Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition

The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition is being held this weekend in Rochester, New York. Here's a look behind the scenes at the second largest wine competition in the United States.

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

Peter Parts
The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (FLIWC) is a relative new player in the industry (only 14 years old).  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.  

Wine in the Back Room
Thousands of wines, from all 50 U.S. states, Canada, and close to two dozen countries are entered each year.  

Judging Room
There are usually around 70 wine judges from across the U.S, and many others come from around the world including Europe, South Africa, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Israel, and Argentina.

Judges have a variety of backgrounds in the industry and include winemakers, sommeliers, enologists, importers, retailers, wine writers, bloggers, wine educators, and consultants. Those selected know wine, have a passion for it, and enjoy sharing it.

L to R: Joy Neighbors, Eric Orange,
Bonnie Villacampa and George Taber
 Each table is made up of four judges. At last year's event, I judged with wine writer George Taber,   brand founder Bonnie Villacampa, and Eric Orange,  founder and CEO of

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

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

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

Once the medals are decided, a select panel will review the winners in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Ice Wine categories. From these winners, the "Best of the Best" will be decided on.

But there's more to this competition than judging and medals ...

Unpacking Wines in the Snow
Setting Up the Wine Room
This event would not take place without the assistance of over 150 hard working volunteers.  These people are the backbone of this competition.  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.

Tabulating the Results
Organizing Wines
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.

Judges at Work
Taking in the Wines
And if that isn’t enough, they also keep the judges in a 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.

Judging Room
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 3rd. The dinner will be held at the Rochester Plaza and Hotel 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.

Campers at Camp Good Days
After the judging last year, I left with 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. 
Camp Good Days

Here's to another successful competition, and another fantastic summer for the kids at Camp Good Days!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Selling Wine to Women: The Eyes Have It

There are so many elements that play a part in selling wine: vintage, producer, varietal, wine region and price. And there are even more elements to consider when selling wine to women. Reports indicate that besides the above mentioned factors, women also base their purchasing decisions on the look of the label.

For decades wine labels were rather plain with a blandly colored background, large font name and, maybe, an illustration of a castle, villa, or vineyard.

Today, wine labels have more pizazz. Bold colors, interesting graphics and images, funky names: all attempting to seduce the wine consumer, especially women (who purchase up to 70% of all wine), with the promise of a fun, sexy, cutting-edge vino.

So why the labeled dramatics? With over 10,000 wine labels in the U.S, wine marketers know they have only a couple of seconds to grab the shopper’s attention and entice them to pick up that bottle. (And once it’s in your hands, the battle is almost won.) Branding now involves not only a catchy name, but appealing colors, memorable graphics and attractive fonts.

Labels vie for a woman’s attention with humorous names like Mommy’s Time Out, Well Hung, and Fourplay. Some names are so trendy they’ll be gone next year. But some are just quirky enough to stick around like 7 Deadly Zins, which has an excellent marketing campaign built around the name.

Bright, bold colors also make a statement about the wine. Bright, edgy colors appeal to women, along with more rustic, natural shades.

Graphics are more name-centric, more risqué, more fun! And the trendy wine shopper loves a label that almost goes too far.

Wine labels come in a multitude of varieties. Here is just a sampling:

Animal Wines

Animal wines, also known as “critter” wines, exist by the hundreds. In fact, there’s even a website to help you find a critter wine to your taste – Critter Wines @ Animal wine labels may be cute, or not so cute, with wild bold graphics or quiet, rustic colors. This is truly a “what the market will bear” category. The one thing that wine marketers have learned concerning critter labels and women shoppers: those labels that tend to be too cutesy get left on the shelf.

Food-Oriented Wines

It’s true - women love dessert, and chocolate, and not necessarily in that order. So it’s no wonder that wine producers have launched vinos with such names a Cupcake, Cakebread, Layer Cake, Jam Jar, Chocolate Shop, Chocolate Box and Cocoa di Vine.  Consider this one way for women to get our “just deserts.”

Sex Sells Wines

Women love risqué wine labels. They’re fun to serve with dinner when company is coming (especially the in-laws), on Girl’s Night Out or to spice up a special date-night. Looking for something that’s bound to get a rise out of guests? Then check out: Sassy Bitch, Naughty Girl, Ménage à Trois, Fourplay, Well Hung, The Full Monty, Climax and Afterglow.

Women-centric wines

There are wines aimed directly at women: the young mom, the sister, the career woman, the wife, plus all the other roles we fill. So grab a bottle of women-centric wine and share with your wine sisters. And rest assured, no man is going to touch this stuff with names like Middle Sister, Mommy’s Time Out, Mommy Juice, Mad Housewife, Bitch, Girl’s Night Out, and Working Girl Wines.

And there's an amazing offering of quirky wine labels. Don’t miss the astrology labels, wines that “show” you what they pair well with, wine in a beer bottle, wines with cartoon branding, and even a wine label made from cork!

Women purchase wine for the taste, but also for appearance. And women buy to consume, not to collect. With that in mind, marketers are changing the way wine labels sell by utilizing wittier names, bolder colors, fun fonts, and interesting images: all to build a satisfactory relationship with female consumers. And, in the end, that's what's gonna sell the wine, cause just like the song says,
"I am woman, hear me pour ..."

~ Joy

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Makes a Wine "Organic" in the U.S?

Organic wine is defined in the U.S. as a “wine made from organically grown grapes, without any added sulfites.”  This definition comes from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) as listed in their National Organic Program, the federal regulatory body governing organic food.

The terms organic or organically grown mean that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides were not used during the growing process.

Traditional vs Organic
Wine grapes are an agricultural product.  Traditionally these grapes have been grown and treated like any other ag-related crop.  Vineyard owners and managers use chemicals on the grapes to control viruses, weeds, fungus, pests, and to help increase their yields. Just like grain farmers do.  The problem with grapevines is that they absorb these chemicals through the roots.  The chemicals sprayed directly on the grapes can also be absorbed and end up in the pulp.  Either way, this chemical residue may be found in the finished wine.

Organic farming deals with keeping the soil healthy and free of chemicals.  Rainwater may be gathered and used to irrigate the vineyard.  Rather than using synthetic fertilizers, composted animal manure is utilized.  Instead of herbicides, cover crops are grown.  No pesticides are sprayed, instead natural predators of grape pests are introduced.

What About Sulfites?
Contrary to popular myth, organic wines are NOT sulfite-free. ALL wines contain sulfites, naturally.  Sulfites, also known as Sulfur Dioxide, (SO2) are a natural by-product of the fermentation process.  Sulfites may also be added during fermentation by the winemaker in order to stop the growth of mold and unwanted bacteria, and to preserve the quality and flavor of the wine, thereby reducing spoilage once the wine is bottled.  Traditionally, sweet wines contain more sulfites than dry wines, and white wines have more sulfites than red wines.

Traditionally-grown wines can legally contain sulfite levels up to 350 parts per million (ppm.)  Wines that have been labeled “Made from Organic Grapes” can contain 100 parts per million of sulfite – less than 20 milligrams per glass. Since 1987, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly known as the BATF; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) has required that all imported and domestic wines, beers and spirits in the U.S. must include the wording on the label “Contains Sulfites” if the wine, beer or spirit contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfites. Most organic wines contain from 6 to 40 parts per million of sulfites, naturally.

Currently the U.S. upholds the strictest organic wine standards in the world.  In order to be labeled as completely organic, a wine cannot be produced with any added sulfites.  These two words make the difference in the definition of organic wine. But this again presents the problem of crafting a stable wine that can retain its quality over time without the addition of extra sulfites. This could lead to organic wines creating a more negative perception when they cannot hold up to most traditionally accepted wines due to oxidation or bacterial spoilage in the bottle.

The general consensus of a select group of wine consumers regarding  wines labeled as organic indicate that consumers hold a lower opinion about organic wines than conventional wines.  The reason? Wine drinkers said organic wines did not taste as good, were not as easy to store, and generally, lacked the quality of traditional wines.

Organic wine producers exist all over the world, but the term organic is only as meaningful as its definition in the country in which it's produced. Something to remember when purchasing non-U.S. "organic" wines.