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March Madness for Wollersheim Demonstrates Wine Competition Sanity
By Linda Murphy
Mar 27, 2012
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On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Grand Old Badger State!

Whose high school band hasn’t played the University of Wisconsin fight song a couple of times during every a football game?  This question, of course, goes to those, like me, who prepped at a time when high school bands played fight songs borrowed from athletically important universities. 

These spirited marches are likely no longer on the play list of high school bands, yet I have not been able to get “On, Wisconsin” out of my head, since the state’s largest winery, Wollersheim Winery, swept the major awards at not only the San Diego International Wine Competition, about which Robert Whitley reported last week, but also the International Eastern Wine Competition a week prior.  I am the chief judge at IEWC.

As Robert wrote, Wollersheim, located in Prairie du Sac, Wis., was chosen the San Diego competition’s Winery of the Year, for its jaw-dropping performance:  Six wines, including two from its second label, Cedar Creek, made the championship round.  Wollersheim’s White Riesling and 2010 Prairie Fume took best-of-class honors.

So imagine my delight -- almost as exciting as a touchdown -- when I compared the results of San Diego International to those of International Eastern, held March 6-7.  If IEWC were to give a Winery of the Year award, the 2012 winner would have been Wollersheim.  It’s Dry Riesling (America appellation, with the grapes grown in Washington state) was the Best of Show winner at IEWC -- that means it was the judges’ favorite wine of the competition -- as well as Riesling Champion and Best White Wine.  The winery’s 2011 Prairie Blush (Wisconsin appellation), made from 100 percent Marechal Foch (a French-American hybrid grape), was voted Best Rosé.

Mirroring the San Diego International results, Wollersheim’s 2011 Prairie Fumé -- 100 percent Wisconsin Seyval Blanc, another hybrid variety -- won best of class and advanced to the sweepstakes round, as did the winery’s semi-sweet American White Riesling (Best Riesling at SDIWC). 

It is pure coincidence that Robert, SDIWC chief judge Michael Franz and I were involved in wine competitions in the same month, and that they had strikingly similar results with Wollersheim’s entries.  We don’t evaluate the wines -- our judges do that in blind tastings – and we didn’t talk to each other about our competitions before the judging or at the time the results were announced.  Only one person judged both competitions (there was a combined total of 58 judges from the fields of winemaking, grape-growing, media and wine/restaurant trade).

Thus, the results, pure and professionally achieved, spotlighted Wollersheim, a 40-year-old winery at the top of its game.  That it is located in Wisconsin is a most pleasant surprise, yet not a shock, as Wollersheim is one of hundreds of wineries east of the Rockies that produce top-notch wines, yet are often overshadowed by bottles from California, Oregon and Washington state.  They’re also up against a general lack of education in the United States about the beauties of wines produced from hybrid and native grape varieties with names such as Cayuga White, Vignoles, St. Croix, Marquette and Chambourcin.  They can be every bit as good as wines made from the classic European vinifera varies Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot; folks just gotta try them. 

Wines produced from grapes grown in cold climates (Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and New York’s Finger Lakes region, to name a few) produce much different styles of wine than California, which is much warmer and has the advantage of having a longer growing season to fully ripen just about any grape variety imaginable (sometimes to excess).

Eastern and Midwestern producers are restricted in which varieties they cultivate, as the grapes often must withstand winter and early spring temperatures below zero and are susceptible to winter injury and spring frosts.  Fall comes approximately one month earlier than it does on the West Coast, forcing the vines to shut down and begin winter dormancy in October, when some Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon growers might not finish harvesting in mid-November. 

Additionally, vintners in the East and Midwest must contend with fungal disease -- mildew, mold and rot -- that thrive during the moist, humid summers.  The University of Minnesota and Cornell University in New York have come to the growers’ rescue, developing new hybrid grapes and improving upon existing French-American hybrids that are cold-hardy, disease-resistant, and ferment into wines that are complex, have firm acidities and tannins, plenty of flavor, and lack the simple, “grape-y” character of many East and Midwest wines of a decade or so ago. 
In recent years, some writers/bloggers have attempted to paint competitions as useless exercises.  They claim that results are unreliable … that judges taste too many wines to retain sharp palates … that many judges are unexperienced … that wines are not tasted in context (meaning, for example, that a Finger Lakes Pinot Noir will be unfairly judged against a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, because it’s style is dramatically different).

Wine competitions aren’t perfect, yet they are beneficial in many ways, as long as the judges are experienced and able to assess quality across many styles.  All of the competitions at which I judge, and the one for which I serve as chief judge, have only qualified, seasoned judges who have tasted broadly and deeply from the world’s wines, and know good ones when they taste them. 

The recent “March Madness” performance of Wollersheim at the San Diego International and Eastern International competitions was no fluke, and it strongly suggests that professionally run competitions with open-minded yet focused judges can lead consumers to wines they might not otherwise be aware of.  That the panels include wine writers, sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers means that what they discover in their blind evaluations can push into the spotlight exciting wines that might otherwise remain behind the curtains.  The results also send messages back to wineries -- good, bad and everything in between -- how their wines fare against their competition.

Wollersheim is clearly on a run, with successive sweeps of two major competitions held in California.  Who knows how many wine lovers will give its Dry Riesling or Prairie Blush a try after learning of the results, where they might have passed them by otherwise?

On, Wisconsin, indeed.