My day at the American Fine Wine Competition

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Photo: Kristen Noffsinger

“Tell me what you drink, and I will tell you what you are.”

This quote from the early 19th century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin ran through my head over and over as I approached Florida International University’s (FIU) Biscayne Bay campus recently.

I’d like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated foodie and a wine connoisseur. I was introduced to wine 20 years ago as a graduate student in New Zealand and Australia, a time when the countries’ signature varietals, sauvignon blanc and shiraz, were challenging the dominance of wines from France and California.

I’d taken wine tasting tours up and down the Napa Valley and attended the grand tasting at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Oh, and I wouldn’t dare forget those few months I dated a sales manager for a wine wholesaler. Every day, after running his rounds, he would show up at my front door with two or three really fine bottles to share.

I knew a few things about wine, or so I thought. I’m sure most of the other dozen journalists who were joining me were confident in their abilities to pick a good wine, too.

For a week each winter, FIU’s Chapin School of Hospitality — already one of the preeminent programs in the world — becomes the epicenter of the American wine industry, as dozens of highly qualified judges and sommeliers arrive to render their decisions.

The American Fine Wine Competition was the brainchild of Shari Gherman and Monty and Sara Preiser, three wine professionals who dreamed of establishing an influential wine event in South Florida. The region is one of the three largest wine consumption markets in the country. Over a few glasses of wine in 2007, the competition was born.

Gherman, a Miami native, has traveled the world and has more than 25 years of experience as a sommelier. The Preisers, residents of Palm Beach County who also split their time at a home in Napa, are the publishers of “The Preiser Key,” the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.

“What makes the American Fine Wine Competition different is that most competitions are ‘pay to play,’” Gherman told the journalists as we filed into one of the FIU classrooms filled with hundreds of bottles of red, white, rose and sparkling wines. “We are an invitation only competition, and, as a result, attract the best of the best.”

Admittedly, I gasped at the sight of so many wines, neatly arranged, as a team of volunteers prepared flights for the judges to taste. We learned that the judges had completed the whites yesterday and had moved on to red wines today. It was overwhelming to contemplate how the judges would narrow more than 700 entries down, but we would be given an opportunity.

As we were led to the tasting room and divided into judging teams of four, we were reminded “any wine that you like is a good wine.” Unfortunately, that guidance would not cut it when dealing with dozens of wines of this caliber.

The AFWC judging system, organized by chief judge Monty Preiser, starts with flights of four wines, poured in private and then taken to the judging tables. Glasses are numbered to correspond with the individually numbered wine bottles, which are kept secret in the staging room. Wines can be awarded individual gold, silver or bronze medals, but at least three of the panel members must agree. Double gold medals are awarded when the entire panel agrees the wine is worthy of the top medal.

It sounded easy enough, until it was our turn to taste. Turns out I was anything but a wine snob. We were reminded of the qualities the judges would evaluate, including appearance, color, aroma, bouquet and taste. We are encouraged to see, swirl, sniff, sip and swallow (or spit) as we took our turns.

Ranking the wines turns into a challenging proposition as four chardonnays or pinot noirs can taste completely different, appealing to the senses in wildly varying ways. While we take repeated sips to evaluate our wines, chatting away about the hints of chocolate or fruit and the sweetness and acidity, our proctor bursts our bubbles.

The professionals can render their collective judgment with a simple sip and then spit. I’m definitely not a snob, because the thought of spitting out these wonderful wines after a sip seems tantamount to alcohol abuse! It’s a necessity for the judges, who must maintain their senses throughout the long day, but after just a couple of flights, the amateurs are enjoying a light buzz.

It’s been an educational experience, but I think I’ll leave the judging to the judges and settle for being an informed oenophile.

Winners of the 2014 American Fine Wine Competition were announced via satellite broadcast in Miami and Napa on Jan. 31. The wines will be sampled at the AFWC Wine Gala on April 4 at the Boca Raton Resort. For more information and tickets, go to AmericanFineWineCompetition.org.

AFWC Guide to Wine Tasting

Tasting wine is as easy as it is fun. There are a few simple rules to begin. One, fill your glass just one-third full (The bottle isn’t going anywhere, it’s yours, right?) and this way you won’t spill as you swirl. Two, hold your glass by the stem (Fingerprints are bad and you don’t want to warm the wine with your body heat). Three, have some fun while you taste (no explanation needed). OK, you’re ready to begin.

SEE….Hold the glass against something white or toward the light. You are looking for the color of the wine. If it’s a red, is it a deep garnet color or violet or bright red? If it’s white, is it a pale straw color or golden yellow? The color of wine will give you an indication of what the wine may feel like in your mouth. A deeper color would indicate it might be rich and full bodied. A lighter color could indicate it will be light on the palate.

SWIRL….Carefully swirl the glass while it’s resting on the table, holding it at the base. This releases the many wonderful nuances of the wine. Once you have achieved this without the wine coming up and over the rim of the glass, try swirling your glass in the air. It’s a pretty impressive skill, once mastered.

SNIFF….After swirling, put your nose into the glass. Inhale deeply. Look for familiar fruit smells. Sniffing the wine is much about memory. In white wine, you might smell pear or apple or lemon or grapefruit. For reds, you might smell black fruit or Maraschino cherry or prunes. Look for spices. In whites, you might get vanilla or honey notes. In reds, you could smell cinnamon, black pepper or cloves. You may also detect wood smells — is it oak or cedar or toast? These nuances come from the barrel in which the wine was aged.

SIP….Ah, the best part. This should basically mirror the “sniff” part of the tasting, as far as what the wine should taste like. If you smelled pink grapefruit or plum, you should get that on the palate as well. Take a mouthful of the wine, swish it around. Now take in a bit of air. Feel it on your tongue, the sides of your mouth, close your eyes and really taste it. Does it feel like your mouth is drying up? This could be the tannins in the wine, if it is red. This shows the structure of the wine. It could also mean the wine will age well. Does it coat your mouth? If white, this could mean the wine has been through malolactic fermentation. “Malo” gives the wine a lovely creaminess.

SWALLOW (or spit)….Close your eyes again. Think about the four S’s. Remember what it looked like when you saw it in the glass; when you swirled it; when you smelled it; when you sipped and swished it around in your mouth. What did it taste and feel like? This helps create the memory, so next time you can think back and try to draw from a past experience. Now swallow the wine. How long does the taste linger in your mouth? This is called the “finish” and it can be a clue to the quality of the wine. Do you like it? In the final analysis, that really is all that matters.

In the world of wine, there are really no absolutes. Just because a wine costs $50 doesn’t mean it’s a great wine, and if it costs $15, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad wine. The fact is, if you think it tastes great, then it is a great wine. Taste a lot of wines, explore new varietals, raise a glass with family, friends and co-workers. Enjoy it daily.


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