Column: Arbor Vinous

So you want to be a wine judge?
Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Here’s a one-question pop quiz. The sticker on the bottle says the wine won a gold medal at a major competition. But one quick sip convinces you it’s the foulest plonk to cross your palate in weeks.

Your first reaction is:

A. “Who made this wine? I could make better wine than that!”
B. “Who bought this wine? I could pick out better wine than that!”
C. “Who gave this wine a gold medal? I could hand out awards better than that!”

Did you pick “C”? You may have a future as a wine judge. Read on …

Tuesday, August 4, marks the 32nd Annual Michigan Wine Competition. Twenty-four judges will descend on East Lansing’s Kellogg Center to pass judgment on a record 390 Michigan wines from 42 wineries – everything from bone-dry sparklers to odd concoctions sporting names like “Cherry Port.”

(The Gold Medal Reception, open to the public and highly recommended, happens two days later; more information is on the Wine Council website.)

To most wine drinkers, the judging process carries the same level of opacity as the crafting of sausage or legislation. To wit: wines go in one end; medals come out the other.

So let’s Chronicle what goes on behind the screen. NOTE: This column doesn’t “report” a single wine competition, as a news story might, but takes some literary license to combine actual occurrences from multiple occasions and recreate approximate times, in order to convey the range and flavor of the judging experience. Photos are from the 2007 and 2008 Michigan Wine Competitions.

poured glasses full of wine

The paper "donuts" on the stems keep judges from confusing the wines.

7:00 a.m. Morning arrives too early in the Kellogg Center hotel room, its green-and-white-accented décor alien to the Ann Arbor psyche. I instantly regret my over-enthusiastic participation in last night’s festivities – i.e. the judges’ welcoming dinner.

8:05 a.m. Meander downstairs to the warren of seminar rooms occupied by the Michigan Wine Competition. Quickly pass by the staging area, where a half-dozen volunteers are organizing glasses and opening bottles for the morning tasting flights, sequestered from judges’ eyes.

First order of business: locate my name tag, judge’s packet, bagels and coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

Murmur hellos to other judges, few of whom move quickly or speak loudly this morning. Most are familiar, since competitions tend to recycle their judges, barring unavailability or significant faux pas committed the previous year.

A surprising number live or work around Ann Arbor, starting with Competition Superintendent Chris Cook, wine writer for Hour Detroit and frequent judge at competitions nationwide. His job today: think fast on his feet, lubricate problems, keep things moving.

Other locals on the panel: David Creighton, late wine writer for the late Ann Arbor News; Kristin Jonna of Vinology; Village Corner proprietor Dick Scheer; Ron Sober, veteran judge and new wine blogger for; and Chaad Thomas, former Paesano’s wine guy, now co-owner of Ann Arbor-based US Imports.

A handful of heavy-hitter out-of-state judges – like Californians Scott Harvey (winemaker) and Dan Berger (writer) – cycle semi-regularly through Michigan’s judging ranks. This helps to build nationwide street cred for the state’s wines.

Madeline Triffon breathes in some wine.

Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon judges some wine.

8:23 a.m. Grab one of four chairs at Table 6, where I’ve been assigned to judge. Open the packet and look through our tasting agenda.

In general, competitions taste bubblies first, followed by whites, reds, fruit and dessert wines. Each table evaluates different categories; while we’re busy with Pinot Grigio, the next table over may be slogging through Chardonnay.

Good news – our first flight is dry sparkling wines! If you must taste wine at 8:30 in the morning, bubbly is the best way to ease in gently.

8:25 a.m. The other Table 6 judges wander over; handshakes all around. Our table head is Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon, who runs wine for the Detroit-area Matt Prentice Restaurant Group. Master Sommeliers are rock stars of the wine world, and Madeline is a headliner: the first woman to receive her M.S. in America and past head of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Beyond that, our table has a typical mix of judges: one guy works for a wine distributor, a second teaches winemaking at an out-of-state university. I write about wine.

8:33 a.m. Chris Cook welcomes the judges and talks about the competition format.

In the past, some have grumbled about the high percentage of medals handed out; last year, 73% of the wines entered went home with one color of metal or another. For 2009, they’ll eliminate “Honorable Mention” and tighten the criteria for bronze medals, which they hope will rein in the count.

We’re ready to judge.

8:47 a.m. Five flutes of sparkling wine arrive in front of each judge at Table 6. Numbered paper doughnuts circle the stems so we can’t mix them up.

Chris Cook lifting a bottle of wine out of a bucket.

Chris Cook lifting a bottle of wine out of a bucket.

We’ll taste everything blind. Other than the category – “Brut Sparkling” – and the vintage (all but one in this flight are “Non-vintage”) our judging sheets provide no clue about what’s in the glasses set before us.

Quiet descends on the room as 24 judges start to swirl, sniff and sip. An opaque cup resides on the right, to receive our oral deposits after each taste; spitting is mandatory if we hope to survive the day. Most of us take notes that we can match to unmasked wines later in the day.

8:59 a.m. Madeline asks, “Everyone done?” and starts to poll Table 6 for verdicts on the first flight. Each of us is expected to say one of four things: Gold, Silver, Bronze, or No Medal. If everyone concurs, we’re on to the next wine. If just one judge dissents, the majority rules unless the outlier wants to argue a case to the group. Social norms and time pressures make that unusual.

Our judgments on wine #1: Gold, Silver, Silver, Gold. The day’s first deadlock.

Here’s where the table head’s diplomatic skills come into play. Madeline needs to wheedle consensus out of four opinionated tasters, each of whom secretly believes he or she has the best palate at the table, without provoking irritation that could play havoc with our ability to work together the remainder of the day.

We take two minutes to discuss what we like – or don’t – about the bubbly, tossing around wine-geek terms like toast, biscuit, and residual sugar. One Silver switches to Gold, leaving me as the lone dissenter.

I toss in the towel. I won’t object to the table awarding Gold. But I won’t switch to make the vote unanimous, either. That would give the wine a rare Double Gold medal – an honor of which it isn’t worthy.

9:16 a.m. Through with the bubblies! We medal all five wines; in addition to the first Gold, we’ve handed out two Silver and two Bronze. Servers clear the table of flutes.

I frequently vote one rank lower than other judges. For two years, I’ve been among the lobbyists to reduce the medal count. In practice, that means eliminating a high percentage of current Bronze medalists and lowering many Silvers to Bronze.

9:21 a.m. Flight two arrives: Dry Riesling. After a quick conference, our table agrees to tackle the entire group of 13 wines at one go, rather then splitting it into two separate batches.

Thirteen tasting glasses move from rolling carts to the space in front of each of us, piled two rows deep. The table takes on the look of a glass factory gone wrong.

Tasting this many wines simultaneously represents a trade-off. On the positive side, we can sample the full range before awarding medals to any of them.

On the downside, it’s nearly impossible to retain a palate memory of each wine as you move through an assemblage of this size, even with serious note taking. At least I can’t do it; Robert Parker might be able to. So I’m constantly back-tasting samples I’ve already tried to re-check my remembery.

It also doesn’t help that young Riesling changes rapidly as it sits in the glass, even over short periods. So the first wine I sample tastes totally different when I return to it 10 minutes later.

10:17 a.m. We’re done, but what a marathon. The sentiment will fade, but at the moment if I never taste another Riesling, it will be too soon.

First thoughts: the much-hyped 2007 vintage proves to be as strong as anticipated. That unusually warm and ripe year gave birth to 11 of the 13 Rieslings we tasted; three of them got Gold medals, though again no Double Gold. Overall, 11 out of 13 wines medaled. That’s not surprising; Riesling is one of Michigan’s stronger grapes.

Time for the servers to clear the battlefield.

10:25 a.m. Now up: six wines classified as “Proprietary Dry White,” a catchall for winemaker-concocted multi-grape blends. Entries vary wildly; some seem little more than thrown-together small lots and leftovers; others appear seriously assembled to complement each grape’s qualities.

But we don’t fall in love with any of them; the worst elicit notes like “clumsy” and “swamp water.” We eventually medal three of the six: two Silver, one Bronze. I concur with both Silvers, but would have skipped the Bronze.

10:53 a.m. Finally – red wine! More specifically, nine glasses of Cabernet Franc from 2006 and 2007.

a man pouring glasses of wine

Setting up the battlefield.

Vintage variation tells the story here. Unlike 2007’s ripeness, 2006 was a “difficult” year for Michigan reds. (That’s winespeak for “The weather really sucked.”) A cool summer and early fall kept most red grapes from full maturity. The result? Mostly light-colored wines with low fruit concentration, high acidity and lean, unripe flavors.

In theory, competition judges aren’t supposed to compare wines in a flight. Each should earn a medal, or not, based on its own merits relative to a quality scale that resides in the judge’s brain.

Sometimes that’s difficult to put into practice. The 2006 Cab Francs in this flight fare poorly next to their riper, more concentrated 2007 siblings. Among the six 2006 Cab Francs, we award just one Silver and one Bronze.

But 2007 is a different story. This highly-anticipated red vintage has just three samples in our flight, released with little or no oak aging. We quickly award one Gold and two Silvers, with no significant disagreement – and the judges’ conversation centers on forthcoming wines from the vintage.

11:30 a.m. Everyone’s excited; it’s time for the first sweepstakes of the day: Dry White.

“Sweepstakes” determine the Best of Class trophy winners. Since Michigan doesn’t award a Best of Show, the competition’s highest prizes are at stake.

The concept sounds simple, but the logistics are daunting. Every Gold medal winner earns a spot in its class’s sweepstakes. Each judge tastes each wine, and votes for Best in Class. The top vote-getter wins.

But in the backroom, pressure is building. Staff and volunteers must quickly identify all Gold medal winners and print tasting sheets listing them for the judges to use, locate the extra bottles of each reserved for this purpose, pour samples for each judge, and distribute them to the tables.

The Dry White sweepstakes takes a nerve-wracking turn after judges vote a bumper crop of 17 Gold medals, all but three from 2007. That means 408 glasses need to be poured and labeled, and 17 delivered to each of the 24 judges.

One Gold-winning Rosé slips in among the whites, because Michigan doesn’t produce enough Rosé to warrant a separate Best of Class trophy. We can’t vote it the “Best White” trophy, but Chris Cook explains that if it receives enough votes, it will be eligible for the discretionary “Judges’ Merit Award.” It does.

We each taste our 17 wines, and we’re ready to vote. No discussion, no hair-splitting over medals.

Judges with more than one top pick can cast multiple votes, but the list stratifies quickly; over half the wines receive three or fewer votes. The winner: a Riesling originally judged at our table. Later in the day, we’ll find out it’s the 2007 Chateau Fontaine Dry Riesling, from Leelanau Peninsula.

12:11 p.m. Not a bad morning’s work: Table 6 tasted 50 wines, handed out five Gold medals, and joined with the other judges to select a Riesling as the competition’s “Best Dry White.” And all the judges are still speaking with one another.

After booting up the laptop for a quick update to the live-from-the-competition blog on MichWine, it’s off to lunch in the Kellogg Center’s State Room. No one seems very interested in a glass of wine with the meal.

After lunch: Table 6 judges flights of Traminette, semi-dry Pinot Grigio, semi-dry Whites, and fruit wines. A raspberry dessert wine from the final group gets the only Double Gold medal we hand out during the entire competition.

Palates start to fatigue. After 75 wines, I’m unable to identify subtleties that might have jumped out at 10 this morning.

Robert Parker, at his peak, was reputed to be able to taste and evaluate 200 hefty red wines in a day. I am clearly not, nor will ever be, Robert Parker.

Excellent logic exists behind the standard procedure of tasting lighter, drier wines early in the day, and saving in-your-face dessert and fruit wines for last.

We finish sweepstakes judging for the remaining classes. Luckily, none has more than nine Gold medalists to choose among.

Ructions ensue when the judges, led by Kristin Jonna, rebel and refuse to pick a Best of Class Sparkling Wine from among the three possibilities, deciding that none of the Gold medalists deserves the honor.

We vote the Judges’ Merit Award to the Rosé we tasted earlier, which turns out to be 2007 Pinot Noir Rosé from Bowers Harbor, on Old Mission Peninsula.

Things wrap up at 3 p.m. Just a few minutes later, we’re the first people in the state to learn which wines we’ve just judged as Michigan’s best.

About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month. Listen online to Joel’s recent interview with Lucy Ann Lance.


  1. By Fred Hindley!
    August 2, 2009 at 6:58 pm | permalink

    I never knew! Thanks for filling in my blank spots!

  2. By Marguerite Patterson
    August 3, 2009 at 10:16 am | permalink

    What a challenge! But someone’s got to do it and I can’t imagine anyone more qualified than you, Joel. Keep up the great work!