Quick Sips — 06 March 2020
Sip and tell: A wine judge spills all

By Peg San Felippo

City & Shore Magazine

Hear me out.

Being a wine judge may sound like a glamorous and cushy job, but it can be hard work. (No, really!)

I know because I was one of 32 judges in the annual American Fine Wine Competition in January at FIU’s North Campus Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management in the Wine Spectator Restaurant.  This year’s two-day judging included over 700 wines from nine states.

Before I get to that, there were several aspects that make this homegrown national competition alluring to wineries, judges and consumers:

* It’s by invitation and only wines that are vetted and invited can participate. Co-founders Shari Gherman and Monty and Sara Preiser set a precedent from the beginning of the 13-year-old event to seek out the best of the best. “It’s so important to give the public the opportunity to try top quality that reflects the diversity and personality of the vineyard and the winemaker,” Gherman says.

* The 32 judges are a diverse group of wine professionals that include educators, sommeliers and writers. There are no producers or distributors – who might try to influence the results on the panels –involved. This is my 12th year as an AFWC judge and my fellow panelists have always been diligent and impartial in their assessments.

* The events the AFWC hold throughout the year expose wineries to new markets and consumers to new wines.

* The AFWC has raised over a million dollars for over 100 local charities over the past 13 years.

Successful judges are good spitters. While being knowledgeable about wine and a good taster is imperative, being a decent spitter is also important. Each of us tasted approximately 90 wines the first day of the competition and 110 on the second. This is where the hard work comes in, sort of, because it takes a lot of discipline not to swallow some of the exquisite wines. Especially if you are judging Cabernets or Bordeaux Blends in the $90 and above category. Each judge this year tasted over $40,000 worth of wine during the competition, according to the AFWC.

Awards matter. While you would expect medals and high-point awards to draw consumers to a winery, they also get the attention of wine industry peers. Susan Tipton, of Acquiesce Winery, said recently, “Once you have won awards other wineries and professionals within the industry know you are a serious player. Since receiving gold medals over the last couple years from the AFWC we now get a steady flow of referrals from other businesses – not only for visitors to come to the winery but for restaurants wanting to carry our wine.”

It came from where? One of the biggest surprises this year was where some of the award-winning wines came from. The best of class Sauvignon Blanc, which was truly outstanding, came from the Winery at Black Star Farms in … Michigan! A terrific dry Riesling that received a double gold was from The Storm Cellar vineyard in … Colorado! In fact, 40 percent of the gold-medal Rieslings were from east of the Mississippi.

Fellow judge Ellen Landis, who also judges in the coveted San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, has had the opportunity to taste and evaluate many wines from Michigan over the past couple of years. “Michigan while being recognized for its well-crafted whites is now producing top level reds,” she says. “Soon you will see Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from there that will hold its own next to west coast wines.”

Here are some of the gold and double gold medal winners you’ll be glad you tried. I know I was – especially after all the hard work.

*Breathless Wines Blanc de Blancs NV, Sonoma County, $34, breathlesswines.com.

The Storm Cellar Reserve Riesling 2018, West Elks, Colo., $24, stormcellarwine.com.

Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Michigan, $17.50, blackstarfarms.com.

Acquiesce Winery Estate Grown Viognier 2018, Lodi, Calif., $26, acquiescevineyards.com.

Buena Vista Chateau Buena Vista Chardonnay 2017, Carneros, Calif., $35, Crown Wine & Spirits.

J Cage Winery “The Wedding Block” Pinot Noir 2018, Russian River Valley, Calif., $49, jcage.com.

VIE Winery White Rock Vineyard Syrah 2016, Santa Barbara, Calif., $39, viewinery.com.

Peju Merlot 2016 Napa Valley, $48, Crown Wine & Spirits and The Best Cellar, Wilton Manors.

Barrister Winery Pepper Bridge Vineyard 2016, Walla Walla, Wash., $39, barristerwinery.com.

*O’Brien Estate Winery “Seduction” Red Bordeaux Blend, 2016 Oak Knoll, $78 obrienestate.com.

DAOU Family Estates “Soul of a Lion” Cabernet Sauvignon, Adelaida District 2016, Paso Robles, Calif., $150, Wine Wave, Delray Beach.

Complete results from the 2020 competition are available at AmericanFineWineCompetition.org

*Both Breathless and O’Brien Estate wineries are offering special flat rate shipping to our readers. Mention City & Shore magazine to receive the discount. All wineries with email addresses listed ship to Florida.

Peg San Felippo is a certified sommelier who has served as a judge in the annual American Fine Wine Competition, South Florida’s homegrown wine event; and THE Rosé Competition.

PHOTO: Wine judges in this year’s American Fine Wine Competition vote for Best of Show. (Photo courtesy AFWC).



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