Winemakers enter wine competitions mostly because they know that gold medals sell wine. Beyond that, they see competitions as a way to measure the quality of their wines against releases of similar pedigree. They use the results to learn of their shortcomings and to make adjustments so their wines will be more competitive in both judgings and the marketplace. Most wine competitions focus on the gold-medal aspects rather than the educational side of judging.
For years, however, the New York Wine & Food Classic, a competition that this year drew a record 790 wines, all from the Empire State, has put as much emphasis on the second motivation as the first. It's done it quietly, and with a deviously simple approach, to wit: Several flights of wine include a "ringer," a wine not from New York but from a region widely recognized as doing well by a particular style or varietal. For example, a class of New York sparkling wines might include a Champagne, or a class of New York sauvignon blanc might include a release of the varietal from New Zealand.
Because the wines are judged blind, judges don't know where they are from. The competition's organizers see this approach as a way to let New York winemakers know how their wines measure up to wines that already have developed a following.
Our panel at the New York Wine & Food Classic today judged several classes that included "ringers" from elsewhere. A flight of riesling, for example, included a wine from Germany, we learned afterwards. Germany generally is seen as the region that does best by riesling. However, we gave the German riesling only a silver, while awarding two New York rieslings gold medals. Hooray for New York, which in recent years has gained much respect for its rieslings.
On the other hand, we also judged a class of chardonnay. None of the New York chardonnays won more than a silver medal. The only gold-medal wine in the class was the Simi Winery 2006 Sonoma County Chardonnay, from California. The message? New York vintners, get to work on improving your chardonnay.
We gave the wines fair deliberation, but I wouldn't make too much of these results. While they're intriguing and perhaps instructive, New York vintners shouldn't relax their vigilance in producing noble rieslings any more than they should lose sleep over the showing of their chardonnay.
The competition, by the way, is being held in one of the nation's more grand and celebrated resorts, Mohonk Mountain House, 1200 feet up the Catskills overlooking Hudson River Valley. It's so huge it forms its own ridge of Victorian turrets along one side of a 17-acre lake. Guests have at their disposal all sorts of opportunities for golfing, hiking, swimming, rock climbing or just lounging in rockers on one of the buildings several verandas. The competition's judges, however, barely have enough time to shower and change before dinner, their schedule of wines being so extensive (133 for our panel the first day). Poor judges.