By Jamie Drummond

Last week I had the honour of being on the judging panel for this year’s Intervin Internationl Wine Awards.

The following is a breakdown of my tasting over the three days of judging.


6.30am – Pickup from Parkdale, Toronto
Sara d’Amato and Zoltan arrive on time and we drive out to Niagara. Sara has been kind enough to make us some muffins for the journey. For some bizarre reason I decide that it would be a good idea to open a bag of Basset’s Jelly Babies and we share these during our journey… I’m not quite sure what these would do one’s palate though? The lively conversation is mainly Sommelier “shop talk”…

7.45am – Arrive at White Oaks Resort and meet fellow judges
I see that it is almost the same judging panel as the previous year. I’m guessing that this means that Chef Judge Christopher Waters felt that we did a reasonable job last time around. It is great to see all of these talented folks together again.

My fellow judges were Christopher Waters, Thomas Bachelder, Peter Bodnar Rod, Linda Bramble, Darryl Brooker, Sara D’Amato, Christopher Freeland, April Kilpatrick, Craig McDonald, Paul Pender, Sue-Ann Staff, Margaret Swaine, Zoltan Szabo, James Treadwell, and Deanna Van Mulligen.

All of the Winemakers present are looking a little anxious because of all of this unseasonable heat that we have been experiencing recently. Craig McDonald of Hillebrand seems particularly concerned as they are harvesting for sparkling wine that very day… and this is his first harvest.

I have been fortunate enough to have been grouped with Sara D’Amato and Darryl Brooker… SCORE!

I know that I can learn so much from these two, and this is the perfect situation to do just that. Sara studied winemaking before becoming one of Toronto’s top Sommelier, and Darryl is now Winemaker at Cedar Creek in the Okanagan BC (he was previously Winemaker at Hillebrand.)

Chris Waters guides us through the protocol for the competition. Each flight being served blind, each panel grouping will taste through their flight individually (and theoretically in silence) , making meticulous notes and then scoring out of 20.

12 = Faulted
13 = No Medal
14 – 15 = Bronze
16 – 17 = Silver
18 – 20 = Gold

Each panel group membe then reads out their score for the 1st wine. And now comes the fun part… If there is a great disparity between the different panel member’s scores then the panel enters a discussion about the wine in question, with members arguing their cases for the wine. This is repeated until the entire flight has been agreed upon and some form of consensus if established. As you can imagine this can lead to some rather heated discourse…

8am – First flight of 14 Sauvignon Blancs priced under $20
Well, the first flight of the day is certainly refreshing to the palate. What can one expect from Sauvignon Blanc at this pricepoint? Well, there’s a whole lot of pyrazine going on here… and that certainly wakes up any sleepy olfactory senses at the table. The majority of the wines are bright and aromatic, but I’m not finding anything that really stands out. During the group discussion I realise that my tasting objectivity is undoubtedly being compromised by my current dislike of the use of certain aromatic yeasts.

10am – Flight of 14 Pinot Grigios priced $8 – $13
Woof! This was going to be a very difficult flight to judge. Pinot Grigios at this pricepoint are all rather nondescript. Being mass-produced and over-cropped means that that any discernible varietal characteristics are extremely difficult to pick out. When judging this flight one has to understand the limitations of this particular category and instead look for freshness and accessibility. Unfortunately I found very little of either.

11am – Flight of 14 White Blends
Always an exciting flight to taste blind. The varietals/blends are explained to us and we then go into a wildly aromatic journey that leaves my palate feeling quite confused and full of a tropical fruit salad.

12.30pm – Break for lunch

1pm – Flight of 14 Syrahs priced $25 – $39
The first real tannin to hit our palates thus far… something that always comes as a bit of a shock. One of our favourite flights of the competition, with our panel selecting a number of wines that were certainly punching above their weight. Very impressive and gives me great hope for this category once again.

2pm – Flight of 12 Syrahs priced $40 +
Again, a strong flight, but we found many wines in the previous flight that were showing much better. Here we are looking at some flagship Syrah/Shiraz. I found there to be a little too much heavy handed new oak on many of these wines. But there were one or two that really stood out, showing complexity as well as super ripe fruit.

3pm – Flight of 14 Cabernet Sauvignons priced $20 – $25
After the two flights of Syrah the tannins of these Cabs didn’t seem quite as intimidating. Some alright wines, but nothing truly outstanding. Our panel felt that the wines that were most complete were most probably Chilean. Sara explains to us that when she was in South America she was informed by a number of Winemakers that the minty aromatic one finds on many Chilean reds comes from over-extraction, something I had no idea of up until then. I quite often find eucalyptus on many Australian Cabernets, but have always put it down to terroir.

4pm – Flight of 14 Rosés priced $10 – $25
A pleasant way to round of a day of tasting as many of these wines really did lift and refresh the palate. There was one real stinker though… it was made from Frontenac and smelled of veal jus. And the award for Jamie’s worst wine of the competition goes to…

5pm – Conclude tasting for the day
My poor teeth appear to be wearing little mohair jumpers/sweaters. Time to break out the toothpaste that my dentist recommended to counter both the red wine stains and the acid.

6pm – Dinner at White Oaks Resort


9am – First Flight of 12 Sparkling Wines priced under $20
Another sprightly flight to wake up any bleary-eyed judges. At this price point one is looking for some great value bubblies… so we are talking Cava, Prosecco and the like. A couple of well-made wines here that I cannot wait to discover the identities of. There is some extreme value here, value that puts a number of champagnes to shame… There is a very pleasant Prosecco here also.

10am – Flight of 14 Off-Dry Rieslings priced under $19

Being a huge fan of the off-dry Riesling I was expecting more from this flight. In my mind it should be relatively easy to make a decent off-dry at this pricepoint, a thought shared by my fellow tasters. Most disappointing. Only one wine showed any real potential with a lovely salty mineral element alongside the residual sugar. I do hope that this wine ends up with a Silver medal.

11am – Flight of 14 Pinot Noirs priced $25 – $49
We were most happy to be given this flight and our group actually spent more time discussing these wines than any others. As I tasted through the first six I realised that personal preference for certain styles of Pinot was certainly going to play a big role in our evaluation of the wines. One taster’s stinky brett is another taster’s ambrosia. Some great wines in this flight, ranging from stinky, light Old World styles to dark, deep, alcoholic New World styles. Great. I actually think that my personal favourites may have been two lighter examples from Ontario!

Sara D’Amato introduces the term “trashy finish” to my tasting lexicon… never to be forgotten!

I have noticed that as the day wears on the volume of the post-tasting discussions has become rather amplified. Thomas Bachelder is having an argument with Peter Bodnar Rod… I think that it is about the relative merits of the Merlot they have in front of them… but they are too far away for me to eavesdrop… and besides, I am supposed to be concentrating on the wines in front of me.

12.30pm – Flight of 14 Pinot Noirs priced under $16
Ahhhhh… back to reality after one of the loveliest of flights… Pinot Noir is rather unforgiving as a varietal and so over the years I have found it nigh on impossible to find a Pinot Noir under $25 that really has any true Pinot characteristics. Looking at this flight we were looking for simple red fruit that gave us some notion of Pinot Noir. I quickly sniffed each glass, putting a star beside the wines that possessed just a hint of Pinot character, asking my fellow panelists to do the same. After tasting the entire flight I asked which wines had stood out as Pinot-like, and all three of us picked out the same two wines. As for the rest of the flight, I’m not sure what people are trying to achieve when they bottle wines like these as Pinot Noir. The majority of these wines would have worked better as rosés. I’m not being a Pinot snob here… they just didn’t smell or taste anything like Pinot Noir… so why bother?

1pm – Break for lunch at White Oaks

1.30pm – Photoshoot

2pm – Flight of 12 Red (Other Varietals: Carmenere/Petit Verdot/Zinfandel/Petite Sirah)
I can feel my palate beginning to tire as we hit these first reds of the afternoon. I had to spend quite a while with these wines as the food from lunch was also influencing my impressions of the wines.

Wow… six Carmenere, one after the other… I’ve tasted a fair bit of this grape but not comparatively. Our panel admits that even to our senses a number of these wines nose almost identically. The difference in the later examples came though texture or heavier oak regimes. The Petit Verdot stood alone and was most difficult to evaluate. Once a grape I favoured, the Petite Sirahs dissappointed… just too big and clumsy. A couple of the Zinfandels were showing well, most probably multi region blends… my money is on the Ravenswood Vintners Blend.

Fact Fans: Petite Sirah is a cross between Syrah and Peloursin… Everyone remembers the Syrah part, but never the Peloursin.

Someone once told me the most ridicuous way to “remember “this: An anagram of Syrah and Peloursin is “Royal Punishers”, a fact that did not go unnoticed by California’s Biale winery.

3pm – Flight of 12 Rhône Blends priced $11 – $40
This was a very interesting flight as it rapidly became apparent that we would be looking at some very traditional Old World examples as well as some huge, jammy Grenache/Shiraz/Mouvedre concoctions. I began thinking how my palate has evolved over the years, from being a follower of so many monster old-vine, higher alcohol bottlings to where I am today, craving tightly wound, acidic, mineral-driven wines. Do you think that this is simply down to old age? Nevertheless there were some very well-crafted examples that our panel enjoyed quite a bit. I am intrigued to see what the wines were as this category should be showing some great values towards the lower end.

4pm – Conclude tasting for the day

4.02pm – Two pints of beer at White Oaks Resort
Almost all of the judges agreed that there is nothing quite like a cold pint of beer after a days tasting…

6pm – Dinner at De Luca’s Wine Country Restaurant
After a beautiful dinner at De Luca’s a number of us retired to the bar at White oaks where Sara D’ Amato attempted to explain Quantum Physics and “lost matter” (she studied Astrophysics at University folks!) and then Winemaker Darryl Brooker regaled us with salty tales of his days as a Sailor.


On our final day we were given the top wines from all five panels scoring of the previous two day’s wines. This is interesting as again the wines are tasted blind and it is fun to see if one can spot the wines that one’s panel had declared as Gold Medal winners. All of these wines were undoubtedly worthy of medal status.

9am – Flight of 14 of the top whites Part 1
I picked out an exceptional higher-end Riesling but personally found it very difficult to get excited by the Sauvignon Blancs.

10am – Flight of 14 of the top whites Part 2
I think that I recognised one of the White Blends we scored highly. Also a standout was the BC Scheurebe that did did very well in last year’s competition (I think!)

11am – Flight of 14 of the top reds Part 1
There were quite a number of excellent Pinot Noirs here which made me very happy indeed.

12pm – Flight of 14 of the top reds Part 2
I found there to be a number of bigger, but not over-extracted wines in this flight. Some very accessible crowd-pleasing wines.

12.30pm – Flight of The Conchords

1pm – Conclude tasting for the day

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and his palate is utterly exhausted!