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Times of the Islands Magazine

Best in Show - How award-winning wines really receive top recognition

Sep 29, 2015 09:14AM ● By Cory Batelaan
How award-winning wines really receive top recognition By Gina Birch 

Have you ever purchased a bottle of wine based solely on its ratings or awards? Just how are those awards given out and who does it?

Get the inside scoop from Barbara Ensrud and Jessica Altieri, two of the nation’s most sought-after wine judges. Brought together by the 30th anniversary celebration of the historic Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina, they recently spent hours tasting the bottles produced there, including the delicious, limited-edition 30th Anniversary Red Blend. They shared their thoughts about evaluating wines.

Ensrud, a wine columnist for numerous international wine and lifestyle publications, has been judging wine since 1979 and is considered a pioneer in the field. “At the time, there were not that many people who knew enough about wine to write about it, so I was sort of in demand,” she says of those early days of her career. Wine was also considered a masculine drink, so she was one of few women in the field.

Wine journalists almost always sit on judging panels along with winemakers, sommeliers and retailers. They taste “blind,” meaning each glass has a number as a label. The only information provided is the category of the wine and perhaps its year, the region or the type of grape.

These judges might taste 40 merlots side by side, and, often, easily more than 100 in a day. One of the biggest and most prestigious events is the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, where more than 6,800 wines were tasted this year and rated by several panels of judges, including Altieri, founder of Wine Channel TV.

tasting 3At 30, she is often one of the youngest judges sitting on these panels. She describes the experience as a “master class of wine,” explaining, “You are with some of the best wine experts, winemakers, masters of wine and sommeliers from around the world, sitting for hours on end and sometimes days in a row, and you just learn so much” (including how to spit the wine after each taste so you don’t end up under the table).

What exactly are these judges looking for? Key questions that Ensrud usually asks: Is it true to the varietal (type of grape)? Is it balanced?

She explains, “It is legend in the wine-judging circles that some wines get eliminated that you would be perfectly happy to drink if ordered in a restaurant, but the comparative blind tastings is hard on wines, and the most powerful ones tend to win.”

Unknown winemakers often win top medals. Ensrud theorizes, “They lavish so much attention, so much personal energy on the wine, it gets translated into that wine.”

They also have nothing to loose. On the flip side, the wine judge says, “Some of the most reputable winemakers don’t always enter certain wines because it won’t do them any good to get a bronze medal. In a competition, the subtleties of that wine may not shine.”

Those are the wines that may fare better in the ratings system: the higher the points, presumably, the better the wine.

Antonio Galloni 1Antonio Galloni, founder of the esteemed wine website Vinous (, knows a great deal about ratings. He was one of the top tasters for the highly acclaimed Wine Advocate, the publication produced by world-renowned wine critic Robert Parker.

The problem with points and medals, according to Galloni, is how subjective they are to an individual’s palate. That is why his new endeavor is filled with 190,000 reviews rather than ratings. “Critiques put everything about a wine into perspective—the vintage, the region,” he says. He feels this is the information consumers most demand.

The sheer volume of wine available in the U.S., from all over the world, makes reviews even more important, according to Galloni. “We take it for granted. You think it is like this everywhere, but it is really not. We are very privileged,” he says.

So many choices make it even harder to know what to buy. “There are signposts of excellence and a knowledge range of what is considered quality, but it always comes down to a person’s taste,” Galloni says.

The most important thing, he adds, is, “Learn to trust your own palate.”

Medals and rating points aren’t the be-all and end-all for a good bottle of wine, but they certainly help “ease the buying process” for many consumers, according to Altieri. “I think it helps people break out of their mold to try new wines, and isn’t that the ultimate goal?” she asks.

Antonio concludes about rankings, “It’s just like anything—trust others for guidance, but at end of day it’s up to what you like.”

Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and wine, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.


[divider]CURRENT MEDAL HOLDERS[/divider]

Amado Sur Chardonnay Blend 2014: Tropical, with pineapple and lush apricot. Gold, Tasters Guild International Wine Judging

Franciscan Estate Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley: Creamy yet crisp with nice citrus flavors. Gold, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2012: Elegant, with strawberries, cherries and spice. Gold, TEXSOM International Wine Competition

Wild Horse Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast 2012: Dark cherry and vanilla with an herbal finish. Gold Medal, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

SIMI Alexander Valley Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009: Rich and full with lots of dark fruit and coffee. Double Gold, San Francisco International Wine Competition

These judges might taste 40 merlots side by side, and, often, easily more than 100 in a day.