Getting to the Heart of Wine
Story and Photos by Seanan Forbes

If you want to find amazing American wines – wines that your competitors don’t have and your patrons will order again and again – then look no further than Kansas City. That’s the location of the Jefferson Cup Invitational. This competition is unique; its founder, Doug Frost, purposefully creates a platform where every American wine-producing region has equal chance to shine. That means you’ll see bottles – exceptional ones, if they’re nominees or winners – you won’t encounter anywhere else.

“Invitational”: the invitations come from Frost, one of three people on the planet to hold both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. He chooses wines that have proven their excellence. If he hasn’t tasted the specific wines, then he’s had previous vintages. “Importantly,” he says, “it’s about a more level playing field for non-California wines . . . I’m trying to provide a place for Iowa (for instance) to compete fairly against California” or New York or Washington . . . Some years, the winners are surprising.

For the wine industry, having different regions induces improvement across the country – and, Frost notes, “also points out the ones that are really good.”

Frost chooses not only the wines, but also chooses the judges, who are probably more reflective of your guests than those at any other competition. The Jefferson Cup’s judges have been half-female, Frost says, “[For] at least the eight years. I think that’s crucial. I get frustrated by all the wine the competitions where the median age is 65 and there are three women and 34 men . . . It doesn’t make any sense.” This year’s judges included Wayne Belding (a Colorado wine merchant, past chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Laura dePasquale (a Master Sommelier), Bob Foster (writer for and longtime industry wine judge), Guy Stout (a Texas-based education director for Southern Wine and Spirits and Joyce Angelos (a Missouri wholesaler and 25-year industry veteran). The judges are as diverse as the wines.

“I let flights show some equanimity between regions,” Frost says, “so there isn’t a creeping institutional palate that starts to show up for Cabernet or Chardonnay or what have you.” He’s out to create what he calls “a reasonable competitive field,” within flights and across the board, so “one state isn’t allowed to overwhelm.”

When you’re selecting wines for a bar or restaurant, bear Frost’s balance in mind. “If you have eleven wines, all from California, and one wine that’s from a cooler climate, then that wine that’s from a cooler climate will get trashed – because context has so much impact . . . Even good judges are bound to taste eleven 15.5% alcohol Cabernets and then they run into one that’s 12.9%, from a cooler climate, that’s a little more herbaceous, and they go, ‘Oh, this is awful.’”

That means the wine isn’t being judged on its own merits. Have it on its own, with or without food, and you may fall in love – and so will your patrons.

Of this year’s 600 entrants, 20 took medals. The Jefferson Cup gives no mandated awards. If a wine wins a nomination, then it’s very good. If a wine earns a medal, then it’s exceptional. Bets don’t come safer than this.

Beyond that, Frost says, “The one thing I find myself trying to champion as loudly as possible is the idea of dessert wines from hybrids . . . I think that’s the one thing people have missed – how great hybrid dessert wines can be.”

Give Frost a late-harvest Vignole, and he’s a happy man. A wine that pleases him will probably make your pickiest patrons smile (and spend), too. Chalet Debonne’s Vidal Ice Wine Express 2008, Hazlitt’s Vidal Blanc Ice Wine and Holy-Field’s Vignoles Late Harvest 2010 took medals. Follow Frost’s advice, and you’ll add all three to your list.

That said, all of the Jefferson Cup winners are just that: winners.

Here are this year’s Jefferson Cup winners. Invest in any of these, and you’re sure of cellaring a seller – although not for long; these bottles will fly. Some states have odd laws about the exportation and importation of alcoholic beverages. Any of these wines would merit taking a road trip and hauling cases home. They’ll more than pay for themselves, and you – and your customers – will know that you’re supporting the makers of America’s best wines.

Barefoot Cellars, Moscato nv – CA
Gallo Family Vineyards, Merlot nv – California
Hess Collection, 19 Block Cuvee Mount Veeder 2006, Napa Valley – CA
Michael-David Winery, Syrah 6th Sense 2008, Lodi – CA
PureCos Wines, PureCos 2007, Napa Valley – CA
Wente Vineyards, Chardonnay Riva Ranch 2008, Arroyo Seco – CA
Bookcliff Vineyards, Petite Sirah 2009, Colorado Grand Valley – CO
Bluejacket Crossing Winery, Seyval nv – KS
Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, Chambourcin 2008 – KS
Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, Vignoles Late Harvest 2010 – KS
Somerset Ridge, Traminette Oktoberfest 2009 – KS
Adam Puchta Winery, Norton Estate Bottled 2005 Harmann – MO
Stone Hill Winery, Vignoles 2009 – MO
Chateau LaFayette Reneau, Riesling Dry 2009, Finger Lakes – NY
Chateau LaFayette Reneau Riesling Semidry 2009, Finger Lakes – NY
Hazlitt’s 1852 Vineyards, Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2008 Finger Lakes – NY
Swedish Hill Winery, Vidal Blanc 2009, Finger Lakes – NY
Sheldrake Point Vineyard, Riesling Late Harvest Estate 2008 – NY
Chalet Debonne Vineyards, Vidal Ice Wine Express 2008, Grand River Valley – OH
Kinkead Ridge, Cabernet Franc 2009, Ohio River Valley – OH