If you’ve ever been to the Minnesota State Fair, you know you’re bound to find just about any food on a stick, and a lot of competition. From arts and crafts, to livestock and garden fresh foods – every year, hundreds of Minnesotans enter their talented work for a chance at the blue ribbon. That’s also true for the amateur winemaking competition, which has been a part of the Minnesota State Fair for decades.
The Minnesota State Fair's amateur winemaking competition dates back to the 1970’s and our very own Jack Farrell has been a part of the judging process from the very start. Since that time, we've kept it in the Haskell's/Farrell family with Ted Farrell joining the judging panel 17 years ago and myself joining shortly after that. The winemaking competition has been – and continues to be – a Haskell’s tradition, even though the contest itself has evolved quite a bit over the years.
What the winemaking competition looks like today
It used to be that any Minnesota wine producer could enter the competition, but that turned out to be somewhat of an uneven playing field, because we have so many professional winemakers in Minnesota. This set an unrealistic bar for those who are simply experimenting with winemaking from home. Which is why five years ago, it was changed to being solely an amateur winemaking competition. (The "professional" wine division, or what's known as the International Cold Climate Wine Competition, is separate from the fair now. It’s sponsored by the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and the University of Minnesota.)
Although, if you visit the amateur winemaking competition at the state fair this year, it won’t appear very “amateur” —there’s some tough competition! This year, there are a total of 314 entries in the amateur wine division, which are each entered into a specific wine category (click here for a complete list of the wine categories). After submitting their wine by the deadline, all entries then take part in a preliminary competition – which kicks off at 8 a.m. on the first day of the fair – and then those winners move on to the finals.
In the past, it’s been the top five wines from each category that move on to the next round of judging. Ted Farrell has been judging this competition for many years and says the entries have really come a long way. “The incredible thing is the increase in quality. More people are taking an interest in winemaking and there is better technology out there today for home winemaking,” said Ted.
Now, he says, these “amateurs” score pretty well. “You’re really seeing people’s hobbies developing and they are really getting into it and excelling. The quality has really skyrocketed!”
But, you do get a few, well, interesting wines in the mix as well. “One year someone made an earth worm wine. There are some that are very experimental. You do get surprised, but also gratified that someone is out there exploring with wine.”
How does the judging work?
The judges come from all kinds of wine experience, from local professional winemakers to our very own wine experts at Haskell’s. They’re typically given a scorecard, where they give numerical ratings for the wine’s bouquet, color, clarity, after taste and the body/structure of the wine. Some categories are more weighted then others, too.
Want to see the judging in action? You can find Jack, Ted, myself and the rest of the judges in the AG-HORT-BEE building (agricultural, horticultural and bee culture) in the state fairgrounds tasting wine on the first day of the fair which is Thursday, August 24th. Good luck to all who’ve entered this year!