A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel up to Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake to judge this year’s New York Wine Classic — colloquially known as the Oscars of New York wine. It was a great and eye-opening experience, and something I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to do.
Over my decade-plus of writing about New York wine, I’ve had a contentious relationship with the Classic. I’ve been vocal in sharing my reservations about competitions in general. Medals are valuable if you are a winery and can use the medals you win to sell wine. That’s the goal, and wine competitions do that. Pay your fee, send a couple of bottles of wine and get a medal back. Then use that medal to sell more wine, because it “proves” your wine is good. It’s not complicated.
But as a consumer, or even someone like me who watched these things from afar until this year, the medals are more problematic. If you walk into a winery and hear about a wine that just won a gold medal, what does that really tell you? First, are you going to go to that competition’s site to confirm the medal? Who judged the competition? Were they qualified? Were there biases? How many other wines won gold?
You may be wondering why I even wanted to judge the Classic, given my general reservations.
It’s really pretty simple: I wanted to. I wanted to see how the competition was run. I wanted to know how many wines judges are asked to taste and judge. I wanted to see if I’d be the most critical judge in the room and I just wanted to see what wines were submitted.
It’s one thing to critique — maybe unfairly — from afar. I wanted to experience it for myself.
And it was an incredible experience. One that I hope I can repeat next year and beyond.
The judges, all 21 of them, were passionate wine lovers, people who know wine and — while open-minded to the diversity you’ll find in New York wine — no one was going to make excuses or grade on a curve. It was an impressive group. And I wasn’t the hardest grader in the room, though I was probably close.
Like any wine-tasting experience, there were the good, the bad and the ugly. I found some wines that I loved that I wouldn’t have expected to love, while other groupings like cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc were surprising in their mediocrity — though I didn’t taste every wine in those categories.
Once I was back on Long Island, the organizers sent all the judges the list of every wine in the competition, with the numbers assigned to each. We only saw the numbers throughout the judging process.
What did seeing the wine list show me? I’ve changed my mind about the New York Classic, but now more of the state’s best wineries need to have their minds changed as well. Without participation from more of the state’s most respected wineries, which are making more of the state’s best wines, the New York Wine Classic can’t reach its full potential.
I’d never question the final results, and you shouldn’t either. I was there, and while I didn’t vote for every wine that eventually won “Best of” in each category, there weren’t any wines that didn’t deserve to make it to the final round.
And yet in many categories — including merlot and cabernet sauvignon — I know there are wines that I enjoy a lot more than the winners. But those wines weren’t included. Or they didn’t show well on that particular day. That happens, too.
I’d encourage producers from across the state that maybe aren’t regularly submitting wines to the Classic — for one reason or another — to at least consider doing so next year. Any real or perceived regional biases simply aren’t there. I was looking for them.
I’ve been as vocal as anyone about the issues surrounding this competition. If I can change my mind, I hope all of the best wineries in the state can, too. I think you might see many more top wineries at the head of the results list if that happens.
Lenn Thompson, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic wine community. The founder and publisher of NewYorkCorkReport.com, he lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.