August 10, 2011


Rookie learns ropes wine judging

The writer, Brian Wallheimer, served his apprenticeship at the prestigious Indy International Wine Competition as a judge in training. 

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

Rookie learns ropes of judging wine

Brian Wallheimer, a writer in the Department of Agricultural Communication, was invited to be a "judge in training" for one day at the Indy International Wine Competition held Aug. 3-5 at Purdue Memorial Union. Following is his account of his work for the day.

By Brian Wallheimer

I've been to the Indy International Wine Competition a few times, but the back room, where the wine is stored and poured, never ceases to amaze me.

There are 2,500 bottles sorted and lined up on more than a dozen tables. They cover the length of the South Ballroom in the Purdue Memorial Union. Over three days, 50 or so judges will swirl and slurp small glasses of those wines and decide their fates. What wine lover wouldn't want that job?

20th Indy International Wine competition

For the three days of the competition, the Purdue Memorial Union ballroom is lined wall to wall with wines from around the world.

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

Wines from 40 or so states and about a dozen countries are shipped to the competition with the hopes of taking home a prize. This year, the 20th for the competition, is the second year in a row it has been held on the Purdue University campus. It previously was in Indianapolis.

Winemakers, writers, professors and anyone with a distinguished palate are invited to serve as judge. This year, I got a seat at a judging table. To be fair, I was a "judge in training." My scores didn't count, but for an afternoon, I did my best impression of a wine snob and tasted with the best of them.

As an early disclaimer, I'm far from a wine expert. My wife and I enjoy wine, probably a little too much at times, but we really don't have the expertise to say what makes a wine technically good. Really, if it tastes good and is less than $10, we're thrilled.

Wine and labels

The competition includes wines from some winemakers with a sense of humor visible on the label of their product.  

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

The Seating

As the judges trickle back in from lunch, I become the fifth wheel at a table that includes a couple of winemakers, a newspaper reporter and a college professor.

Donna Adams, the owner of Winzerwald Winery in Bristow, Ind., is the head judge at our table.

Jason Satek is from Satek Winery in Fremont, Ind. Satek's title is assistant winemaker. But in reality, he says he's closer to head forklift operator.

Marco LiCalzi is from Italy by way of Missouri. He tells me he is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, though being from the St. Louis area, I tell him he may make more friends pronouncing it Missour-ah. We agree that the humidity there stinks.

And Mark Fisher, a food and dining reporter as well as wine blogger for the Dayton Daily News. He'll be my go-to a few times today when I'm a little lost.

scoring wines by ipad

For selected judges such as Tina Caputo, information about each entry was available on an iPad, because of technology developed by Phillip Rawles, Purdue associate professor of computer technology.

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

My first task is to get comfortable with the judging sheet. A wine can receive as many as 20 points based on six different factors each with a different number of possible points. Here's how it breaks down:

Clarity: 0-1 points
Color: 0-2 points
Aroma: 0-7 points
Taste: 0-5 points
Aftertaste: 0-3 points
Overall: 0-2 points

Total up your points and award a wine a medal. Those with 12 to 14 points get a bronze, 15 to 17 is a silver and 18 or more earns a gold. Less than 12 and it gets no medal.

Each judge gives his or her grade, sometimes including pluses and minuses. Based on the four grades, a wine receives its overall judgment. For example, a gold, two silvers and a bronze nets a wine a silver. But if one judge calls no medal, even if the others all give it high marks, that wine will receive no medal. There will be harsh assessments later.

Volunteer Larry Leverenz at the Indy Wine competition

Volunteers such as Larry Leverenz make the Indy Wine competition a success at Purdue. When not pouring, Leverenz is a clinical associate professor of health and kinesiology.

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

First Flight (or Round)

We start with rosé wines. Gentlemen from the "pit cru" – a fun take on the French term for a vineyard – line up seven glasses in front of me.

But I have a question first. One of the point categories puzzles me. Can a wine really lose points for color? I assume that a red wine is red, a white wine is white and a blush or rosé is pink. How do you decide when the color isn't right?

I'm told that "browning" can occur when a wine is oxidized. If too much oxygen mixes with the wine, it will be fairly obvious. None of the wines now in front of us has that problem.

"You don't want oxidation," DiCalzi says.

"Well, unless it's a tawny port," Satek says.

This gets a hearty laugh from just about everyone, including me, though I'm a second or so behind. I have no idea what they're talking about.

Fisher Fisher tells me that tawny ports are intentionally oxidized and it's considered a quality characteristic in them. We agree that the joke wasn't that funny.

The second wine has a bitterness, something that tastes a little off, maybe like a chemical. When Adams calls out "no medal" for that one, I ask her why. She said she sensed that same off flavor. I nailed it.

Purdue Wine Grape Team cork screw

The three-day competition, hosted at Purdue by the Wine Grape Team, featured 2,489 entries from around the world.   

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

On the rest of the wines, I either scored each right on the medal it's awarded or within one medal. I feel good about that, for an amateur.

Second Flight

These are muscats, generally sweeter white wines.

I have another question: How do the judges keep all the wines straight?

Over the course of the afternoon, more than a dozen grapes will be named: Concord, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, and so many more. What if a judge is unfamiliar with a particular type of grape? Can he or she judge it fairly?

That's when the dirty little secret comes out. They have cheat sheets. Cheat books, actually. A spiral-bound book lists each grape that could possibly come up. If they don't know much about a variety, they can look it up.

I think that I've got them here. They know more about wine than I do, that's for sure. But even they have to look up the answers from time to time. I watch closely. They never open the books. Most of them stack their olives and cheese on top of them. Darn.

I go through my wines methodically. Give it a smell. Look for clarity. Swirl vigorously. Smell. Sip. Spit. Smell and sip again. Spit. Score.

You have to spit, by the way. During the afternoon, I'll try more than 50 wines. The judges will get more than 100 in a day. Swallowing even a little of each wine would make this a more interesting competition for sure but would also require chaperones.

It didn't take long before my first embarrassment. I've scored a muscat with a 19. I love this wine. It's a gold for sure. It's so good, I almost say something like, "I really thought 10157 had great flavor." Luckily I kept my mouth shut.

As the wine is called by the head judge, I hear "no medal," "bronze minus," "no medal" and "no medal." It's best just to put my arm over my sheet and move along.

Third Flight

Eric Miller, his Cabernet Franc named red wine of the year

Judge, winemaker and Purdue graduate Erik Miller didn’t know it when he made this toast on the opening day of the competition, but his 2008 Cabernet Franc would be named red wine of the year. Miller owns the Kokomo Winery, Healdsburg, Calif.  

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

These are Concords, the same stuff they make Welch's grape juice from. I tell a great story about how my grandfather once tried using Welch's and Juicy Juice to make grape and cherry wine, respectively. The judges laugh heartily as I tell them about the clear wine that resulted.

The third wine in this flight is terrible. I set mine down as Adams tastes hers. The face she makes gives her away. She looks like she just bit into a lemon as a skunk ran by the table.

"I don't have a poker face," she says.

As the judges discuss it, LiCalzi says he can't place what's wrong with it. There's a smell he can't quite put a finger on.

They all smell and taste again. No one knows what that smell is. I offer a suggestion.

"Have you ever walked up to a house, knocked on the door and just before the door opened, you could smell that there were like a dozen cats in that house? This wine smells like the cat lady's house?" They all smell again. There is some agreement. I may not be able to detect the faint aromas of blueberries, peaches or leather, but I can smell the cat lady house from a mile away.

Fourth Flight

These are blueberry wines. There are some good and some bad. I notice at this point that nothing has gotten a gold medal from this group.

I point it out. Adams looks back through her notes and realizes the same thing.

They'd given a couple of golds, even an elusive double gold, earlier in the morning. But this afternoon, they're a difficult panel. I’m actually relieved there were no double golds while I was there. I probably would have compared it to the cat lady wine.

I also ask whether a bronze is a good medal to receive. If I were in the Olympics, I'd be pretty pleased with a bronze medal.

It's not the same, I'm told. Bronze wines are fine. There are no major flaws, but they're not exciting either. I equate it to an infield single in baseball. You got on base, but it wasn't pretty. You were inches from being out.

Fifth Flight

This is where I plan to shine. We have Cabernet Franc, and it's one of my favorite red wines. I expect to be spot-on with my judgments, though time will show that I couldn't have been more wrong.

Then something curious happens. A pit cru gentleman sets down a plate of rolled-up roast beef pieces. Is this some sort of mid-afternoon snack? Should I use the crackers and cheese with this to make a minisandwich?

Apparently, the dry red wines have a lot of tannins, which come from grape skins, seeds and stems. The tannins are what make your mouth feel dry when you drink a dry red wine. The roast beef will help get the saliva flowing again.

Since I like Cabernet Franc so much, I'm handing out gold medals like they're going out of style. These wines are fantastic.

Satek gives a wine a gold, but the consensus is silver. Fisher calls gold for the next wine, but it, too, takes a silver.

We finish the flight with no golds once again. But Fisher has a beef with the second wine. He does the equivalent of a coach throwing the red flag on the field in football. He is challenging the consensus of silver. There will be a re-taste.

It gets quiet, and everyone looks over his or her notes before starting the process again. Swirl. Sniff. Taste. A judge budges.

We have our first gold.

Before we finish the flight, Adams mentions that she was surprised another wine got only a bronze. It was her favorite of the flight, maybe of the day.

Judges pick up their glasses and check again.

"Yeah, it's good. If you like drinking iodine out of the bottle," one judge quips.

They laugh uproariously. Again, I don't get it. Apparently the wine has a medicinal smell to it. But I liked it.

Sixth Flight

Right away, I'm puzzled. The first flights were pretty easy to decode. Blueberry. Rosé. Cabernet Franc. This one is called "Red Vinifera Blend."

Fisher's translation: These are red wines that come from mainly European grapes. It turns out they're almost entirely Italian. LiCalzi jokingly declares they will all receive golds before the glasses are even put on the table.

Again, I show my bias for the reds. And I'm all over the board. I'm giving golds to wines the other judges revile and calling no medal (in my head) to the apparent cream of the crop.

Often, wines will be on the cusp of a medal, low silvers and bronzes being bandied about. But one judge will give no medal. Technically, it's over at that point. But many times, that judge will agree to a low bronze.

This happens for a couple of wines during the last flight. This time, LiCalzi calls no medal on a borderline wine. They all look to him. He tastes again and shakes his head. He's sticking to his guns.

Thankfully, this is the last flight. I think my taste buds have been overworked. I slam my last remaining olives (those are the best olives on the planet, by the way) and thank all the judges for their guidance.

The Back Room

All along, I'd thought that being a judge was the best job one could have at the Indy International Wine Competition. I was wrong.

See, the judges have to spit out the wine. Sure, they taste a lot of good stuff, but there's enough of the bad to go around as well.

Rookie wine judge in training, Brian Wallheimer

After sampling some 50 wines, Wallheimer felt he had earned his rightful place alongside the other judges.  

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

No, next year, I want to be "pit cru in training."

As I headed back to say my goodbyes to the organizers, the pit cru was wrapping up for the afternoon. Almost everyone of them had a glass of wine in his or her hand. There were hundreds of open bottles, and people were matching up numbers to see what had won medals.

At the end of each day, those fine folks would get to sample all they want. And when it was over, the unopened bottles will likely find welcome homes.

To the pit cru — the roadies of the competition — went the spoils.

I wouldn't mind removing the pressure of judging while still getting to sample wines. Heck, I'd do it for the olives.

For a list of all of this year's medal winners, please go to: 

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Rookie wine judge in training, Brian Wallheimer

After sampling some 50 wines, Wallheimer felt he had earned his rightful place alongside the other judges.  

Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell