master of Wine degree, a food writer from New Orleans and some other notable and knowledgeable northwest wine experts.

This is what their workstations look like for the day.

There are 2 panels and each tastes half the wines. At the end of the day, they come together to taste the Gold Medal winners to determine the best wine in each category. I want to stress that they do not swallow any of these wines. They spit out every taste into a red solo cup. It’s a shame but it’s the only way to make it past lunch. (The judging starts at 9:30 in the morning)

Work for Volunteers

This is what my workstation looks like on wine competition day!

As you can see, all of that wine tasting requires alot of glassware! While the Wine Commission brings about 15 dozen wine stems to the party, we go through about 90 dozen individual pourings. That means there are a lot of glasses to wash quickly. It’s lucky that the Koenig facility has a commercial dishwasher that can handle 25 glasses per 2 minute wash cycle. To prevent any soap contamination of the flavors we just use really hot water and dry each glass individually.

Preparing for this event takes a dedicated cadre of volunteers. This includes the team from the Idaho Wine Commission and some great folks that Eric brings down from the Tri-Cities area that have done this before. We really can’t afford to mess this up so we check and double-check what is going in which glass and what gets delivered to each panel!

The fun part of all of this hard work and concentration is hearing what the esteemed panel of judges is saying about Idaho wines. I overheard some gems this year, both good and not so good...

“If I was drinking either of these wines on my front porch it would be a great day…”

“This is a clean miss…”

“You could put this up against any wine in the world and it would be a stand out…”

If a wine has won a medal, the consumer can be pretty sure it represents that particular grape and style of wine well. Of course, if you don’t like the way that grape tastes, a medal doesn’t mean you’ll like that bottle any better! Wine is all about individual taste buds interacting with time, place and food to create an experience for each and every one of us. Use the winners list and your palate to be the final judge here. Step right up and enjoy some Idaho wine. Idaho is making wine that will stand out all over the world!

Cheers to you!

The Idaho Wine Ambassador
© 2019 Jim Thomssen

About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador:  Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics.  He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential.  Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, Great Northwest Wine, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines.  Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal.  He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.

Sunnyslope Wine Trail


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