Thursday, February 26, 2009

Judging the Judges

Since I started this blog in November, I've wobbled quite a bit on what topics I want to cover. I've tried to move away from posts I think are too "press-releasey" while still reporting on Indiana wine and wineries. Strangely enough, one thing I haven't been interested in covering is that of wine competitions.

Anyone who has been to a winery has seen them. Look up, because the bottles are usually placed on a high shelf, wearing three or four necklace-like medals the wine managed to win at some competition or another. What regulars at wineries tend to notice now are the wines that have no medals, sad and stooped like the child who received no valentines.

Those who wish to immerse themselves in local wine culture quickly learn that just about any winery can win a medal for a wine they made. Those who immerse themselves in local wine culture learn pretty soon after that that medals are not really indicative of quality.

Now, a study in the Journal of Wine Economics confirms what a lot of people already knew. As the abstract puts it:

Wine judge performance at a major wine competition has been analyzed from 2005 to 2008 using replicate samples. Each panel of four expert judges received a flight of 30 wines embedded with triplicate samples poured from the same bottle. Between 65 and 70 judges were tested each year. About 10 percent of the judges were able to replicate their score within a single medal group. Another 10 percent, on occasion, scored the same wine Bronze to Gold. Judges tend to be more consistent in what they don’t like than what they do. An analysis of variance covering every panel over the study period indicates only about half of the panels presented awards based solely on wine quality.

The article has lots more goodies and stats that show wine judges are all over the map in grading wines, which explains why just about any wine can win an award.

I understand medals are valuable PR tools. I would submit, however, they are only paid any mind by beginners. I think just about every wine fan can remember the first time they bought a wine because of the award it had "earned." This is usually followed shortly thereafter by said wine fan drinking said wine and realizing the medal should be melted down and sold for scrap.

Ignore those medals on the shelf. Try everything you can sip the next time you visit a winery. Expand your horizons, and you will be surprised at what you like.

Find more about this topic at the wonderful "sister" site Michigan Grapevine, as well an article in Wines and Vines.

PS: Think I have any chance of getting media passes to the Indy Wine Competition?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Want to Write for the Indiana Wine Blog?

Do you have a blog and post occasionally about Indiana wines? Email me so I don't miss it and can cross-post or link your article.

Do you want to write about wine occasionally but not want the hassle of a blog? Email me at about writing guest columns. No commitment necessary!

PS: I am toying with the idea about having a editorial board instead of just myself. Let me know if you would be interested in joining. I would request you have no financial interest in an Indiana winery.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

50 States of Wine Blogs

I have a few links on the side here for wine blogs, like mine, which focus on wines from a particular state. If you have a current wine blog whose main focus is the wine industry within a certain state, or if you know of one I don't list, let me know. I would like to form a list of them. All that I ask is that they be regularly updated. I would prefer them to be from non-biased sources (that is, not written by people with a financial stake in the state's wine industry), but will consider all sources.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wine on Tap?

Mich Wine reports that new ( but already very popular) Michigan winery Left Foot Charley is offering some of their most popular wines on tap at the tasting bar. Customers will also be given the option of receiving 1 liter "growlers" or bringing their own bottle for filling. European wineries have been doing this for years, and by allowing customer to draw popular wines for sampling and purchase straight from the tanks, the need for bottles is reduced. Also reduced is the frustration winemakers feel in spending time and expense bottling their wine, only to take those bottles a few feet away to the tasting room to be opened, sampled, and thrown away.

The only concern is shelf life, as these wines should be consumed within 2 weeks.

This is an idea I am surprised has not taken root elsewhere. I can think of several Indiana wineries who could market this very well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tasting Notes: Oak Hill Winery

In part two of my winery adventure two weeks ago, I stopped by tiny Converse to visit Oak Hill Winery. The journey from Elwood to Converse was around 23 miles up Indiana 13 to IN-18, full of winding paths and some nice scenery. It was the perfect opportunity to see a part of Indiana I don't get to see often, as well as reflect on my just completed visit to New Day Meadery. If you were planning on leaving from Indianapolis directly to Oak Hill, it is 15 minutes east on US-31 at the IN-18 turn. You will see a sign off of 31.

Oak Hill's website says "our specialty is the fact that we make our wines to appeal to new wine drinkers more so than wine enthusiasts." I thought that was a little unusual and welcome, both for the mission itself, and for not having a mission statement that says "our goal is to make great wines at an affordable price" like nearly every other winery. It is also yet another example of Indiana wineries tweaking the business model just slightly to find their niche.

Another business niche is the prominent advertisements about Oak Hill's commitment to using as few chemical preservatives as possible. The flyer I picked up says the wine "does not contain any excessive sulfites, any fining material, or chemical preservatives, with one exception." That exception is a small amount of potassium sorbate to prevent yeast production. This results in some of the wines being cloudy and a good amount of sediment in some of the bottles, so decanting or a strainer top is recommended. Still, this is as close as it gets to organic wines in Indiana.

Oak Hill is on what I assume is Converse's main drag, IN-18, right in the middle of town. I parked on the street and came up the steps of the two-story Victorian style home. The winery itself is on the bottom floor and you must go up a long set of stairs to get to the upstairs tasting room.

The upstairs is heavy on the wood with low lighting. There was only one other customer who was drinking a glass at a table. I sidled up to the long wood tasting bar and was greeted by Sherry (what a great name for someone who works at a winery!). In all the Indiana wineries I have visited, I have always been treated courteously and made to feel welcome. This one was no different, but I will say that Sherry was certainly the most colorful salesperson I have met. She had me in stitches as various points in the tasting.

Sherry is also a trickster. Oak Hill had 20 wines available for tasting on the day I arrived, and Sherry had me talking so much and asking questions while the next pour was being made so effortlessly that I took me 10 tastes or so before I realized she was intending on having me taste the whole flight. Not to worry, there's a "junk bucket" as Sherry put it, for leftovers. Furthermore, if you are not the type to swallow, there's a special test. Remember that long flight of steps? Sherry said those were the "sobriety steps" and if you stumble in any way going down, you're sticking around for a while. Regardless, this is one winery where spitting is certainly highly recommended.

Oak Hill has no vineyards, so therefore it must buy all of the juice it needs. One trend I noticed was that a dry version of a wine would often be on the list opposite a sweeter variety using the same grapes.

Thanks to my recent drive in the countryside, I was able to pick up that the wines are named after local small towns. From Jalapa to Sweetser to Fairmount, they're here. Nice local homage. Sadly, a bottle I greatly wanted to try, Oak Hill's mead, Mead Marion, was out of stock. I was interested in the comparison having just come from New Day. I must also confess that it took me a week before I got the pun. I got the Maid Marion reference immediately, but didn't realize it is also a homage to the local town of Marion.

Here's my tasting notes highlights. Oak Hill has a standard pricing system, with 1 or 2 bottles costing $9.99, 3 to 6 costing $8.99 each, 6 to 11 $8.49, and one dozen or more costing $7.99. Special Release wines are $12.99.

Mississinewa White-a Sevyal Blanc that is just about bone dry. Crisp, with good mineral notes. Not much else, though that is typical of Sevyal Blanc.

Roann-The description asked the taster to guess which fruit the wine was made of. This dry peach wine was surprising, and the confusion some have is evident. It could easily be mistaken be plum or even apple cider. A unique twist resembling a very dry Riesling.

Hanging Rock-Made from Chambourcin grapes, a red quickly and with good reason becoming one of the prominent grapes being cultivated in Indiana. My favorite of Oak Hill's dry wines, this wine is dominated by cherry and spice, with good balance of tannins. At this price, it's a value.

Peru Peach-This tasted very thin, like the bottle has been opened too long. I did notice the bottle was nearly empty, so I am going to assume the wine was past the recommended shelf life.

Bunker Hill-Oak Hill's Concord offering. It's Concord, and if you like Concord, you will enjoy this offering. If you find Concord too sweet, you won't. I didn't find it be cloying like some other Concords I have tasted, but it is still pretty sweet.

Borderman-Diamond and cranberry blend. I have never tasted Diamond wine before (yet another to get to my Wine Century Club). This variety is a cross between Concord and Iona. It does have the sweetness of Concord, but is a little mellower. The cranberry gives it a little kick, and the blend is pleasant. Again, if you don't care for cranberry wine, this is not for you. Would be a perfect wine around holiday time for those who like sweeter wines.

Kokomo Cider-My favorite taste of the flight. Served slightly warm, it is everything I look for in a cider. Great apple flavor and spice that radiates and warms the body. One of the best Indiana ciders I have tasted.

Wawpecong-apple and blackberry blend. It was fine, but I didn't appreciate the blend of the two fruits as much as I thought I would. As a fan of blackberry wine, I missed the richness of the blackberry standing alone. It's hard to do blackberry well at a low price point, so why try? Do it solo and make it a limited release at a higher price.

I also purchased another bottle, and will do a group review later.

What is also unusual about Oak Hill are the labels. They are black and white drawings appropriate to the name of the wine. I wish I could find a picture of them, but I can't. They remind me of a set of illustrated Dickens novels I had as a child. I wish I would have taken the time to look at all of them.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this winery. Oak Hill is clearly on the upswing of it's trajectory, and there is still lots of growing to do. Some of the wines were very good, and even some of the average wines get a bump up because of the value their price point presents.

I would hope that some who enjoy wines would make a point of seeking out the northern Indiana wineries. Sadly, due to geography, they can be so easily ignored. I myself haven't been able to get to all of them. I know there are plans in the works for a trail linking some of them, and hopefully the creation of that and some great product will make them as popular as their southern cousins. In the meantime, they have to work twice as hard to distinguish themselves. Oak Hill is doing that by value, the great staff, commitment to more "natural" wine, and the wine club (I have previously wrote about that here-it's a great value).

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reader Mail

Got a few more questions in the mailbox in the past few weeks, and thought I would answer them for all. Here they are, perhaps edited for length and clarity. As always, please write me with questions at However, I must request that you not solicit me for legal advice.

Do you only drink Indiana wine? If not, what wines do you prefer to drink when you are not drinking Indiana wine?

I drink any wine I can get in my glass! I enjoy Indiana wines and like to write about the industry, but they are certainly not the only wines I drink.

I will try just about anything, but prefer semi-dry whites and whites with a touch of sweetness. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are my favorites, but I also enjoy Chianti, Cabernet Franc, and Traminette.

I enjoy your tasting notes. What is your procedure when you visit? Do you identify yourself?

Thank you. Tasting notes are fun to do, but time consuming. I still have one outstanding which I have told myself I will get to this weekend.

When I visit a winery, I want to be treated just like any other guest. So no, I do not introduce myself as the writer for this blog. However, I don't lie about anything either. If someone introduces them self to me, I introduce myself by my real name. If someone asks what I do for a living, I tell them my real job, but I don't mention this hobby of mine.

I try to remain somewhat anonymous for a few reasons. Like I said before, I want to be treated just like any other guest. I don't want special treatment. In order to be write from the guest experience, you do in fact have to be treated like any other guest. If a winery has a tasting fee, I want to pay it (so I can write if I thought it was worth it). If employees are rude (something I have never experienced in Indiana, but have other places) or inattentive (something I have experienced here, but not since I began writing this blog), I want to experience it. Also, due to my job, when I can visit a winery is usually peak traffic time for them, and I don't want extra attention paid to me at the expense of other guests. I don't want salespersons to hover over me, allowing me to write my notes and sip in somewhat quiet contemplation (which can be an advantage of visiting during rush hour-the salesperson can't hover if he or she has other customers to serve) . Somewhat to my disappointment, nothing gets extra attention at a winery like a customer taking notes.

I think some employees have figured out that there is something strange about the person they are serving. I have introduced myself a few times after the tasting and purchases have been made, but only when I have communicated previously with someone via email or phone and want to introduce myself. I wait until after the purchases have been rung up so no one attempts to give me a discount. I usually don't introduce myself though, because I also don't want to answer questions about what my review might entail.

What are your qualifications to write about wine? Do you have any education in this area?

I have neither qualifications nor wine education. I have experience drinking wine and genuinely enjoy it, but I am no sommelier.

I have been frank in previous posts that I think others could do a much better job than myself writing this blog. However, no one had done so, so I decided to try. I wanted a method to improve my writing that was not work related, and thought it would be a great experience. So far, it has been.

As far as education, I knew a good amount about wine before I started this blog, and believe I learn more everyday. I read books, other blogs, magazines, USDA and university reports about viticulture, attend wine tastings, visit wineries, and seek just about any other outlet to learn about wine. It's been great fun!

What's your biggest wish for Indiana wine?

A Great Lake! Since we are not going to get that (besides the few miles of industrial wasteland, I mean, shoreline, we have of Lake Michigan), I hope that Hoosier wineries continue to realize their potential and limitations and strive to be the best that terroir and their skill allows them to be.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tasting Notes: New Day Meadery

Last weekend, I drove to Elwood to visit New Day Meadery. I've seen their meads at the Mass Ave Wine Shoppe, as well as a couple of the farmer's markets, but never got the chance to either taste any or visit the meadery itself. The weather was nice, and I thought it was the perfect excuse to visit Indiana's only meadery.

I must admit, my experience with mead is limited. The only one I can recall tasting is Oliver's Camelot Mead, which KeeKee and I often drank while trying to survive law school. A few Indiana wineries have a mead on their menu, but they tend to be limited reserves and are often out of stock. I knew that New Day is an artisan meadery, and specializes in drier meads and fruit blends, but knew little else. So, I educated myself a little before I drove to Elwood.

New Day's website is a great help, and this page here includes a link to pdf file that gives a great condensed version of the history of mead. I also found some excellent information here.

The drive was pleasant enough, and the directions were fine (the website is smart enough to have a Google Maps link so you can plug in directions without leaving the page). However, unless I missed it, there was no signage off of IN-37. Not a good idea, especially since impromptu foot traffic is a great source of sales.

As I arrived and came in, the sales person was sitting in the small tasting area waiting for someone to come in. I was surprised there was no one else there, though if there were, it would be difficult to find a spot, since the tasting room is one of the smallest I have visited. I was greeted immediately and very heartily, and as the conversation progressed, the enthusiasm he had for the product was evident. He had me so caught up in conversation, I totally forgot to get his name! He did mention he was not the owner, so I know that much.

Unlike most Indiana wineries, New Day does charge for tastings. The fee is $5, but the pours are generous and you get the full flight, so it is well worth it. I even asked to taste one twice, and there was no hesitation.

My notes:

Dry Hard Cider ($12) When they say dry, they mean it. Didn't dislike it, but it was not what I look for in a cider. Your milage may obviously vary. Mineral and flint notes which seemed to overwhelm the apple flavors. It was noted this was made from five different apple varieties.

Dry Mead ($16) Great color and bouquet, of honeysuckle, clover, and ginger. On the tongue, it struck me as a very dry Reisling, and really did remind me of a summer meadow, a theme which would present itself again and again. I liked it, but would not drink it alone. Would be perfect with cheese.

Dry Peach Honey Wine ($20). My notes say "EARTHY!" The peaches come from Laporte County, and the honey, like most of the honey used, is from Indiana as well. I could smell very slight peach notes, with vague floral and pear notes. No residual sugar in this wine, and it shows, again, unlike much of what I was used to, but pleasant.

Dry Blueberry Honey Wine ($20) I dreaded this one, because I tend to despise blueberry wine. Nice deep rose color. This is the one I tasted twice, but even then, I would have not guessed there were blueberries in there unless told. I tasted cherry. Think of a cherry wine (a good cherry wine) bolstered with a great floral underpinning, and you get this wine. Crisp and solid. One of my favorites, and I was very happy to see blueberry used in such a way.

Dry Red Raspberry Honey Wine ($24) The best bouquet of the flight. I smelled my mom's razzleberry cobbler when I put my nose in this glass. That, and that wonderful meadow aroma so prevelant in these meads. Slightly tannic, which surprised me, and I was also surprised by how hearty this wine was. Would compare this wine in heartiness to Pinot Noir. Good finish.

Semi-Dry Mead ($18) There is residual sugar in this mead, but it is still very dry. I would hesitate to call it semi-dry just by mouth feel. Minerals and cloves dominate. It was more warming than the Dry Mead, and more enjoyable.

Semi-Sweet Black Raspberry Honey Wine ($25) Says semi-sweet, but again, comparatively speaking to other Indiana wines with that designation, I would consider this to be much drier than those. Rich and deep, and would be great with chocolate. Very smooth and enjoyable.

I also tasted and purchased the Plum, but will be bringing that to a dinner party later this month for a group review. It was the only mead I purchased, not because I wouldn't want to, but because I am already getting lectures over my burgeoning wine rack. Besides the mead, New Day also sells some products made from local honey. I did purchase some honey infused with peach, and will use that for baking.

I was very impressed with this unique Indiana winery. Great, great products unlike anything else in Indiana. The prices are higher than other Indiana wines, but honey produces less mead than grapes produce wine. Also, the limited quantities produced factor into the cost. Every bottle purchased lists the quantity produced (for example, the plum I purchased notes that only 91 cases were made).

If you frequent Mass Ave Wine Shoppe or the Winter's Farmer Market here in Indianapolis, treat yourself and purchase one of New Day's fine meads. Better yet, journey up to Elwood and purchase one yourself, while enjoying a full flight of unique mead. Note New Day is only open Friday-Sunday from 1-6, except during the holiday season.

EDIT: Co-owner Tia writes me to tell me the gentleman who helped me is named Gary. He started out as one of New Day's customers and is now selling the mead. He's obviously good at it!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Odds and Ends

Hope everyone is doing well. Work has been riding me hard, so there's been a little bit of a posting drought. However, I did manage to visit two wineries yesterday, and will post tasting notes soon. In the meantime, here are a few odds and ends that have caught my attention in the past week or so:

Indiana Taste of Elegance Competition

Renee at Feed Me/Drink Me was a judge at the Taste of Elegance Pork Competition. Seems part of the competition included wine pairings featuring Indiana wines. Things did not go well, with the wines not being served at the proper temperature, and one bottle being corked and served to judges. Some pretty harsh words, comments of rebuttal by the Indiana Wine Grape Council, and then a harsh (but justifiable and deserved) retort. As Renee says "if you're going to compete with A-level chefs, you've got to bring your A game to the competition."

Slender Sugar-Free Wines by Chateau Thomas

Word is spreading far and wide about Chateau Thomas' Slender line of wines. Only problem, it turns out there may be such a thing as bad publicity. These sugar free wines are drawing nearly unanimous jeers from the online forums. Fellow Hoosier blogger Good Grape has some pretty harsh things to say about this project by the venerable Indiana winery. Dr. Vino is similarly scathing. The comments to the posts aren't pretty either. Besides the fact the science behind them is junk, I can't imagine they taste good. Maybe I can force myself to review them, but I am not sure I can be impartial.

Indiana in the top 10

Indiana makes the list of the Top 10 Wackiest Wine Laws That Still Exist. We make the list for not serving alcohol on Election Day while the polls are open. We are one of seven states that still have these laws. I remember this well from my days as a waiter. Some people became downright hostile when told they could order a drink on Election Day. While I think the law may be due for repeal, a nod in the article to the very good historical reasons behind this law would have been nice.

I'll be back this week with tasting notes from my winery visits.