Michigan wine competition gets a new look, name

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

            The annual judging of Michigan wines returns Aug. 3 after a year hiatus but with a new location, new judges, new format and a renewed focus on spreading the word about the quality and variety of wines being produced in the Great Lakes State.

            Called the Judgement of Michigan, the day-long event will bring together an all-new, more diverse panel of judges from Michigan and other parts of the country to evaluate wines submitted by about 55 wineries in a blind tasting. The 22 judges represent restaurateurs, distributors, sommeliers, wine retailers, national writers and social influencers.

            The vision, according to organizers, is to “bring relevant, experienced and diverse wine professionals and palates to taste and evaluate the very best wines Michigan has to offer.” The hope is that these wines and others from Michigan will find their way onto restaurant menus and sales portfolios, more store shelves and in the cellars of new consumers.

            “It’s more of an inclusive tasting evaluations with buyers and influencers from Michigan, Chicagoland, and the greater United States,” said Gina Shay, who is vice president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that promotes the state’s flourishing wine industry and one of the partners in the new judging event. “We hesitate to say it’s ‘the new competition,’ because instead of the point being to pit Michigan wineries against each other, it’s more of an introduction or re-introduction of Michigan wines to relevant judges in the wine community who can help Michigan wine reach more consumers.”

The Judgement of Michigan, a play on the famous Paris tasting in which unknown California wines bested French wines, is the successor to the Michigan Wine Competition, which was held for more than 40 years at various locations but no longer exists. That competition was sponsored by the now-defunct Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. 

Last held at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing in 2019, the competition included a day-long blind tasting with judges from Michigan and elsewhere. The medal-winning wines were feted at a public reception later at the Kellogg Center.

The Judgement of Michigan will take place at Lake Michigan College, a partner in the event and home to the first commercial teaching winery in the Midwest. About 350 to 360 wines will be evaluated -- almost the same as the 2019 competition. Like before, wines from participating wineries across Michigan will be judged by category according to variety and style. Each wine will be judged individually, on its own merits, and not against other wines in the same category. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded. Double gold is the highest honor.

Unlike the Michigan Wine Competition, the judging will not include a “Best of Class” designation, traditionally chosen from the gold medal winners, or an “Ice Wine” category. The sparkling wine category has been condensed.

Dave Miller, president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, said there has been some pushback about not having a “Best of Class.” However, he said some past judges had expressed concerns about palate fatigue, that the ability to taste was skewed after so many wines. The “Best of Class” evaluation came after tasting all day.

“There are competitions that are done both ways,” said Miller, noting some judgings only award traditional medals and no “best of” designation. “We wanted to bring in a fresh perspective and put the spotlight on more wines. The Best of Class always gets a lot of the attention; we wanted to spread the love.”

Miller, who owns White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, said the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council and the former competition did a lot to promote the industry and Michigan wines. The panel of judges helped give the industry credibility. But the disruption in any kind of statewide competition last year because of the pandemic offered an opportunity to try something different. A survey of the collaborative’s member base pinpointed the marketing and selling of wine as the most important in any kind of judging event.

            “This is an opportunity, not a setback,” Miller said. “It’s an opportunity to try something new and take a new approach.”

Shay, who is who is also business development manager for Tonnellerie CADUS, a company that produces French-made barrels, said the real “win” is the building of new relationships between Michigan wine producers and a diverse group of experts to help solidify the message that Michigan wine is for everyone and take that message to new audiences. Organizers are expecting increased social media coverage around the judging.

Matthew Moersch, CEO and partner in the Moersch Hospitality Group, which owns three wineries in southwest Michigan, including Round Barn Winery and Distillery, said the company is not big on entering competitions but welcomed Tuesday’s judging as an opportunity to better market Michigan wines and put a spotlight on southwest Michigan as a wine region. One of the company’s other wineries, Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant, is hosting an industry-only event that same evening.

            “It’s great to have everyone in your own house,” he said. “The Judgement is a great chance for everyone to see how beautiful it is in the southwest. Northwest Michigan gets a lot of attention and accolades. We don’t get quite as much attention because we’re smaller in terms of the number of wineries but I think we grow more grapes.”

            Walloon Lake Winery, which participated in the Michigan Wine Competition and won a Best of Class in the dry red category in 2017, chose not enter wines this time around.

“The new event seems a lot more focused on promoting wines that are going to be featured in restaurants and distributed,” said Matt Killman, winemaker at the Petoskey-area winery. “Since we are not distributed in any capacity, this event is not something we were looking for. It doesn’t fit what we’re doing.”

Walloon Lake Winery relies primarily on its tasting room, wine club and website for sales, said Killman, who is also a consulting winemaker for about 10 wineries. Walloon Lake Winery’s wines are available in only a few local stores.

Tuesday’s judging will culminate with an industry-only, networking event, Nerd & Nosh, where judges will mingle with wine producers and others in the industry. As part of the program, judges also have the opportunity to join a curated tour to experience the  southwestern Michigan wine scene before the evaluation begins.

“We are treating this entire event as a marketing too,” Shay said.

Among the judges is Phil Keeling, social media manager and writer for Wine Folly who lives in Georgia and is unfamiliar with Michigan wine.

“I really want to know what Michigan does best,” said Keeling, noting the state’s wine scene has gotten some shout-outs from his social media followers. “There are so many wine regions and places and as you learn about them, you get a sense for either their versatility or what they specialize in. What is it that sets them apart? It’s one thing to make wine but that doesn’t mean it’s going to express the terroir of the surrounding area or be in touch with any of the wine-making traditions.

“I’m very interested in seeing what Michigan is all about and what it has to offer, and how it’s different from other regions,” he added. “I’m coming with a clean slate.”

Adam McBride, owner and winemaker at Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan, welcomes the return of an annual judging and is eager to get feedback on the three wines he submitted. One of them is his 2020 Traminette, which he describes as an “orange-style wine.”

“I’m really excited to have my wines in front of a juried panel. I’m anxious to find out how they stack up,” said McBride, who has won medals for his wines in the former competition. “It's also nice to have fresh eyes on what we’re doing here in Michigan.“

A huge variation in color is visible in the Rose wines awaiting tasting. There were 31 rose wines entered in the competition as judges work their way through Michigan wines during the annual Michigan wine competition held at MSU's Kellogg Center on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.

While the evaluation ends Tuesday, and medal winners are expected to be announced, the showcasing of the double gold and gold medal wines will continue. The organizers are planning a state roadtrip to promote the wines and the industry in cities like Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Kalamazoo. The first is expected to be held in the fall.

“The big task for us is to really market Michigan wines in Michigan,” Shay said. “There are a whole lot of restaurants that don’t have Michigan wines on their menus. A lot of them don’t even know about Michigan wine in general. We need to spread the word.”

Greg Tasker is a freelance writer based in Traverse City. He works part-time for a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.

By Greg Tasker

            The annual judging of Michigan wines returns Tuesday Aug. 3 after a year hiatus but with a new location, new judges and a renewed focus on spreading the word about the quality and variety of wines being produced in the Great Lakes State.

            Called the Judgement of Michigan, the day-long event will bring together an all-new, more diverse panel of judges from Michigan and other parts of the country to evaluate wines submitted by about 55 wineries in a blind tasting. The 22 judges represent restaurateurs, distributors, sommeliers, wine retailers, national writers and social influencers.

            The vision, according to organizers, is to “bring relevant, experienced and diverse wine professionals and palates to taste and evaluate the very best wines Michigan has to offer.” The hope is that these wines and others from Michigan will find their way onto restaurant menus and sales portfolios, more store shelves and in the cellars of new consumers.

            “It’s more of an inclusive tasting evaluations with buyers and influencers from Michigan, Chicagoland, and the greater United States,” said Gina Shay, who is vice president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a non-profit organization that promotes the state’s flourishing wine industry and one of the partners in the new judging event. “We hesitate to say it’s ‘the new competition,’ because instead of the point being to pit Michigan wineries against each other, it’s more of an introduction or re-introduction of Michigan wines to relevant judges in the wine community who can help Michigan wine reach more consumers.”

The Judgement of Michigan, a play on the famous Paris tasting in which unknown California wines bested French wines, is the successor to the Michigan Wine Competition, which was held for more than 40 years at various locations but no longer exists. That competition was sponsored by the now-defunct Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. 

Last held at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing in 2019, the competition included a day-long blind tasting with judges from Michigan and elsewhere. The medal-winning wines were feted at a public reception later at the Kellogg Center.

The Judgement of Michigan will take place at Lake Michigan College, a partner in the event and home to the first commercial teaching winery in the Midwest. About 350 to 360 wines will be evaluated -- almost the same as the 2019 competition. Like before, wines from participating wineries across Michigan will be judged by category according to variety and style. Each wine will be judged individually, on its own merits, and not against other wines in the same category. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded. Double gold is the highest honor.

Unlike the Michigan Wine Competition, the judging will not include a “Best of Class” designation, traditionally chosen from the gold medal winners, or an “Ice Wine” category. The sparkling wine category has been condensed.

Dave Miller, president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, said there has been some pushback about not having a “Best of Class.” However, he said some past judges had expressed concerns about palate fatigue, that the ability to taste was skewed after so many wines. The “Best of Class” evaluation came after tasting all day.

“There are competitions that are done both ways,” said Miller, noting some judgings only award traditional medals and no “best of” designation. “We wanted to bring in a fresh perspective and put the spotlight on more wines. The Best of Class always gets a lot of the attention; we wanted to spread the love.”

Miller, who owns White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, said the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council and the former competition did a lot to promote the industry and Michigan wines. The panel of judges helped give the industry credibility. But the disruption in any kind of statewide competition last year because of the pandemic offered an opportunity to try something different. A survey of the collaborative’s member base pinpointed the marketing and selling of wine as the most important in any kind of judging event.

            “This is an opportunity, not a setback,” Miller said. “It’s an opportunity to try something new and take a new approach.”

Shay, who is who is also business development manager for Tonnellerie CADUS, a company that produces French-made barrels, said the real “win” is the building of new relationships between Michigan wine producers and a diverse group of experts to help solidify the message that Michigan wine is for everyone and take that message to new audiences. Organizers are expecting increased social media coverage around the judging.

Matthew Moersch, CEO and partner in the Moersch Hospitality Group, which owns three wineries in southwest Michigan, including Round Barn Winery and Distillery, said the company is not big on entering competitions but welcomed Tuesday’s judging as an opportunity to better market Michigan wines and put a spotlight on southwest Michigan as a wine region. One of the company’s other wineries, Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant, is hosting an industry-only event that same evening.

            “It’s great to have everyone in your own house,” he said. “The Judgement is a great chance for everyone to see how beautiful it is in the southwest. Northwest Michigan gets a lot of attention and accolades. We don’t get quite as much attention because we’re smaller in terms of the number of wineries but I think we grow more grapes.”

            Walloon Lake Winery, which participated in the Michigan Wine Competition and won a Best of Class in the dry red category in 2017, chose not enter wines this time around.

“The new event seems a lot more focused on promoting wines that are going to be featured in restaurants and distributed,” said Matt Killman, winemaker at the Petoskey-area winery. “Since we are not distributed in any capacity, this event is not something we were looking for. It doesn’t fit what we’re doing.”

Walloon Lake Winery relies primarily on its tasting room, wine club and website for sales, said Killman, who is also a consulting winemaker for about 10 wineries. Walloon Lake Winery’s wines are available in only a few local stores.

Tuesday’s judging will culminate with an industry-only, networking event, Nerd & Nosh, where judges will mingle with wine producers and others in the industry. As part of the program, judges also have the opportunity to join a curated tour to experience the  southwestern Michigan wine scene before the evaluation begins.

“We are treating this entire event as a marketing too,” Shay said.

Among the judges is Phil Keeling, social media manager and writer for Wine Folly who lives in Georgia and is unfamiliar with Michigan wine.

“I really want to know what Michigan does best,” said Keeling, noting the state’s wine scene has gotten some shout-outs from his social media followers. “There are so many wine regions and places and as you learn about them, you get a sense for either their versatility or what they specialize in. What is it that sets them apart? It’s one thing to make wine but that doesn’t mean it’s going to express the terroir of the surrounding area or be in touch with any of the wine-making traditions.

“I’m very interested in seeing what Michigan is all about and what it has to offer, and how it’s different from other regions,” he added. “I’m coming with a clean slate.”

Adam McBride, owner and winemaker at Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan, welcomes the return of an annual judging and is eager to get feedback on the three wines he submitted. One of them is his 2020 Traminette, which he describes as an “orange-style wine.”

“I’m really excited to have my wines in front of a juried panel. I’m anxious to find out how they stack up,” said McBride, who has won medals for his wines in the former competition. “It's also nice to have fresh eyes on what we’re doing here in Michigan.“

While the evaluation ends Tuesday, and medal winners are expected to be announced, the showcasing of the double gold and gold medal wines will continue. The organizers are planning a state roadtrip to promote the wines and the industry in cities like Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Kalamazoo. The first is expected to be held in the fall.

“The big task for us is to really market Michigan wines in Michigan,” Shay said. “There are a whole lot of restaurants that don’t have Michigan wines on their menus. A lot of them don’t even know about Michigan wine in general. We need to spread the word.”

Greg Tasker is a freelance writer based in Traverse City. He works part-time for a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.