Behind the Scenes at the 2023 Idaho Wine & Cider Competition
The results of the 14th annual Idaho Wine & Cider Competition are in! Bronze, silver, gold, and double gold medals have been awarded, as well as “Best in Class” and “Best of Show” awards for a handful of wines that impressed all the judges. For members of Idaho’s wine community, the annual competition is exciting, nail-biting, and a chance to celebrate Idaho wines, as well as the strong collaboration among Idaho’s winemakers, growers and industry employees.
Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at a wine competition? Is it judges wearing ascots and walking around with a glass in hand and nose in the air? The Idaho Wine & Cider Competition is not that. It is an event of rigorous preparation, careful execution, and judges bringing their best skills to evaluate wines impartially.
By the numbers
Organizing a wine competition is not for the faint of heart. The Idaho Wine & Cider Competition is a collaboration between Great Northwest Wine and the Idaho Wine Commission. Wineries submit entries and judges are selected months in advance. This year’s competition on May 23, 2023, started at 8:30 in the morning and finished by 3 pm with a short break for lunch. Here’s a snapshot of the competition by the numbers.
- 205 wines
- 9 ciders
- More than 600 bottles
- 2500 glasses of wine (250 wine glasses washed 10 times each at high heat without chemicals and then polished)
- 5 volunteers working the “backroom”
- 9 judges from across the U.S.
- One very detailed spreadsheet
How the wines are judged
Judging for this year’s competition was organized into three panels with three judges each, plus a moderator. Each panel tasted about 70 unique wines. Competition organizer Eric Degerman selects judges who are familiar with Idaho wines and some who are not. The panel of judges have a combination of expert credentials, deep experience buying and selling wine, and writing about wine for a living.
Judges evaluate similar wines in a setting. So, for example, all Merlots are brought out and judged at the same time. During a setting, up to eight glasses of wine might be evaluated at once. Each glass of wine is labeled, Merlot 1, Merlot 2, etc. Volunteers who work behind the scenes at the competition bring out the wine already poured and labeled to ensure the wines are judged blindly. The judges smell, taste, and taste again each sample, taking notes on a printed form. The room is silent while the judges taste and evaluate. Each judge then writes down what award they believe the wine merits— a bronze, silver or gold medal. Some wines, which may be faulted or otherwise atypical, are not awarded a medal. It is worth noting that judges will occasionally request a “re-pour.” This is done when a judge senses something wrong with a wine that could be the fault not of the winemaker but rather the cork used on that bottle or another strange smell in the glass of wine. It is not uncommon for the first bottle of wine to suffer from some issue, have a second bottle poured and have that wine receive a gold medal.
After tasting each wine, judges submit their written comments to a moderator who enters each judge’s award into a spreadsheet. The moderator reads aloud the awards given a particular wine. Unanimous agreement is rare. For example, a wine might receive a gold minus, a silver, and a silver minus by the panel of three judges. Discussion follows. At the Idaho Wine & Cider Competition, decisions are made by "majority rule." Typically, a wine awarded silver by two judges would result in a final decision of a silver medal, unless the judge who awarded a gold can make a case for the other judges to change their initial award. A double gold medal is rare, particularly a “natural double gold” — the unanimous award of a gold medal by each person on a panel without any prior discussion.
Not all competitions have judges openly discuss their scores. Some simply have each judge arrive at a point score, right that down on a scoresheet or in digital form, and have the scores tabulated. But at the Idaho competition, every judge knows the final award of each wine or cider when it leaves the table.
The competition’s unsung heroes
The hardest workers at a wine competition are the folks who work in the backroom. It’s a detailed, precise process with no margin for error. Careful labeling must be done so wines remain anonymous to the judges, while ensuring each label is accurately associated with the bottle it came from. In addition, each bottle of white wine must be chilled to the right temperature and can’t be allowed to warm up before it reaches the judges. Each bottle of red wine is decanted before it’s poured and served. The Idaho Wine & Cider Competition has a cadre of faithful volunteers, some local and some who drive up to nine hours to support the competition because they love Idaho wine and cider and Idaho’s community of wine and cider makers and growers.
The last part of the Idaho Wine Competition is the sweepstakes round, where each wine awarded a gold or double gold is evaluated by all nine judges. Once again judges rank the wines on paper and pick their favorites. The gold-winning red and white wines are narrowed down to the top two or three, and then judges taste them again and are asked to vote for a best-in-class wine with a show of hands.
Then the wines winning best of class are tasted a final time. Judges vote for the wine they believe deserves to be named Best of Show overall. A wine earning this honor has been evaluated multiple times by every judge at the competition.
The next time you come across an Idaho wine that has won gold at the Idaho Wine & Cider Competition, you’ll know a bit about what it took to win that medal after making it through a gauntlet of tastings and judges. With Idaho Wine & Cider Month in June, it’s the perfect time to visit Idaho wineries and cideries and sample the fare. And if you get a chance to taste Idaho Gold—don’t pass it up!
The Idaho Wine Commission and Great Northwest Wines would like to extend their thanks to sponsors of this year’s Idaho Wine & Cider Competition: Visit Boise, Anthony's, Koenig Vineyards, Wilbur Ellis, and CORTEVA. Thank you!
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