Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Judging Wines - with a Purpose

The results are in for the 13th annual Finger Lakes International Wine Competition held March 23 and 24, in Rochester, New York.  Over 880 wineries received medals during the two-day competition and this year, I was privileged to be one of the judges. 

When competition chairman David Male contacted me last September about being a judge, I was thrilled!  This is a wine competition with a bigger purpose than just awarding medals.

The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (FLIWC) is a relative new player in the industry.  It came about because of a suggestion by Peter Parts.  Parts, a member of the Camp Good Days and Special Times board, was looking for a way to raise money for the organization.  After hearing about a California wine auction and how much money it raised, Parts decided a wine competition and auction would be a perfect way to raise funds for the camp, and gain publicity for the wines of the Finger Lakes.

The  FLIWC is the largest North American wine competition held for, and by a charity.  That charity is Camp Good Days and Special Times, a not-for-profit organization that provides programs free of charge to children and their families who are battling cancer. Over 43,000 campers from 22 states and 28 foreign countries have attended the camp since 1979.  One hundred percent of the proceeds from the FLIWC, and the resulting Wine Auction Dinner, go to benefit Camp Good Days.  

Over 3,500 wines were entered in the competition this year, a new record. Wines came from all 50 U.S. states, four Canadian Provinces, and twenty countries.  The FLIWC is now the second largest wine competition in the United States.

Sixty-eight wine judges from seventeen states in the U.S., and over fourteen countries including Europe, South Africa, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Israel, and Argentina took part.

The judges had a variety of backgrounds in the industry and included winemakers, sommeliers, enologists, importers, retailers, wine writers, bloggers, wine educators, and consultants. Those selected knew wine, had a passion for it, and enjoyed sharing it.

Each table was made up of four judges.  At Table H, I was fortunate enough to be seated with three wine aficionados who held no guise to being wine experts, although with their wine knowledge and experience, that could have been said of each of them.  Judging with me was author George Taber, wine brand founder Bonnie Villacampa, and Eric Orange, founder and CEO of

If you know much of the history of U.S. wine, you will probably recognize George Taber’s name.  He was the Times Magazine reporter who broke the story that became known as the Judgment of Paris, and put the U.S. wine industry in the game. 

The Paris Wine Competition occurred in May, 1976.  The results rocked the wine world when a California Chardonnay and a California Cabernet each took first place over several revered French wines. The French wine industry was infuriated that two California wineries, with only a few years in the business, could conceivably craft better wines than the French.

George Taber was the only journalist who covered the wine competition. And it was his write-up about the results that brought California and U.S. onto the world stage as winemakers on par with France.  (The movie Bottleshock was loosely based on the competition and results.) 


Bonnie Villacampa is the co-founder of the wine brand Baron de Villacampa in the Rioja Highlands in Spain.  Bonnie was our table captain with good reason.  She holds masters degrees in Oenology, Viticulture, and Wine Marketing.  Bonnie is extremely knowledgeable about wines and understands the different techniques that result in good wine making.

Eric Orange is the founder and developer of the wine and food event website,  Local Wine Events lists food and wine events that are occurring in over 60 countries, including the U.S. Eric is also the Executive Editor of the weekly e-newsletter, the Juice, a wine and food calendar for events in specific areas.

Judging for the FLIWC took place in one large room. Participants at each table discussed the wines after each judge had made a decision. Wines were judged in double blind flights, which means that the judges did not see the brand of wine or know where it came from.

Each wine was judged on its own merit, not by comparison to the other wines in the same flight.  Every judge received a scoring sheet with the wine’s code number listed and the varietal of the wine. 

Judging criteria for each wine included the evaluation of its appearance, aroma, balance, varietal character, and finish.  Each wine was judged for what it was at the time of the judging, not for how it might evolve and what it could become at a later time.  All wines were served in Riedel crystal stemware in flights of eight.

Of the medals given this year, 100 wines received double gold medals.  This means that every judge judging that wine, gave it a gold medal.  Over 170 wines received gold medals.  Just over 1,250 were given silver medals, and over 1,360 wines received bronze medals.

Once the judging was completed, a select panel reviewed the winners in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Ice Wine categories. From these the "Best of the Best" was decided on.

This year the "Best of" winners were:
Best Cabernet Sauvignon – Merriam Vineyards of California

Best Chardonnay – Bogle Vineyards of California

Best Riesling – Chateau Fontaine of Michigan

Best Ice Wine – Znovin Znojmo of the Czech Republic

But this competition would not take place without the assistance of over 150 hard working volunteers.  These people are the backbone of the event.  They are the ones who receive the wines, categorize them, transport them to the judging location, and set up the back room for the competition.

Once the competition begins, the volunteers work in a separate room, staging wine flights, making sure each glass has the correct code number on it to match the judging sheets.  They deliver the wines to the judging tables, clear past wines, keep track of completed score sheets, tabulate results, and when a is re-pour is requested, make sure it comes from a second, unopened bottle.

And if that isn’t enough, they also keep the judges in fresh supply of water, olives, crackers, and napkins, along with emptying spit cups and buckets, washing glasses, and preparing new wine flights.  And they do this over and over for two days, working together to make it all run smoothly.

Once the judging is over, volunteers prepare for the Camp Good Days Wine Auction Dinner.  This event is held about a month after the wine competition -This year on Saturday, May 4th.  The dinner will be held at the Rochester Plaza and Hotel & Conference Center in Rochester, New York.  Tickets are $150 per person and all proceeds from the Wine Auction Dinner go to Camp Good Days and Special Times.

After three days of wining, dining, meeting new friends, and judging some of the best wines in the world, it was time to head back to the ‘normal life’ of a wine writer and blogger.   

Leaving, I took away not only a sense of accomplishment and regard at having tasted some of the best crafted wines in the world; I also took away a sense of humility for having been a tiny part of an event that will help children from all over the world go to camp this summer, and for those few days, let them forget their battles with cancer - and just be kids.

~ Joy