This was the 36th version of the competition, which has always spotlighted wines made in the east and midwest. This year, that focus was sharpened -- only wines from the eastern and midwestern U.S. and eastern Canada were eligible. This meant that we didn't have to judge the hundreds (literally) of California grocery store wines that always entered, so the number of entries was cut from 2,000 or so when I last did it in 2010 to 800 this year.
That was not a bad thing. Yes, we can boast about how manly we are when we judge 100 wines a day, which is quite common in major competitions, but I don't know that anyone actually enjoys it. So doing 50 a day, which is what we did this year, was quite a pleasant change.
The judges were also top notch, including the legendary Dan Berger, Elin McCoy of "Emperor of Wine" fame, and noted riesling winemaker Peter Bell. I judged with Virginia's Jenni McCloud, the queen of the norton grape, and California wine publicists Tim McDonald and Bill Smart.
Unfortunately, we didn't get enough quality wine to judge. The whites were better than the reds, but that's not saying much. Those of us who carry the banner for regional wine were disappointed; my buddy Dave McIntyre, also a judge, said he was sadly surprised at the poor quality.
And it didn't help the cause that Californians like McDonald and Smart had to taste what they tasted. McDonald was overwhelmed by one flight of a dozen nortons, and it's not hard to see why. They were not of the highest quality, which meant lots of acid and too much foxiness (an unpleasant aroma in poorly made norton). Smart, who filled in for McDonald the next day, endured a couple of flights of cold-hardy red hybrids that did not do the grapes justice. He was a trouper about it, but I wouldn't blame him if he vowed never to try another regional wine again.
What did we judge that was worthwhile? The results haven't been released yet, so I don't know what each wine was. But we tasted the best peach wine I've ever had, and it won best of show for fruit wine. The rieslings, as always, were top notch, and the one that won best of show was, to my mind, not even the best riesling entered. Our panel gave a gold to a Wisconsin riesling that was a stunner -- slightly sweet, rich and lemony, and that was only our second favorite. And we had a gamay from Michigan that was deep and dark and quite interesting.
Nice wines -- just not enough of them.