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!