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Palate to Palate in a Wine Competition

Wine competitions, a polarizing subject in the online wine circles, are of great interest to me.  Many view them as meaningless measures of merit, while I believe they are as good of a test against wine quality as any other subjective rating system.

I wrote extensively about wine competitions last year when the Charles Shaw Chardonnay took Double Gold at the California State Fair.  You can see those posts chronologically here, here, here and here.

In my defense of wine competitions, the one thing I did not have was opinion qualified by first hand experience.  Ah, but I have now solved that.  Last week I was an esteemed media member and “Judge in Training” at the Indy International Wine Competition held from June 26 – 28th in Indianapolis, IN.

I received my invite after having a mildly scathing quote about an Indiana winery attributed to me in a front-page article of the Indianapolis Star, so I guess it is true that no publicity is bad publicity.  Thanks to the organizers of the competition for not back-slapping me, and instead extending an olive branch.  That said, the quote in the paper was taken out of context … I am a fan of regional wines, and particularly those in my backyard, which this competition handles with aplomb.

Aside from having a greater base of regional wines, the Indy wine competition is a very well-organized and finely tuned machine, to the extent that they have jousted with the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in recent years over the title of largest wine competition, having recently given way to the California behemoth.  Just the same, the Indy International is a prestigious and well-represented competition and much less California-centric, with over 3200 entries, representing 15 countries and numerous states.

Based on my previous opinions on competitions, it was with a level of excitement that I joined a panel of five other judges in one of 15 judging panels.  With an open mind willing to be swayed to the notion that wine competitions are bunk, I entered the fray with 75 other judges and thousands upon thousands of bottles of wine. 

Given that I was playing hooky from work, I stayed for a half-day, tasted through three flights, and sized up my wine chops against the pros.  And the pros had their work cut out for them going through nine or 10 flights comprised of 9-13 wines on day one alone. 

A few of the things I learned include: 

1)  Judging in wine competitions is hard work. 

Believe it.  It is not easy to taste that many wines and while many would argue that palate fatigue sets in, I do not believe it is necessarily your palate that gets tired, it is your brain.  Concentrating for such lengthy and sustained periods is not something, save for airline pilots and surgeons, that most of us do for an extended period.

2) Winemaking terms lend credibility:  “It’s got a Phenolic bite.”  “I’m getting some weird Acetaldehyde.”

I was, however, emboldened that my scoring (which did not count) was very much in line with that of the other judges, one of whom was a winemaker from Napa.  This also happens to be the same winemaker that threw off winemaking terms that lends significant credibility in the same way that criticizing a soup at a fine dining restaurant engenders respect—nobody knows what the hell you are talking about, but it sounds smart.  “This soup is complete rubbish, they soooo did not make their own stock.”  Respect granted. 

3) Despite spitting everything, you still absorb alcohol.

I was thankful for lunchtime, and prior to I had mowed through the palate cleansers at the table asking the judge seated next to me, “Is it bad form if I eat the crackers and cheese based on hunger, in addition to good judging practice?”  She told me to go for it.

4) The scourge of wine tastings is allergies

My allergies were in check, but it was a high allergy day and you could hear the sneezing.

5) Some wineries submit bad, sucky wine

It is almost befuddling how much bad wine I tasted in a relatively short period of time … I understand that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, but operating at a level somewhere above deeply flawed and dreadful is a good place to start.

6)  Fluorescent lighting does not mess with your palate, but it does mess with your head

Despite bad lighting, it does make you focus harder on the nose and the mid-palate

7)  Watching a Napa-based judge try French-American hybrids is fun

‘Nuff said.

8) Wine competitions are completely legitimate and, yes, highly valid measures of wine quality

Peer reviews against other varietals and other judges palates, tasted blind under strict conditions is a very fine way to give a quality indicator of a wine, regardless of what others may say.

Overall, a very fun and pleasant experience and I hope I am invited back.  The winners were announced last night and another maligned winery that I have defended, V. Sattui, won the International Pacesetter Trophy.

The Pacersetter Trophy honors the Best International Brand of the entire competition.  The pride of St. Helena won four double gold, six gold, seventeen silver and six bronze medals—an astounding amount of winners!

Through my brief wine competition experience, I came away with an even greater amount of respect for wine competitions and the results that they yield.  Next time you encounter a sticker on a bottle with a gold medal, I would urge you to take it as a sign of quality, as I did and do, and remember to drop a “phenolic” reference amongst your friends, as well.

Click here to see a list of winners by brand


Final Thoughts (For Now) on the Wine Blogging Review Coalition

Earlier this week I wrote two posts about starting a Wine Blogger Review Coalition—a cooperatively managed wine review site with sponsorship.

I received a great deal of feedback, all of it good; some of it was thought provoking and some of the feedback was dissenting.  However, all of the feedback was constructive.

Having open dialogue and debate is the cornerstone of the blogosphere—the wine blogosphere and any niche area.

That said, nothing was ever accomplished in a committee meeting—the blessing and the curse of the blogosphere.

Therefore, in full disclosure and transparency, I will say that I think the ideas as I have laid them out and in probably a zillion and one permutations, have viability, but, the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Lest anybody paint me with the black brush of puffery without performance, I am going to go underground on this for likely the bulk of the summer with the goal to have the plan sketched out in time for the Wine Blogger Conference, and perhaps more.

I may be contacting some of you as a sounding board, and I may post with more formal thoughts mid-stream, but my overall notion is to not have this be a group hug, at least not now.

I do not have a problem with trying something and failing, but I do have a problem with talking about something and not even trying.  Do I think this Wine Blogger Review Coalition *can* work?  Yes, I do.  Do I know it will work?  No, I do not.

However, I am going to try.  And, I’m going to guess that between the OWC, Wine 2.0 and the Wine Business Network on LinkedIN that I manage, I’ll be able to fail in a heap of flames, or not.  And, if failure is the order of the day, the only person that will be out of any material time and/or resources will be me.

Here is what you can expect, though.  When I revisit this, it will be a fully baked plan with at least “out of the gate” support and it will have been vetted by a team of bloggers who have either volunteered to vet it, or whom I trust, one of the two.  It will also, likely, have enough branding behind it to make it interesting and compelling.  And, of course, finally, it will be a cooperative based format—administered by bloggers and not an entity that I will own.

So, stay tuned, and if you want to be a part of the “kitchen cabinet” and provide feedback throughout the stream of my consciousness and the germination process, please send me an email at jlefevere


Vin de Napkin - The Soothsayer

I feel bad for Dan Berger.  The guy is cranking out darn near 4000 words and it appears that he’s not getting any editorial support whatsoever.

Paging an editor, please! 

I’m referencing this article at Appellation America.

I don’t mean to be mean-spirited, vindictive, or even hint at being anything other than pleasantly delicate.  That said, I had to take a drink in order to see if the following paragraph would become clearer to me, Papa Hemingway style:

This kind of wine is part of the Third Wave that is making an end run around the scorers, avoiding being placed into a numerical box from which it’s nearly impossible to escape. True, some of the wines might be mainstream enough to be rated, but most wine makers who make such wines do not want to risk being at the mercy of palates ill-equipped to make appropriate decisions that can have a life-or-death sort of aftertaste.



My Internet Wine Doppelganger

Good Grape has a doppelganger; a Bizarro Superman; a nefarious equivalent, if only in name. 

In my real life, I am used to this because I am an identical twin and I have gone through life answering to two names and bumping into my brother’s colleagues at the hardware store.  Little did I know my online blog life has a like equivalent, as well.

Last night, before nodding off, I was in bed reading the current Cooking Light magazine (zip it for all macho men who are ready to insert a joke about my reading material), and as I was flipping through the very last pages of the magazine, what did I see but a full page ad for a wine commerce site called …


Immediately I leapt out of bed and checked my godaddy domain registrar account to see when the owner of the site registered the domain—November 2, 2000.  For some reason, having beaten the owner of the site, Theresa, to the punch in registering the domain name was immediately important for me to confirm.  I registered the name in March of 2000.  I had beaten her by eight mos.  Surely, she wanted and failing that went with the alternative.  Claiming victory, I went to bed. 

The origin of the name Good Grape is, unfortunately, not very interesting.  I wish I had a better back-story, but it is pretty simple, especially for somebody like me who contemplates detail for sport.  I was sitting on the couch of a friend drinking a beer before heading out for some nightlife.  My friend and I often talked about business ventures, entrepreneurial aspirations and the like and I was talking about wanting to start a wine commerce site—mind you, this was in the wine online Mesolithic era of 2000.  My buddy asked me what I would call it and immediately and without forethought, I blurted out, “Good Grape.”  And, my tag line would be “Celebrate the Good Grape.” I wish I had a beautiful Burgundy as a social lubricant to thank for the moment, but it was the influence of a couple of Bud Lights.  The next morning I registered the domain. 

So, you can imagine my surprise when seeing the ad for and seeing the interestingly peculiar, smiling mug of—undoubtedly—the owner of the site that sells Champagne.  Check out the ad here.  It breaks about every advertising rule there is for layout. Plus, the models’ cleavage leading to indiscernible breasts is equally interesting.  Though, I do have to note her grimaced smile does look as if she has some bubbles … bubbles of the stomach sort …

That aside, it seems like a nice enough site and the owner is likely a small business owner with a wine passion and that’s something I can get behind, even if her business name is a little close for comfort.  Raise a toast, bubbles even, to a new entrant to the wine commerce space and my doppelganger,


More Thoughts on the Wine Blogging Review Coalition

The Wine Blogging Review Coalition (WBRC) is dead simple, and it need not be anything more than that, at least now. 

After receiving insightful comments on the post I wrote yesterday about the idea of creating a cooperative form of wine reviewing, I think it might aid the conversation if I expand a bit. 

Actually, I think what I want to do is contract a bit, because it is more helpful to say what the Wine Blogging Review Coalition IS NOT (at least as I have imagined it), more so than what it is.

1)  The WBRC is not about certification by its participants; though, I think certification is important for reasons that I will explain.

2)  The WBRC is not something that is intended to address individual credibility and integrity.  This is not a zero sum game where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The WBRC is a vehicle that rides shotgun with our individual endeavors, with an eye on the future.

3) The WBRC is not for Steve Heimoff who has a gig with Wine Enthusiast thankyouverymuch.  And, I should note that I think Heimoff and Matt Kramer are two of the more erudite wine writers in the US write now.  So, no offense, Steve.

4) The WBRC is not trying to drive any type of standard or consolidation for wine bloggers—I am completely happy with beautiful chaos.

5) The WBRC is not something I’m committed to do unless I have a coalition of the willing (mercy on my soul for the colloquial political reference)

Here is what the WBRC is and the problem(s) it solves, but first, just a bit of context:

Wine Blogging is like a Boy Scout troop where every 12-year-old kid in the troop wants to be an Eagle Scout.  We are all Chief with no Indians.  This would be fine if we were talking about knitting at the sewing circle, but wine is one of the hottest consumer categories in the country right now.  We are stronger together, then individually.

Somehow, we have to get over our individual Id and coalesce around the pack leader.  I am not saying I am the Pack Leader; there are others more suited who are working on their Eagle Scout badges, if that makes sense.  Absent leadership, somebody has to step up, though. 

That said, many have noted that wine blogging does incent purchase activity.  We know that all three tiers of the wine industry read blogs, we know that wineries are increasingly viewing bloggers as influential and that wine blogs are predominantly read by a very small collective audience that wield influence greater than their size.  We know that wine sales are happening at a rapid rate online; we know that people buy wine at retail by the point.  All of these things are acknowledged truths.

So, what is wrong with lining up your centerfielder to shade towards left field if you know you have a right-handed pull hitter at the plate?

What wine blogs are not (and lets be real here), are a credible vehicle in mainstream wine culture.  It is a simple fact.

God bless Alder at Vinography or Gary Vaynerchuk, but their micro-influence does not even begin to compete with Parker or the Wine Spectator, at least not yet.  Any one of my wine-loving friends that buy futures and Silver Oak and have cellars do not know and do not give a rip about wine bloggers.  There are many of these people—many more than the people that “get” wine blogging.

Now, I am not talking about trying to boil the ocean here, what I am suggesting is a simple start on a path to greater legitimacy.  In addition, again, this is not about my palate versus your palate who has chops and who does not, this is bigger than next month especially if you buy into the future and the democratization of content.

In my humble opinion, a wine blog review cooperative with some baseline of standards is a healthy start to creating a vehicle that can act as a legitimate fourth estate in wine reviews. 

The Wine Blogging Review Coalition is:

1)  Very similar to Wine Blogging Wednesday with the following differences:

* Wines are provided as samples
* Review participants are limited
* The site is sponsored
      * There is an under-current of capitalism because the site is sponsored and the blog reviewers receive stipends

2)The WBRC is a way to start to build some collaboration with a small set of bloggers who review wines using a standardized language—be that stars, be that points, be that word count, whatever …

3)  The WBRC is a way to aggregate content and reviews for wineries and associations that do not get frequent reviews otherwise …

4)  The WBRC is a way to aggregate content and reviews for retailers who would like to merchandise and the wineries that would like for them to merchandise.

5) The WBRC is a way to save foolish advertising spends by international organizations and associations that are spending money in ways that can yield better results.

6) The WBRC is an entry-point to help tame blogging and social media for the uninitiated

7) The WBRC reviewers have a baseline of credibility with a minimum certification from a governing body; a certification that most wine bloggers could pass with little challenge.  And, I would add, based on a separate conversation string, that WBRC reviews follow some form of journalistic guidelines for integrity and ethics.

8) The WBRC is a way for bloggers to earn a stipend for their work, while working with complete independent editorial voice

9) The WBRC is owned by no own, it is a cooperative “owned” by the participants.

So, that is the gist, with full transparency, over two posts and about two thousand words.  Please add additional comment, as I have provided more context.  My next step, depending on what the comments bring is to do a visual schematic and invite more participation.

Thanks for reading Good Grape!


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