The Nationals: Fourteen years of searching for Canada’s best wine.
When our judges sit down to evaluate this year’s crop of wines at the 2014 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada some in the room will have judged at all 13 preceding events. Since there is no way to convey to you how valuable that is in the tasting room we are including the chardonnay results gleaned from the first, 2001 Canadian Wine Awards held high above the Royal York Hotel in Toronto to compare with the latest 2013 chardonnay results from our stop in Niagara-on-the-Lake last summer. I think you will agree we have all come a long way.
You might say David Lawrason and I were dreamers back then, thinking that if we provided the perfect setting for an annual ‘Canadian Wine Awards’ competition, wineries would fall over themselves wanting to enter their wines and measure themselves against the opposition. Let’s just say we have learned a lot over the past 14 years.
It’s been a long process of building trust. First among ourselves to the do the job properly and then to convince Canadian producers what we are doing is worth their participation. Both David and I have worked extremely hard to hone our judges into the sharpest panels in the country. Many have cut their wine teeth judging in other shows around the world. Over the years we have worked with scores of judges looking for just the right combination of experience, tasting ability and the most important asset, the ability to work within a group, to make sure the best wines get moved forward.
We don’t always get it right individually but with the right leadership and a room full of open minds what we try to do is make sure the group seldom, if ever, gets it wrong.
When we started the Canadian Wine Awards it was our goal to make sure the results were a three way win – for the wines, for the judges and for the awards organizers. I clearly remember returning from shows in Europe where I spent a week tasting and assessing wines for free never to be told which wines I had tasted. In Australia I learned the importance of the panel leader and the head judge and the need to develop younger apprentices. We use all this and more at The Nationals.
Over time the costs to put on the awards have crept up from some $80K to about $105K. I mention this because I have read so much about what a money grab wine awards are for the organisers. We don’t make any money on the first 1100 entries, which is why we lost money for most of the formative years and have barely balanced the budget in the remaining competitions. We always thought an iconic Canadian company would step in and sponsor the awards but so far that has yet to happen. We are not complaining or even contemplating quitting, because as Canadian hockey players would say, “It is what it is.”
That said, we remain committed to building something that will stand the test of time and celebrate the best of Canada wine. Even that in itself sounds, well, almost un-Canadian. We have other odd notions too.
We pay our judges for a week’s work because we value their time and their input. We also fly them in and out from across the country and we feed them each day. Including the back room and volunteers, we look after 30 people for seven days. After moving about the country – Toronto, Lake Louise, Victoria and Calgary – a few years ago we made the decision to hold the awards in wine country to shine a spotlight on various Canadian wine regions and so far we have spent some memorable weeks in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Okanagan Valley and the Annapolis Valley. Could Vancouver Island or Prince Edward County be next?
But back to the three way win.
We have a lot of happy judges because they can taste a fabulous cross-section of local wines, blind, under ideal conditions (many they wouldn’t see in their own market) and before they walk out the door at the end of the week they receive all their notes and scores along with key sheets telling them which wines they tasted that week. They are immediately free to write about any of the hundreds of wines they tasted, using their personal notes no matter what the outcome of the awards.
From a winery’s point of view, their wines are put in front of a number of top commentators from across the country and we promise to publish a permanent online note at WineAlign for all wines receiving a bronze, silver, gold or platinum medal. Of course, winery entrants can also meet the judges throughout the week and they are welcome to inspect the back room of the competition as well. We have nothing to hide.
By the way, unlike many competitions done with brown bags etc. to rightfully hide the labels from judges, we opted for a much more fail-proof system. We use separate rooms so that all bottles and labels are visible to the back room staff but never seen by the judges. This is in addition to several checks throughout the system from entry to physically pouring the wine into a tasting glass that prevents any wine from ending up in the wrong flight. We also have a wonderful sponsorship with Schott Zwiesel that puts each wine in a top quality restaurant style glass, versus a tiny ISO wine glass, giving the mostly young wines some room to breathe and show off.
That brings us to the wineries that don’t enter. To be frank we don’t dwell too much on their absence because in blind tastings we don’t really know who is missing in any given flight of wines. Post competition, when the names are revealed we may ponder their absence for a moment or two, but frankly if they weren’t involved there isn’t much we can discuss or compare. My sense is consumers are more confused and doubting when they don’t see a winery’s wines in the rankings. That said we have come to learn some wineries just “don’t do competitions” for whatever reasons and in the end we respect anyone’s decision not to compete.
We can all argue about what a medal is worth but at The Nationals please know that we fret over every gold and silver medal. In the minds of our judges each is a major achievement. We also award what we term a high bronze; to keep the number of medals to a meaningful amount we only recognise the top end of the traditional bronze range, in our case 86 and 87 points. And last year we implemented the concept of ‘virtual’ medals ensuring that all gold, silver and bronze medals appear on the WineAlign website whenever anyone is searching our database.
In keeping with our attempts to add extra value to a winery entering our awards we instituted platinum medals in 2013 – see our winners here – to recognise the very best wines in the competition. They represent only one percent of the total entries and are chosen based on the highest scoring wines. In the past we highlighted the Best White, Red, Sparkling and Dessert wines of Show, but often this would be at the expense of say five or ten wines that actually scored higher than the top wine in any single class. Under the new Platinum system if the top five wines of the year are syrahs or chardonnays they will be recognised as such and stand alone above individual category winners with slightly lower scores. This reflects the tasting room mantra and the raison d’être of The Nationals: find the best wines in each flight and push them forward to be eligible for the highest medal possible.
Speaking of flights, over the years we have trimmed our average flight size and daily wines tasted and find we get better results. Today our wine flights average eight or nine wines and we taste about 80 to 90 wines each day. There are no 50-wine flights at The Nationals and there are no 200-wine days for our judges. We keep our people fresh and engaged for the six hours they work each day.
And finally, the win for the third party, the organizers, WineAlign. The awards give us a chance to feed our huge audience, now more than 1.5 million unique visitors each year, with the latest information on Canadian wine. The yearly results of The Nationals are yet another way we can engage with them on a regular basis. Our results aren’t just on the radar for a day in the newspaper, or a single press release. They are built into our website and remain there for all to see. And this year for the first time, the results will also be published in French.
David and I feel great responsibility for the awards, and after 14 years we believe we are finally gaining the trust of the judges, the wineries and consumers. I guess what we are saying is we don’t take anything for granted. All we ask is that everyone else do the same and help make this the most successful year yet. The 2014 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada takes place June 20-25 in Penticton, British Columbia and David Lawrason and I can’t wait to dream again.
2001 Canadian Wine Awards
Hawthorne Mountain 2000 Gold Label Chardonnay BC, 24.95
Daniel Lenko 1999 Old Vines Chardonnay ON, 19.95
Henry of Pelham 1999 Reserve Chardonnay ON, 13.95
Inniskillin Okanagan 2000 Reserve Chardonnay BC, 14.95
Inniskillin 1999 Montague Vineyard Chardonnay ON, 16.95
Stoney Ridge 2000 Kew Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay ON, 18.95
Strewn 1999 Terroir Strewn Vineyard Chardonnay ON, 18.95
Peninsula Ridge 1999 Reserve Chardonnay ON, 24.95
Cilento 1999 Reserve Chardonnay ON, 29.95
Thirty Bench 1999 Reserve Reif Vineyard Chardonnay ON, 40.00
WineAlign 2013 National Wine Awards of Canada
Meyer Family Vineyards 2011 McLean Creek Chardonnay McLean Creek Vineyard $35 – $42
Quails’ Gate Winery 2011 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay $35
Mission Hill Family Estate 2010 Perpetua Osoyoos Vineyard Estate $35 – $41
Henry of Pelham 2011 Chardonnay Estate $20
Mission Hill Family Estate 2011 Reserve Chardonnay $17 – $20
Norman Hardie Winery 2010 Chardonnay Unfiltered $35
Meyer Family Vineyards 2011 Tribute Series Chardonnay Old Main Road Vineyard $35 – $42
Baillie-Grohman 2011 Chardonnay Baillie-Grohman Vineyard $25
Ravine Vineyard 2011 Chardonnay $24
Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery 2011 The Census Count Chardonnay $13
Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2011 Delaine Chardonnay $25
Exultet Estates 2011 Chardonnay The Blessed $40
JoieFarm 2011 En Famille Reserve Chardonnay $30
Road 13 Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay $24
Burrowing Owl 2011 Chardonnay $25 – $36
Hidden Bench 2011 Estate Chardonnay $29
Upper Bench Estate Winery 2011 Chardonnay $25
Closson Chase 2011 Chardonnay Closson Chase Vineyard $30
Mike Weir Wine 2012 Chardonnay $25
Tawse 2010 Estate Chardonnay $38
Tawse 2010 Member Select Chardonnay $50
Niagara College Teaching Winery 2010 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay Donald Ziraldo Vineyard $19
Privato Vineyard and Winery 2011 Chardonnay $30
Lailey 2011 Chardonnay, old vines $40
Tawse 2011 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay $46
Norman Hardie Winery 2011 County Chardonnay Unfiltered $35
Wayne Gretzky Okanagan 2012 Chardonnay $16
Trius Winery at Hillebrand 2011 Trius Chardonnay Barrel Fermented $20
Painted Rock Estate 2011 Chardonnay $30
The complete results of the National Wine Awards of Canada are posted on WineAlign at: NWAC 2013 Results. The results include all the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze medal winners in several style and grape variety categories, plus a “performance report” on the Top 20 wineries in the country.