As I finish up directing my second wine judging of 2020 and head off to the next of several that I’m involved in this year--either as a director or a judge--my head is swimming with ideas of what judging wine is worth, and who benefits from the results.
First off, where did this idea come from and why did it take off? I suspect it has largely to do with a tasting that came to be known as The Judgement of Paris, where in 1976 Stephen Spurrier assembled the best of France and the best of California for a blind tasting. The results put California wine on the international stage, and it’s impossible to overstate the importance that single event had on the California wine industry. In addition, it had the effect of emphasizing the idea that tasting wines blind, side by side, is a way to minimize any prejudice that might play in to rating a wine. In the wine world, or more accurately the wine business, this idea can be of great benefit to both producers and consumers.
A bit more on blind tasting before diving into the competition question. People who are tasting wine blind together will of course have different opinions on each and every wine tasted, and the discussion of those differences of opinion can be very educational when done in the context of comparing individual ratings. I taste regularly in a few groups that do this, and while my opinion may or may not change due to discussion, I find that I always come away with a different look at the wine than I may have had otherwise. Competitions take this idea a step further, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
In my thirty or so years of involvement in wine competitions, I’ve seen many different formats and methodologies for accomplishing a blind tasting of thousands of wines. I can say without question that it is major undertaking to stage an event that can guarantee accurate reporting of results. While the digital age has streamlined things considerably, great care must be taken to ensure that a result is matched to a specific wine and reported with accuracy and clarity. When I’m directing, I personally touch every bottle to be judged, confirm all the details, and I’m completely confident that the results that I publish are accurate. Then, selecting well qualified judges, putting them together on panels that will work well, and all the other logistical nightmares that you might imagine must play out over the months preceding the judging. It’s a lot to manage…. Nice, right? But who cares?
Well… plenty of people care. Picture yourself in the local supermarket wine aisle – where I live it’s both sides of a long aisle, at least five shelves high. This is where most wine is sold, and producers are looking for something that makes their wine stand out. Some opt for a flashy package – a bright label, an interesting bottle shape – but the wise opt for a “shelf talker” that includes a third-party accolade of some sort – a critic or magazine score or comment, or a medal from a competition. Of course, savvy readers of winereviewonline.com have other tools and options at their disposal, but most American consumers are looking for a wine for the table that evening that doesn’t require a trip to another store, and the producer that leveraging success in a competition quickly gets an advantage in the aisles – and rightly so.
I believe strongly that an award at a competition is a trustworthy mark of quality, particularly for consumers who don’t read wine review criticism for whatever reason.
Why? To begin with, at the majority of competitions, any medal awarded results from panel consensus, meaning a group of people had to agree on the award ultimately bestowed on the wine. In addition, that group has been selected based on criteria that utilizes their expertise. At the best competitions, judges are selected based on expertise within their specific area of the industry at large, whether it be winemakers, critics, sommeliers, or marketeers, and those three or four (sometimes more) people have to come to a consensus as to a particular wine’s worthiness. A gold medal is a pretty clear statement that people with varied taste and industry background found the wine to be exceptionally worthy of a consumer’s attention.
The kicker in all of this is the discussion over a wine’s merit that goes on at the judging table, where a judge who is enthusiastic about a wine attempts to win over his or her colleagues to a high consensus award. The best judges are open to discussion and persuasive argument that goes beyond the usual blind tasting discussed above, and a wine that gets elevated through that discussion might be something new stylistically that a consumer would enjoy but perhaps never even try if not for the award. A double gold or platinum award, or a “best of class” designation, pushes that even further as it usually involves getting more palates involved in the declaration, whether it’s through a mass sweepstakes judging round or a “blue ribbon panel” that confirms the impressions of the original panel.
Context plays an important role here as well, and the best competitions try to place wines in their appropriate context for judging. For example, Australian Shiraz is generally a completely different animal than domestic Syrah or wines from the northern Rhône of that variety, and lumping them all together ignores the context in which they are grown and vinified, and can keep some wines from getting their proper due. Most competitions are looking to celebrate good wines for what they are rather than trying to say that one region’s expression of a particular variety or blend is better than another region’s – there’s room for lots of styles and expressions to be given their due. A gold medal or greater gets at goodness, no matter the variety or style in question.
Finally, one of the areas in which competitions really shine is in recognizing new products that solo critics or wine publications typically don’t have an interest in, or even take the time to look at. Last year’s report on U.S. wine consumption shows the first downturn in many years, and as producers look to maintain market share and develop new consumers, they look for trends and develop new products to try to get the public’s attention – no small task in today’s high-speed marketing world. One of the few places they can get some traction for such products is by submitting them for judgement before a panel of experienced beverage professionals. I find that most people who have been judging wine for a while are quite interested to take a look at new products and dub some of them worthy of greater recognition, whether it’s an obscure new variety from an up and coming region, or a gateway product intended to introduce those on the fringes of wine enjoyment to a starting point on a journey.
Of course, ultimately, you are the judge that matters most. Your likes and dislikes are what matters to you, but I’d challenge you to take the value of a competition medal into account. Next time you shop for wine, pick a couple of new-to-you bottles and try a gold medalist alongside even one more wine of the same type with no medal, taste them blind, side by side, and see which you prefer. You know what I’m betting on!