There is a certain kind of misery that accompanies a wine-tasting competition.
Not hangovers, because when one is tasting 100 wines a day, one spits.
But consider the teeth, purple and sensitive after a long day of sampling. Or the taste buds, struggling after dozens of wines to appreciate this merlot or that petite sirah.
“Oh, it must be so nice, you get to drink all this wine,” Don Derocher, sommelier for the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, often hears.
A day of observing Derocher and 23 other wine experts judging the sixth annual American Fine Wine Competition reveals that, yes, it is so nice. And also complex, challenging, intellectually stimulating (rarely have so many adjectives swirled around one room) and rewarding.
The annual South Florida-based wine contest, held this year at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus, is one of a slew of events that start in November and end with a gala in April. The competition, open only to American wineries, is by invitation. Founders say that policy, along with the lack of entry fees, sets the contest apart.
“If you earn a medal here, it’s harder than anyplace else,” said Monty Preiser, a wine expert and part-time Palm Beach County resident who co-founded the event with his wife, Sara, and Shari Gherman, a certified sommelier with a background in sales and marketing.
Three of four judges must agree on which, if any, medal to award a wine: bronze, silver or gold. To earn a coveted “double gold” designation, the decision must be unanimous. The only information judges have before they start tasting is the type of wine, the price range, region and year it was produced.
“It’s a big deal,” Gherman said. “These guys are the best palates in the country.”
Delius Shirley, a judge and owner of Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables, said the competition is important for restaurateurs like him because the rankings come from a diverse group of experts.
“This is a huge component to how I structure my wine menu,” he said. “It’s not a biased opinion.”
The first day opened with white wines and moved into rosé and then reds. The stars, clearly, were the pinot noirs: When co-founder Sara Preiser announced to one table that they would be tasting pinot noirs priced at $50 and above, the judges reacted like they’d won the lottery.
Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine and author of The One Minute Wine Master, gave a small squeal.
“I’m so tweeting this,” said Simonetti-Bryan, who created a meticulous chart to judge qualities of every wine she tasted.
In wines they liked, judges praised “good luscious fruit,” “nice density” and “toasty” qualities.
Sometimes the verdict was simple: “They’re all pretty damn good,” Shirley said during a round choosing the best of the best pinot noirs.
Other wines were less successful, eliciting descriptions such as “lackluster,” “barnyardy,” “wet dog” and “watered-down Fruit Roll-Up.”
But for all the thesaurus-worthy banter, Derocher said the judging was serious business.
“You want to give these wines their day in the sun,” he said. “This might be the only shot these guys get.”
Winners, culled from the more than 600 wines tasted on Sunday and Monday, will be announced at a party on Feb. 1.
After more than seven hours of tasting on the first day of the competition, the tired group gathered for a photo.
“The best part about this,” joked Shirley: “Everybody has purple teeth.”