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Wine Competitions: Consumer Helpers or Instruments of Evil?
By Tina Caputo
Aug 31, 2010
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An article posted on the New York Cork Report website last week took a bold stand on the subject of wine competitions: The website’s writers and editors will no longer accept invitations to judge them.  After much deliberation, the NYCR crew came to the conclusion that competitions don’t provide any real value to the consumer -- and it’s calling on other would-be wine judges to join the boycott. 

Before I go any further, I should tell you that the company I work for organizes three major wine competitions: the West Coast Wine Competition, the International Eastern Wine Competition and the Grand Harvest Awards. 

That said, I must admit that I have some mixed feelings about wine judgings.  They are not perfect.  I have judged in competitions where we were called upon to make medal declarations in less time than it would take to pick up the glass and take a sniff -- let alone actually taste the wine.  Why?  Because we each had to taste through 147 wines before lunch, and there simply wasn’t any time to spare on frivolous activities like thinking. 

And yes, some organizers pressure judges to “be generous” when awarding medals, because when wineries do well, they’re more likely to enter their wines in that competition next year.  Some judges have even told me that they were not asked to return the following year because they were “too tough” on the wines.

But that’s not to say that all competitions are run that way.  The folks I know who organize these events -- not only my work colleagues, but respected fellow wine writers like Dan Berger and WRO publisher Robert Whitley -- do so with great care and integrity. 

Last month, I judged at the Indy International Wine Competition at Perdue University, one of the country’s largest competitions.  I was actually a bit wary of participating in such a giant contest -- there were more than 2,500 wines entered, and only about a dozen judging panels to taste through them all in less than three days.  But I was pleasantly surprised at the pace of judging; we were given as much time as we needed to taste and re-taste the wines in front of us.  At no point did I feel rushed or pressured.

I think I can speak for my panel -- highly qualified wine pros representing wine education, retail, and winemaking perspectives -- when I say that we took our job seriously.  If we felt that a particular wine was not medal-worthy, it did not get an award.  We didn’t agree unanimously on every wine, but the best wines had a way of transcending individual palate differences to rise to the top.

Who Benefits?

While wine competitions are designed to help lead consumers to wines that they’ll enjoy, they are not organized entirely as a public service.  Here’s a breakdown of the various parties who benefit from them:

Wineries: Winning medals helps wineries sell bottles.  When a shopper is choosing between two similar wines on a shelf, the one sporting a medal from a major wine competition has an advantage.  Competitions also allow wineries the opportunity to get their products in front of influential wine judges -- writers, retailers and sommeliers -- who could end up placing an order or praising their wines in the media.  I know many wine writers -- myself included -- who have gone on to write about a particular wine or producer that they encountered in a wine competition.

Organizers: Wine competitions make money, whether it’s for a company, educational institution or a charity.  The more wines entered, the more money the organizers make in entry fees.  But it’s not all gravy; there are plenty of organizational costs involved: administration, site fees, glassware rentals, travel expenses for the judges, etc. 

Judges: They’re not doing it for the money.  Some competitions will pay judges a small honorarium -- say, $100 -- for their time, but many pay only to reimburse them for their travel expenses.  So why do it?  It’s just plain fun to spend time discussing and tasting wine with professionals from all aspects of the industry, and you inevitably learn something interesting or valuable in the process.  I’ve tasted thousands of wines in my life, but until I judged the Indy competition, I can’t say that I’d ever sampled eight rhubarb wines in a sitting.  I also had the opportunity to taste wines made from native and hybrid varieties that I never would have come across in California.  It’s that sort of thing that keeps judges coming back.

Consumers: Here’s where the debate comes in.  Wine competition detractors contend that because the various contests are conducted in different ways and the quality of judges varies from competition to competition, they are too confusing to have any value for consumers.  But the same thing could be said of wine reviews, whether they’re published in Wine Spectator or posted on a personal blog.  Like wine competition organizers, individual wine reviewers and publications take different approaches, and some have more integrity and skill than others.  But that doesn’t mean that all wine reviews are worthless.

Regardless of the differences between competitions, competent professional judges can tell the difference between a so-so wine and a terrific one -- and this is ultimately reflected in the medals awarded.

The problem comes in, however, when wineries or salespeople are selective in how they present their award information to the public.  In the past few years, many competitions have bumped up the number of categories in which wineries can win medals.  Producers of high-end wines didn’t want to risk having some $7 Merlot beat their $45 Merlot, so some organizers responded by dividing the wines into several categories by price-point.  Once medals are awarded, it’s up to the winery or retailer to let consumers know not only that this $7 Merlot won a gold medal in the competition, but that it won a gold medal in the under-$10 category.  That context is very important.  Otherwise, someone might buy that wine and wonder why it’s not the best Merlot they ever tasted; when you specify the category for the gold medal -- whether it’s based on price, region or some other factor -- it’s no longer misleading.   

Sifting Through the Clutter

As with wine reviews, finding the value in individual wine competitions involves a little knowledge about the source.  Look for competitions that are run by reputable organizations or individuals, and that are transparent about their judging process.  Credible contests have websites that list the names and credentials of their judges, and stats on the number of entries in the latest competition vs. the number of medals awarded.  If 85% of entries in a competition received medals, the judges are probably being too generous (even a 15% gold medal rate is high).  You’ll also find listings of the most recent competition’s medal winners, which will give you an idea of the caliber of entries and how the wines you enjoy were rated. 

While I respect NYCR’s decision to bow out of judging wine competitions because of the flaws in the system, I would argue that by doing so, its editors are missing out on some great opportunities to educate themselves -- and their readers -- about unfamiliar wines and producers, and to broaden their perspectives through interaction with other judges. 

It is those aspects of wine judging -- and the thought that I might just help a thirsty wine lover find a new favorite -- that will keep me from joining the boycott.