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What a gold medal does for a Va. wine

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The Virginia Wine Association last month awarded the 2011 Governor’s Cup for red wines to FoxMeadow Winery of Linden for its 2008 Le Renard Rouge, a 50-50 blend of cabernet franc and merlot.

Does that mean Le Renard Rouge is the best red wine produced in Virginia? No.

Of the state’s 190-plus wineries, only 60 entered the contest, putting up a total of 196 wines for judging. So the winner is no more the state’s best wine than Hickory the Scottish deerhound is the best dog in the world after winning the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

But that’s not to detract from Hickory’s achievement, or Fox Meadow’s. In fact, Fox Meadow has won several medals since it began producing wine in 2005, including best of show at the 2007 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition for its 2005 cabernet franc. (Last year, the association split the contest into separate titles for red and white wines.)

Owners Dan and Cheryl Mortland and winemaker Tom Payette say they use competitions as a third-party validation of their efforts.

“It’s always possible to develop a ‘house palate,’ where you become enamored of your own wine,” Dan Mortland says. “To get a gold medal or best in category from a true competition — that’s good feedback on your work. It must be pretty good wine.”

In a typical competition, each wine is rated by a panel of four or five judges who might know the vintage and the blend, but never the identity of the wine. The panel members discuss each series of wines, argue for their favorites and award gold, silver and bronze medals according to the average of their scores. In my experience as a judge, it is rare for a panel to be unanimous about a gold medal.

Gold medal winners are then rated by judges from all panels to select best in category or show. (I was not a judge for this year’s competition.)

Judging via a panel in such a technical way relies on the expertise of the judges and avoids the tyranny of a single palate. However, it’s not the way people drink wine. Judges are looking for faults and imperfections: a point off for aroma, two for taste and already the wine is out of gold-medal range. The judges are blitzing through the wines rather than enjoying them over a meal. In such a setting, big, fruity, softer wines tend to dominate more subtle ones, a factor that weighs more heavily as the day grows long and palates tire. This inherent bias might actually reflect consumer preferences to a degree, but it works against the more elegant style of wine that typically partners better with food.

So competitions such as the Virginia Governor’s Cup are best viewed as a snapshot of how the industry is doing rather than a definitive ranking of the state’s best wines. For consumers, competition medals can serve as recommendations from a group of wine professionals to try a particular wine, similar to an inside tip from a friend or trusted wine columnist. Based on the Governor’s Cup, I’ll be looking for a chance to taste the Fox Meadows Le Renard Rouge and decide whether to reward it by buying a bottle. Consumers are the final judges, after all.

Postscript: Along with the Governor’s Cup winner, gold medals were awarded to Afton Mountain Vineyards 2009 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; Barboursville Vineyards 2008 Petit Verdot; Cooper Vineyards 2008 Norton; Hiddencroft Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc and Keswick Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Franc. The results were announced at the Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond on Feb. 25.

Also at that event, the Virginia Wineries Association presented its Gordon W. Murchie Lifetime Achievement Award to Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Vineyards, for his pioneering work in developing and promoting the state’s wine industry.

Horton, who is recovering from severe injuries suffered in a car accident last August, accepted the award in person. He thanked the crowd, said winery marketing director Neil Glaser, and vowed, “Absolutely, we’re not done yet.”

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