Say "Indiana" and all sorts of wonderful things flash into mind - corn on the cob, auto races, basketball, David Letterman, Larry Bird, Jerry Reynolds, Kurt Vonnegut. Wine just never has made it onto the list. But wine, not this weekend's Brickyard 400, is why I'm in Indianapolis.
Believe it or not, the largest commercial wine judging in the United States last year was the Indy International Wine Competition right here in Indianapolis. It drew nearly 4,000 wines from throughout the world. How could such a thing happen? People long affiliated with the 16-year-old judging - this is my first year to sit on a panel here - credit Dr. Richard Vine, recently retired professor of enology in the food sciences department at Purdue University, which with the Indiana State Fair coordinates the competition.
Vine, honorary chair of this year's competition, plays down his pivotal role in building the judging. He says wineries long ago began to sign on because they welcomed the exposure that the competition gave them throughout the Midwest and East and because they've liked how he mixed up his panels. He must be the most diligent and persuasive wine-competition organizer in the country to get so many women to join the judging. Every panel here has at least one woman, most have two, and a couple have three. There are five persons to each panel.
Here, meet my judging mates: George Taber of Block Island, Rhode Island, author of "The Judgment of Paris" and the forthcoming "To Cork or Not To Cork," a study of corks and screwcaps as closures on wine; Todd Steiner of Wooster, Ohio, enology outreach specialist of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a branch of Ohio State University; Meredith Easley, a principal in her family's Easley Winery in Indianapolis; and Colleen May of Napa, CEO of Intervine Inc., which finds wines and then sells them to airlines and cruise lines. (A footnote to yesterday's posting about the cabernet sauvignon I enjoyed aboard the Northwest flight from Sacramento to Minneapolis: Her company is the one to find the wine and sell it to the airline. Small world.)
At any rate, despite our assorted backgrounds and orientation, we were a pretty cohesive group. When I judge wine in California I'm on pretty secure turf, dealing with familiar varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel. While most of the wines here are Californian, our panel seems to have been assigned classes made up of wines largely from the Midwest and East. At 9 a.m. Indianapolis time - 6 a.m. California time - we were judging wines like vidal, seyval, cayuga and chardonel. Later came madeleine angevine and auxerrois. You just don't see those kinds of wines in California. Nonetheless, we gave several gold medals. California may be the locomotive driving the nation's wine awareness, but a whole other wine country looks to be stirring east of the Rockies.