Judging wine…in Florida?

I just got back from Tampa Bay, Florida, but not for the reason you might think. I was there judging the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition from Feb. 9 to 11. Admittedly, the lure of warm weather compared to our Canadian winter, even though it’s not been bad here, certainly aided in my decision to judge.

The competition, sponsored by the Florida Grape Growers Association and the Florida State Fair Authority, celebrated its 24th anniversary this year. It took place in the Florida Living Building at the Florida State Fair grounds in Tampa Bay right in the middle of the fair, with folks constantly walking by watching the judging in action. A great opportunity for the consumer to see how it’s done!

This year 24 well-respected judges (mostly from the U.S. and yours truly) evaluated some 1067 wines over the course of the three days. Judges were divided up into three-person panels. Awards were given on a merit basis scored out of 20 points: Double Gold (award 18-20 by each member of a panel), Gold (18-20), Silver (15-17) and Bronze (12-14). After all the medals had been awarded, the Best of Show evaluation took place. This aspect of the competition chose the overall best wine from all the Double Gold medal winners in each category. In other words, the ‘best of the best’ of the entire competition! There is an amateur side to this competition as well (an additional 188 wines), and awards are given out to acknowledge achievements in amateur winemaking.

The wines this year hailed from 34 states, including Florida, and 10 countries: Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and Spain. The results of the commercial competition are as follows: 62 Double Gold medals were awarded, 162 Gold, 348 Silver and 308 Bronze. Best White Wine of the Show went to Miletta Vista Winery from Nebraska for the Non-Vintaged Edelweiss. Best Sparkling Wine of the Show was awarded to the Laetitia Vineyard & Winery Estate from California for their Non-Vintaged Brut Cuvée. The Klinker Brick Winery from California took home the Best Red of the Show for their 2009 Farrah Syrah. The Best of Show Fruit wine was scooped up by Ackerman Winery from Iowa for the fabulous Non-Vintaged Red Raspberry. The 2010 Chalet Debonne Vineyards from Ohio obtained the Best Dessert Wine for their Vidal Icewine, and the Best Grape Juice (unfermented) award went to Navarro Vineyards of California for their 2011 Gewurztraminer.

For those of you really surprised that Florida makes wine, 12 wineries submitted numerous samples to be judged. Here are the winners of the Best of Florida in the commercial competition. Best White Wine went to Henscratch Farms Inc. Non-Vintaged Country Wine, Best Red Wine to Chautauqua Vineyards & Winery Non-Vintage Noble and Best Fruit Wine to Florida Orange Groves Inc. Non-Vintaged Mango Mama. So if you’re down in the ‘sunshine state’, you may want to look for these.

Best Amateur Show White went to Florida’s Alatorre Winery’s 2011 Muscat and the Best Show Red was taken by Florida’s Live Oak Estates’ 2011 Noble.

After the judging and award presentation, a sale of the wines was set up on site and consumers could purchase any of the wines from the competition at 50 per cent off the retail price.

Kudos to Bonniejean Paulish, Co-ordinator of the competition, who did a fabulous job of putting it all together. She, along with Mary Studt, the head judge, invited, organized and coordinated the judges and an army of volunteers. They were also responsible for receiving, categorizing, documenting and preparing all the wines for evaluation, as well as setting up the wine sale afterwards. A monumental task indeed!

Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge &  consultant.

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