Wines are rated on a 20-point scoring system for clarity, color, aroma/bouquet, taste/palate, balance/structure and overall impression. A brilliant wine, for instance, is awarded 2 points, while a wine that is cloudy or contains sediment gets a zero.
A gold medal is awarded for a score of 17-20, silver for 15-17 and bronze for 12-14.
The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association and the Illinois Department of Agriculture sponsor the annual Illinois Commercial and Amateur Wine Judging Competition.
Brilliant clarity, good. Cloudy sediment, bad.
Fifteen judges swished and swirled their way through more than 450 wines -- each group of five judges sampled one-third of the entries -- as part of the 10th annual Illinois Commercial and Amateur Wine Judging Competition, held Wednesday in Springfield.
The 339 commercial and 113 amateur entries for this year's contest set a record at a time when Illinois has 70 wineries, 450 vineyards and growing. But for entrepreneurs and aficionados at the wine-tasting competition held at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel & Conference Center, it was about quality, not quantity.
"The competition has gotten a lot tougher," said Paul Renzaglia, owner of Alto Pass Winery. The winery in southern Illinois is nearing its 20th year and is among the oldest in the state.
Alto Pass Winery was also among the prize-winners in the first wine-judging competition 10 years ago. However, Renzaglia recalled there were only 61 commercial entries that year and none in the amateur category.
Amateur wines typically are homegrown and not for retail sale.
Trial, error and research have begun to produce Illinois wines that rival their dominant California and French competition in quality, according to both judges and contestants at the competition in Springfield.
Illinois still has a long way to go in quantity, however. California production reached a record 449 million gallons in 2006, compared to about 500,000 gallons for Illinois. California still accounts for 90 percent of U.S. production.
It also has taken some time to develop quality grape hybrids adapted to the variety of climates in Illinois, said enology specialist Bradley Beam. Enology is the science of wines and vineyards.
"Illinois is unique in that it is such a long state. We have some varieties in southern Illinois that would not survive up north," said Beam, who helped organize wines by variety for Wednesday's competition.
The federal government late last year approved the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area in southern Illinois. That is the first AVA in Illinois, joining about 280 nationwide -- perhaps the best known is Napa Valley in California. The Shawnee Hills AVA designation now can be used on labels if at least 85 percent of the wine was produced using the southern Illinois grapes.
Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery in the northwest corner of the state won "Best of Show" Wednesday with a Traminette white table wine. Other top prizes won't be announced for another couple of weeks.
This was the first year as a judge for Mary Lynn Gietl of Springfield, a sales and wine consultant for the Corkscrew Wine Emporium, 2613 Chatham Road. Illinois wines are now widely available at specialty shops, she said.
"We've vastly improved the quality of our wines (in Illinois)," said Gietl.
The steady growth in the state's wine industry even convinced Mike and Judy Boegler of Ava, in southern Illinois, to phase out their livestock and grain farm after 25 years in favor of a full-time vineyard.
"It's a lot more work, but I can make a better living off of grapes than by competing in the commodity markets," said Mike Boegler.
Boegler said a ton of Illinois grapes will bring $600 to $1,600, depending on the quality. Both Boegler and Renzaglia said prices have held up well despite the steady growth in the number of vineyards in Illinois.
In fact, prices could edge higher this year, after about 40 percent of the Illinois grape crop was lost to a cold snap. Renzaglia said some wineries have had to import wine from other states to keep up production.
As the judging wound down Wednesday, Renzaglia speculated the crop loss could cut into the number of entries next year. But he said he has been encouraged that more contestants each year take their wines on to regional and even national competition, including against top wines from California.
"We are bringing the quality of our wines up, and people are feeling a little more confident about their winemaking skills," he said.
Tim Landis can be reached at 788-1536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.