Michigan Wine: The Stats Are Stellar, Suckers

Controversy has surrounded wine competitions for years, and as the landscape changes, things aren’t getting any better.

Brent Marris: Tsk, tsk, tsk

For example, in 2006, Wither Hills winemaker Brent Marris was accused of creating special blends for competitions while his lesser wine ended up on supermarket shelves—even though both carried identical labels.   The following year, Steven Spurrier, organizer of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 (where California ruled and France drooled), acknowledged that he tallied the winners by ‘adding the judges marks and dividing this by nine’.  Although statistically, this wouldn’t make the slightest difference, would it?

Perhaps most telling is the Journal of Wine Economics analysis written by winemaker, scientist and statistician Robert Hodgson.  He concludes that if the 84% of gold medal winners in one prestigious taste-off take no medals at others of equal prestige, the probability of winning a gold medal is influenced by chance alone.

Toasted tiff


…since there’s nothing I like for breakfast more than a bowlful of bickering followed by a plate of scrambled squabbles and a side of toasted tiff.

Wine competitions are odd creatures, wherein you need to be almost maniacally on your A-game if you intend to seriously pass value judgment on a substance that by its nature affects your value judgments.  An awful lot depends on what wine you scored just before the wine you’re scoring now, how fatigued your palate is, and whether or not the moon is in the seventh house.

Why do we do it?  Because we care.  Why do we care? Because we’re wine experts.  Why are we wine experts?  Because we found a way to not pay for the wine we drink.

I am not a statistician or a scientist, nor even a particularly competent wine expert, but I think that I can pretty much sum up the value of wine competitions: They exist primarily as a marketing tool for wine shops and distributors, since for them, ‘gold’ means gold.

Until Michigan Wines Start Winning…

In which case, for wine consumers, wine writers, wine scientists, wine statiticians and bleary bystanders, competitions are the only credible tool available.

So, Here’s Why I Wrote This Column:

Sean O'Keefe experiments with different -shaped Riedel tulips

Throughout 2011, Michigan wineries have been nailing it.  Talk about an A Game? In January, Chateau Grand Traverse won a Best of Class award at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for their 2009 Lot 49 Riesling, icing on the cake for winemaker Sean O’Keefe who earned five other awards at the event.  Now into its third decade of superlative squeezing, Chateau Grand Traverse produces eighteen wines from four Northern Michigan vineyards sprawling across more than 120 acres.  The winning wine is lovely, too: fragrant with pear, peach and light honey notes, full and dry on the palate and warm on the finish.  O’Keefe recommends keeping a bottle or two around to see how it ages, and I’m in his corner.  As long as I’m not in his cellar, we’re good for the long haul.

San Berdoo’s Pacific Rim Wine Competition wound up with a tie for Best Gewurztraminer: Tabor Hill Winery, in Buchanan, for their 2009, and Chateau Fontaine, on the Leelanau Peninsula, for their 2010. (Chateau Fontaine went on to win Grand Champion honors as Best White Wine of the competition).  Both wines show characteristic perfume—delicate peach and apricot—while managing to avoid characteristic bitterness on the finish.  Nobody likes a tie, but in this case, the recommendation is to buy one of each and tie one on.

'I'm a lychee. So now you know.'

Tabor Hill, the first winery in the Midwest to try its hand at vitis vinifera, has, ever since, been raising the bar even as we are closing it.  Hence, no surprise that it pulled down several other top awards this year, including Best White Wine at the International Eastern Wine Competition, held in Corning, N.Y., for their 2010 Traminette.  Traminette a cross between the hardy hybrid Joannes Seyve  and less hardy gewürztraminer and typically produces wines with a taste profile suggesting lychee, lime, lemon, and grapefruit along with some spicy green tea.

Equally significant to Michigan wine fans, Fennville’s Fenn Valley Vineyards won Best of Class Riesling at the above competition, and this was out of a whopping 1,400 entries.  Founded by Bill Welsch in the early ‘70’s, Fenn Valley Vineyards was among the first in Michigan to take cues from our odd West Coast ‘lake effect’ which allows certain varietals to proliferate through rough Midwestern winters.  Riesling is high on the list of local success stories, and this one is an easy-going, honeysuckle-scented wine ripe with peach, candied lemon, green apples and pears with a pronounced mineral finish.

Left Foot Charley's Bryan Ulbrich in the tasting room

I may not be able to define a ‘Sweepstakes’ award, but I can claim that one was won by Traverse City’s Left Foot Charley (housed in a formal mental asylum) at the Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition for their 2010 Pinot Blanc, Island View Vineyard.  Left Foot Charley is a relatively new winery experimenting with relatively new (for Michigan) cultivars like pinot blanc, and the proof of the power is in the pour: The 2010 pinot blanc is a fruit-driven gem with Bosc pear, mandarin orange and pineapple flavors intermingled with an unctuous mouthfeel.  It’s a tremendously versatile food wine as well, with personal recommendations ranging from Thai spice to Cordon Bleu cream.

Additionally, with more than 3,000 entries from 15 countries, the 2011 Indy International Wine Competition, held in Indianapolis in August, awarded Best Vidal to Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson, while Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs won Best Chancellor and Leelanau Cellars on the Leelanau Peninsula won Best Flavored Port.

Such slews of strokes should silence cynics, ¿ sí?  In the past, Michigan’s reputation as a world-class wine source has been questioned as venomously as the value of wine competitions themselves—and some of it has been justified.  But, as techniques improve and lessons are learned, we’ve grown from challenged to champs, and it’s high time we got off that short bus.

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1 Response to Michigan Wine: The Stats Are Stellar, Suckers

  1. Let’s not forget the annual Harding’s Cup Challenge (now into its 4th year) where we compete the best of Michigan’s Cabernet Francs against the best of Chinon in France, where Cab Franc has reigned supreme for a thousand years. We have assembled and international panel of judges, one of which owns vineyards in Bordeaux, and who each year brings the Loire Valley wines to compete in our blind tasting. He has a vested interest in seeing the French entry win…so far they have placed no higher than second. This is easily the most important red wine competition in the state…but one would hardly know it exists thanks to the lack of press on the subject.

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