An inside look at wine competition

Commercial wine judges feel enormous responsibility when evaluating entrants in a competition such as the Newport Seafood and Wine Festival. We hold the efforts of many people — vineyard folks, cellar workers and winemakers — in our hands and on our palates.

Some wines are made by a small family, others by large teams at enormous wineries. It is important, as a wine judge, to evaluate each entrant evenly and fairly, regardless of where it was made or who made it.

I am a commercial wine judge, but I've also judged at amateur events where the wine wasn't for sale. I've found gems at both, but the main difference is the quality swings wildly at noncommercial events — it's not uncommon to taste very well-made wines next to ones that simply weren't drinkable.

In a commercial competition, all wines arrive to the judges "blind" — without any hint as to their producers. We know the varietal and many times the blend, but not who made them. We may ask vintage dates, especially if the wine appears to be older. Sometimes we ask for sugar levels in wines such as riesling, gewürztraminer, rosé, fruit wines and dessert wines. Many judges wish to taste wines from drier to sweeter, so sugar levels, if available, must be made open to the judges.

In larger flights, such as more than 15 entrants, the wines go through an initial award/no award judging. This preliminary round separates prospective award winners for further consideration and possible medals at a later time, usually the following day.

Medals awarded are bronze, silver, gold and best of show. Bronze medal wines show merit, are soundly made and are a good representation of the varietal or blend. Silver winners show special merit and display excellent form in their varietal.

What separates silver from gold is a lack of that something extra-special that makes the wine extraordinary. An example might be a finish that does not linger long enough or a bouquet that does not come up from the glass. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but there are five of us who must be in concert for all medal considerations, so I think, all in all, the system is very fair for everyone who enters.

The Newport Seafood and Wine Festival is an extremely well-run competition that's a popular and beloved tasting event on the coast. Hats off to Lorna Davis, the executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, for her vision, experience and hard work in making it so.

Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at

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