Wine Judge for a Weekend

Travel with the author as he becomes a Golden Nose judge, samples champagne at a Keuka Lake winery, and tastes the new Macanese menu at a Chinese bistro.

I’ve sipped wine with fancy labels, in exotic locales, and out of very expensive stemware, but I’ve never been called a “wine judge” until now. This year I attended the Golden Nose Wine Judging Weekend in Corning because it is the one place I know where the best of both wine and people come together in truly fabulous venues. There I became a wine judge.

The Rockwell Museum of Western Art and the Corning Museum of Glass provide the setting for the Golden Nose Wine Judging event. Their participation is based on the belief that any publicity for wine-related tourism gets people to the area. The museums are a short walk, or free shuttle bus ride apart, on opposite banks of the Chemung River. They are also good neighbors to the large community of wine makers and growers who populate the Finger Lakes region. I’m betting that you will be pleasantly surprised by both museums when you visit them on your next wine tour.

This year’s Golden Nose Weekend started with a cocktail party at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, which is located on the edge of the shop- and restaurant-filled historic Gaffer District in the heart of Corning. A classical guitarist performed while corks popped and wine flowed. It was a good opportunity for the judges and vintners to meet in a relaxed setting surrounded by fantastic artwork. Folks came from as far away as Michigan, Iowa and Vermont, some for the second time, to take part in this great weekend. We got to know each other over remarkable wines and delicious hors d’oeuvres. Executive Chef Brud Holland of Corning Incorporated was on hand with a preview of the fantastic food he would be serving all weekend. It was a great icebreaker.

Class is in session
At the Corning Museum of Glass the next morning, we attended an informal series of instructional lectures and demonstrations to educate us, the “amateur judges.” The reason we amateurs were invited was this: Who better than a wine consumer (and therefore a wine buyer) to assist in judging what are arguably the best wines in New York State?

Our first instructor was Lorraine Hems, an incredibly knowledgeable wine judge as well as a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. She taught us the six “S”s of wine judging: sight, swirl, smell, sip, spit (or swallow) and savor. She had an engaging, affable nature that made it all seem so easy. In fact, all our instructors were so nice that I didn’t feel lectured to at all.

Next came Chris Stamp, a food scientist and winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards. He walked us through our first “tasting,” although it wasn’t of wine. He filled our glasses with different compounds (remember, he’s a food scientist) to simulate the wide spectrum of smells and tastes we would encounter when we graduated to wine judging. He then explained how they might combine into complex aromas and flavors. It was fascinating! From him I learned that only 3 percent of the wine contains all of the taste. That is, the other 97 percent is simply water, sugar and alcohol. Throughout the afternoon’s judging I was amazed at how flavorful and aromatic that 3 percent could be.

Along the path to wine judge status, my confidence was bolstered when our education was completed by Steve DiFrancesco and David Whiting. Steve, whom I know as a great vintner from the Glenora Wine Cellars, discussed the types of grapes and the wines made from them. David, an extraordinary wine maker and friend from Red Newt Cellars (see Life in the Finger Lakes Spring 2007), led us through a tasting of wine flaws and off flavors. By then we were all ready to get down to the business of judging.

Time for tasting
Our panel judged six flights of wine, with three to five wines in each flight. All around us other panels had their own flights (none were duplicated) so that a total of over 150 wines were judged that afternoon. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. Drinking fantastic wines all day long is not as easy as it sounds. Fortunately there was plenty of great food to help keep my energy up.

For the early risers, there was a continental buffet at 8:30 a.m. Lunch was squeezed in between judging wine flights, with chicken breasts, ratatouille and fresh salad almost overlooked in the rush to get back to the panel. Then, for the awards banquet, chef Holland pulled out all the stops. He hand-carved an ice sculpture of a wine bottle and glass, and surrounded it with so many magnificent edibles I forgot how tired I was. There were steaming trays of pork tenderloin, duck breasts, sea bass and scalloped potatoes, with new lettuce salads and a cornucopia of chocolate desserts to tempt even the strongest-willed among us off their diets. While we were all sampling the delicious food, a contemporary trio played in the background. During their break we even had a surprise performance by Rob Lane, The Finger Lakes Weekend Wino, premiering his great new CD of Finger Lakes songs.

Throughout the meal, all of the wines from the day’s judging were available on a separate buffet table. While I wasn’t able to sample them all, I did get to taste all the Best of Class and Double Gold winners. I have to tell you, based on that taste, I know we did a damn good job!
A champagne morning and a Chinese lunch

No good deed goes unpunished, however. The next morning was foggy, and it wasn’t because of the weather. That’s probably why I got lost going to Keuka Lake to experience the extraordinary wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank. Or, it might have been the detours and closed roads. Whatever the case, I had to follow my nose, or rather use my Golden Nose judge training to sniff out Dr. Frank’s, because my pre-construction maps just weren’t up to the task. That got me safely to his circa 1830 stone mansion in the middle of 170 acres of lush green vines. Next door, in the elaborate tasting rooms, George Ditomasso made my day when he opened all five of Dr. Frank’s award-winning champagnes for me to taste. Suddenly I wasn’t on the heights overlooking Keuka Lake’s bluff, I was in heaven!

It seemed criminal to spit out those dreamy champagnes, but I had a long drive in front of me and no real idea which way to go with all the closed roads and detours. You see, I was headed to Victor to have lunch with the PF Chang’s China Bistro chefs, with whom I had traveled to Macau. This was my chance to taste some of the dishes they developed from the Yunnan region, and get my first look at the Macau menu premiering in October.

Owner/manager Al Pagliano and Chef Dave Keiter walked me through their PF Chang’s. I toured their tiny freezer, a walk-in cooler bigger than a NYC apartment, and photographed their whole kitchen process. That was before I videotaped Chef Dave cooking my meal (wok-charred beef, shrimp with candied walnuts, and oolong-marinated sea bass). Then I sat down to share, family-style, the entrees with them, while we talked about food and wine and the new Macanese dishes. I was glad to hear that my favorite, Macanese chicken, will share the new menu with garlic prawns, citrus-glazed pork and curry beef samosas. I can’t wait to try each of their versions of the great dishes we experienced in Macau.

The PF Chang’s at Eastview Mall in Victor is located in the northwest section of the Finger Lakes region, where there are at last count over 200 wineries. That makes it the second-largest wine-producing region in the United States. As a nationwide chain, PF Chang’s lists wines from all over the world, but in the Finger Lakes, they are committed to serving New York wines, with five always on the list. The Victor restaurant also features one or two additional New York labels each month, and even more during the summer.

The New York vineyards that were featured when I was there included Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Salmon Run label, Casa Larga’s Lilac Hill and Knapp Vineyards. Even with that selection, I would have been hard-pressed to pick one bottle of wine to go with the smoky, sweet and tea-flavored collection of dishes I ate there, so I just had water with a lemon wedge. (Remember, I was driving, and it is so rude to spit out one’s wine at the dinner table.) However, the wines are available by the glass, so an adventurous soul could mix and match a great Finger Lakes wine flight from PF Chang’s comprehensive list.

Next year the Golden Nose Wine Judging Event will be held on May 31. Follow the links on SenecaLakeWine.com to sign up for your own judging experience. You’ll taste great wines, meet wonderful people and eat fantastic food in one of the grandest locations in the Finger Lakes: the Corning Museum of Glass. Who knows? You might even meet me there!


by Richard Frisbie
Richard Frisbie is a Hudson Valley bookseller and publisher, who writes culinary travel articles.