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08.10.2008

Wine Competitions are One Big Racket

If I ever wanted to make a lot of money in the wine industry, I know just what I'd do. It wouldn't be starting a vineyard, or publishing a book, or making my own wine, or marketing someone else's. No if I wanted to make a pile of money, I'd simply organize a big wine competition.

Such competitions and their gold medals are good for one thing and one thing only: making a pile of money for the people who organize them. I don't believe they do a bit of good for the wine industry as a whole, no matter how excited all those gold-medal-winning wineries are.

Now I'm a die-hard capitalist at heart. The folks that run these wine competitions are doing their best to get along in the world just like everyone else. I've got nothing against them personally. But I see the endless parade (more and more are started every year) of wine competitions as no better than those talent scouting scams you see in the paper, where overly hopeful parents of young actresses and models-to-be get sucked into paying "talent fees" for the chance to have their offspring "considered" for representation by a talent agent that may not even exist, let alone have the connections needed to turn someone into a star.

In other words: one big racket. Here's an excerpt from one such competition's literature:

"NEW Competition! Look at the Super Star Pro Wine Buyers Lined Up to Judge Your Greatest Wines! Get your wines tasted by top U.S. Professional Wine Buyers from Andronico's Market, Dean and Deluca, IL Forniao Restaurant Group, Playboy Mansion West.

$75 per entry Early Bird until August 16. SO DON'T WAIT. Enter Now.

Moving wine and finding new retail outlets is getting harder and harder...

Why spend thousands of dollars traveling and hours beating your head against the wall trying to get face time with the real decision makers?

We've done the work for you to get your wines in front of the right people. What does this mean for you? Well, in addition to cutting down on your work and expense, the results will be published and distributed TO THE TRADE....

Winners will be awarded gold, silver and bronze -- and the Guide will provide price points, contact information and production information so that wine buyers throughout the U.S. (and abroad) can use it as their "bible" to find wines they KNOW the wine-buying public will love."

I don't know about you, but that sort of makes my skin crawl. I don't see this as much different than marketing investment schemes to the elderly. The two prey on the same insecurities about success among those who desperately want to be successful. They're not illegal, but they are morally dubious.

A huge number of wineries in the United States don't get the 90+ point scores from the critics that immediately bring their wines to the attention of the wine buying public. Nor are they sufficiently popular that people buy their wines no matter what the critics say.

This group of wineries needs to sell their wines. They need wine buyers at restaurants, hotels, retailers, and bars to think that their products are worth selling. They're not desperate -- any more desperate than the maker of a product who needs to sell it to survive -- but they do know that they have not gotten accolades from the people who really count, so selling out their wine is going to take a combination of hard work and luck.

Where there is a need in the marketplace, products and services spontaneously arise to fill it. Recognizing the need for hundreds, if not thousands of wineries to distinguish themselves from the pack somehow, the commercial wine competition arose.

The formula is simple. Wineries looking for publicity pay a fee for each wine that they want to enter into the competition. Their wines are judged in dozens and dozens of different categories (generally by hardworking folks who are trying to do a good job, though not always) to maximize the numbers of medals that can be handed out like so much candy to the nervous wineries looking for as much validation as those anxious parents who want their children to be stars.

Maybe after paying the $750 to enter ten bottles of wine, a winery walks away with a Gold, two Silvers, and one Bronze medal. They get to hang them around the necks of their bottles in the tasting room. They get to pay their PR lackeys to send out press releases about the awards, and, of course, they now get to mention the fact that their wine won a gold every single time they pour a glass for anyone, anywhere.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with this, despite its insipidity. There's nothing really wrong with the folks who organize these wine competitions making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the event ($500 x 800 wineries = take it to the bank).

But there is something vaguely evil about the whole scenario. It's like a whole little economy that has sprung up to feed on insecurity, mediocrity, and hope.

And with so many wine competitions out there, from state fairs to so-and-so's international wine competition, the thousands of gold medals handed out have become completely meaningless. I've never had a friend recommend a wine to me based on the fact that it has won a gold medal. I've never had a sommelier in a restaurant or bar tell me that the wine they were recommending was a gold medal winning wine. I've certainly never seen it listed on a wine list. I think I might have seen (but only once or twice) a wine store or supermarket shelf talker mention a medal.

The only people I ever hear talking about these damn medals from are the wineries themselves and their marketing agencies, both of whom (rather pitifully I think) try to wring every tiny little bit of mileage out of their award that they can. It's like the folks who work in tasting rooms don't have anything interesting to say about the wines, but if they can talk about medals they might just sell a bottle or two.

I'm sure someone will come along here and slap me down and tell me that gold medal wines sell better in their tasting room and that they really have gotten a return on their investment of however many hundreds of dollars they spent on this wine competition or that state fair entry.

But that doesn't mean that the wine industry wouldn't be a hell of a lot better off if all these wine competitions just went away, and people spent their money and time making better wine, and telling people interesting stories about it. Which is what most everyone remembers anyway.

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