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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.

Comments (69)

Amy Day wrote:
08.11.08 at 7:22 AM

Thank you for this, Alder. This is a really good post and explores something that has often bothered me as well. I am not in the industry, but given certain close acquaintances, have been living on the periphery of such competitions for a while. I have been astounded at the process involved in putting on one of these "shows" and awarding winners. Even beyond the very important point you make in your comments, I have also come to believe that the correlation between quality and medals in such competitions is weak at best, and more likely coincidental when it occurs. Curious to see others’ thoughts and rebuttals, though. As I say, I am no expert.

mike ja wrote:
08.11.08 at 7:55 AM

i actually do use this info when buying wine off the shelf; if a wine only won a bronze medal at one of these competitions, i avoid it; acquaintances of mine who judge at these events are excellent tasters and are fair minded, but their language in describing the lower scored wines is less than comforting.

JR wrote:
08.11.08 at 8:05 AM

I know you are talking about wine competitions in the U.S., but you don't say so explicitly. I think this needs to be made clear since the situation in Australia and New Zealand is quite different.

Rajiv wrote:
08.11.08 at 8:57 AM

A winemaker I worked for viewed the CA wine industry as having a number of farmers who had crossed over into growing wine grapes. She observed that the "farmer mentality" often led such grape growers to (at least initially) boost yields, plow between the rows, and in general coddle the grapes too much, yielding poor wine grapes. It was this same "farmer mentality", she said, that led the collective consciousness of small wineries to want to win prizes at competitions. In farming culture, the county fair is a huge deal - farmers vie for the biggest pig, largest watermelon, and eventually the best wine. Heck, I think beauty pageants are part of the same culture - all the farmers want to show they have the best pigs, the best melons, and the prettiest daughter!

In that vintner's opinion, wine competitions don't mean a damn thing - there are so many of them, judged by so many different palates, that if you pay enough money, you'll win a medal.

Rajiv wrote:
08.11.08 at 9:20 AM

JR:

What precisely is the situation in Aus and NZ? What differences in the more general wine culture of those regions do you think are responsible?

I feel that the US wine market is largely held captive by the big 3 (Parker, Tanzer, WS), and this dominant triumvirate precludes any other wine competitions having significant impact. The fact that a wine got a gold medal is all that registers for the consumer - the identity of the competition is all but irrelevant.

cd wrote:
08.11.08 at 9:22 AM

As the person at a winery that is in charge of entering wines into competitions and sending them in for review...I do totally agree with you Alder. There was a time where I did not enter any competitions at all. Anything where I would have to pay for a review was something I avoided. And it still bugs me today to have to pay to enter my wine into competitions.

I have since revisted medal competitions for one reason only--there are several wine clubs out there that are very interested in wines that win medals....and if you happen to score a gold, a big sale can be made.

I also enter our local Winemaker's Association competition, which is only open to member wineries. It is $40 a pop per wine...however, there is very little money to be made from this small group. The $$'s go to putting up judges, renting space for the day, transfer of wine, organizing the wine (which is a giant pain...I did it last year on a volunteer basis....a LOT of work), getting all the materials printed and organized. And of course paying for those god awful medals.

Bill Brinton wrote:
08.11.08 at 9:39 AM


There is value in contests for wineries and CONSUMERS. Let me explain.
Admittedly, all marketing departments are in business to promote themselves and encourage one to buy their product, enter their competition,etc because of the untold riches which will accrue to the entrant if the wines are well judged. We see this 'buzz' all the time in our national and local media. OK, so what! What else is new?
Let's look at how the competitons actually work as they have been explained to me by judges, and the press in articles which evidently have been missed by the blogger of this article who paints most all of them as scams being perpetuatd on the elderly and weak.
Our winery enters wine competitions because we see a very big flaw in the national single taster system that is perpetuated by the likes of Robert Parker, etc and other wine critics and reviewers.
Ultimately, Taste and quality of wine is not decided by one person(except the consumer) so being informed about other groups who have made colollective judgements about wine can be very helpful to consumers.
In my opinion, wine can be be judged quite accurately by educated, knowledgeable wine personnel from retailers, educators and wholesalers as well as wine writers and sommeliers than by almost any other system.
We enter selected wine competitions for a very good reason: we get good, independent fedback as to the quality of our product. So when our wines recieve a Gold Medal or a Best of Class(and we have won close to 100 Gold Medals and 14 or so Best of Class Awards in the last 6 years covering several varietals and multiple vintages of the same wines) it has been judged to be of Gold or Silver or Bronze status by proably at least 5 educated wine consumers, winemakers, educators or sellers who are quite knowlegeable about good and bad wine. This third party confirmation as to the quality of our product is critical and is not just our marketing department telling someone a story to make a quick sale or lead to untold numbers of important placements(like our blogger would like you to think) but has actually been judged in a very rigorous manner by educated people in the business whose livlihoods depend on the accuracy of their judgements. This is why many competitions serve a very useful function for wineries of all sizes and are not the scams suggested by the blogger.
All wines are judged, as I understand it, BLIND. There is no 'brand effect' that creates bias which is an enemy of legitimate evaluation and critical thinking about a wine and it's quality. ( Check out some reviews of older brands that are getting great single reviewer recommendations, buy the wine, if you can afford it and compare it to some recent Gold Medal wines in similar vintage, price and varietal).
I also understand that the Golds are often limited to certain numbers(read %) of the entries in a class of wines. The wines are usually compared to like kind products from close to the same vintage. In other words, every effort is made by the contests we enter to fairly and objectively rate the wines without bias.
Charles Creek enters about 5-6 contests per year(which costs us under $2000(including samples and entry fees)that meet our criteria for judge quality and reputation.This is really one of the only ways that small wineries such as ours(about 10,000 cases per year is our size) get feedback other than from our tasting room and consumer sales and it gives us a very good story to tell people about our wines. We believe that while there might be certain unscrupulous wine competiton organizers, as there are in every indusry, many are providing excellent comments and feedback to wineries and consumers to aid them in buying decisions.

Alder wrote:
08.11.08 at 9:56 AM

Bill,

Thanks for taking the time to write such detailed comments. I was hoping that members of the industry would chime in with their perspectives, which would assuredly be different than mine.

Let me ask you this -- you say you enter just a few competitions that meet your "criteria for judge quality and reputation."

This presumably means that there are many many that don't meet your criteria. Seems to me like there might literally be hundreds of wine competitions that you could enter every year. Can you share why and how there are so many that don’t meet your criteria?

Rajiv wrote:
08.11.08 at 10:11 AM

Mr. Brinson,

There have got to be cheaper ways of obtaining third-party confirmation of your product's quality. I'm sure you have many friends who are expert tasters and who wouldn't mind blind tasting some of your wines against their peers. What makes the judges at these competitions so special?

From the consumer's point of view, these medals are completely meaningless. When I see a medal on a bottle in a shop, I have absolutely no way of knowing:

-Who judged the wine - their qualifications/preferences.
-How the medaling was determined - there are many ways to mathematically rank wines
-Which other wines were competing in that category.
-How many contests that particular wine was entered in... and didn't medal.

EdwardjK wrote:
08.11.08 at 10:54 AM

As a consumer, I do value wine competitions. Every year I buy a copy of the "California Wine Award Winners" book to see how my favorite wineries faired and what new wineries are gaining attention. I do not place much value on any one competition, but if a wine or winery is winning multiple awards, I take notice and search out that wine. If multiple tasters across multiple competitions say "This wine is good", that is a big consideration for me.

Jo Diaz wrote:
08.11.08 at 11:03 AM

Wine competitions are a direct result of needing not only validation for what we do, but also the need to be told how good it is int he process... This began when mommy put our art on the refrigerator for daddy to see when he got home (or came out of the home office)... Validated by someone else besides mom (the marketing department), who's supposed to care enough to send it off for a third party (dad, the authority) endorsement.

We like hearing other opinions, because we may not have one yet, and it's good membership building, when we're in accord.

In the wine business, what a winemaker crafts could be really appropriate for one palate (high pH, low alcohol) for Dan Berger, say... Or high alcohol, super expressive wine for a Robert Parker palate.

When one of the wine writers says, "This is great wine" regardless of which palate it pleases, it will convince someone somewhere to buy the wine... And that's called free enterprise.

Now, we could throw that all away, and let the government tell us which wine to buy, and that's call dictatorship.

With an abundance of competitions, it give a good wine the opportunity to shine somewhere at some time.

I tell my clients, we have to throw it against the wall until something sticks, then you'll have an easier time selling that wine in the sea of 6,000 other options.

Morton Leslie wrote:
08.11.08 at 11:36 AM

I judged wine in N.Z. about three decades ago and it was all about "show wines". Do they still do that? If so, their competitions are different, but just as meaningless.

I stopped participating as a judge at several California competitions years ago because it was a depressing waste of time. I would be on a Cabernet Sauvignon panel with judges who were there because they were the spouse of the owner of a Fresno winery, or a Los Angeles restaurateur who barely knew labels (but nothing about wine) or a cute gal the event organizer had a thing for. There was always table talk during the tasting, no matter how well organized or well intentioned. The other thing was the sheer mass of wines. You would start off careful, organized, and diligent...but after several dozen wines and looking to have to taste a hundred more, you would become expedient and downright sloppy. One time I got so bored and depressed I popped a couple rum and OJ's at lunch to get me thru the afternoon tasting. Realizing I was part of the problem I made that particular judging my last, until recently when I realized that the honorarium would pay for a visit to my kid in a nearby college. I went with the best of intentions, but was disappointed to see that little has changed except that, in general, the judges were better qualified. There are still way too many wines in too short a time, and way too much table talk. Judging was competent at first, sloppy by the end of day by which everyone just wanted to be out of there. Contributing to the tedium, there were a large number of clearly defective wines that no winemaker in their right minds would have entered, except if they felt that we, the judges, were olfactorally challenged. I'm talking brown Pinots that smelled liked stewed tomatoes or mega purple Pinots so heavy and tannic you wondered if you were tasting Petite Sirah. One memorable Pinot smelled like almond extract with an unnaturally thin and tannic flavor. In the above $50 category not a single Pinot rated even a bronze. Clearly, this was a category for the desperate.

Tom Wark wrote:
08.11.08 at 12:25 PM

"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."

This can't possibly be true since we PR Lackeys know for a fact that in tasting rooms medals influence purchases.

But beyond that, it's absolutely clear that the results of the competition do have meaning: They represent the assessment of a group of experienced tasters. How this might be more or less meaningful than the assessment of a wine by Parker, the Wine Spectator, a blogger or another entity can be debated. But what is absolutely clear is that the results of these competitions do absolutely have meaning. Whether that meaning is of value to one person or another is a different question.

JD in Napa wrote:
08.11.08 at 12:29 PM

Bill, when you suggest that competitions are good for the consumer, what type of consumer are you talking about? The same one that will go to the kitchen store and purchase Emeril's saucepans, just for the name? I would suggest that the informed wine consumer, and certainly the wine geeks, ignore the silver medal from the Backwoods County Fair. Several of these posts take issue with Parker, et al, but, if you pay attention and benchmark your likes/dislikes against the critics, you'll do much better than trusting the array of variables that judge a wine competition. How many of us know the rules/criteria for any one competition? Does a bronze mean "this is for entering your wine", or does it indicate that at least this wine medalled, and a bunch of others didn't? And what do we know about the judges? Maybe they're better qualified than those Morton described, and maybe not. Perhaps this year a judge was assigned to Cali Cabs, and he thinks any Cab not from Bordeaux is plonk - what do you get then? How many of us have seen a favorite wine get a bronze and RoadKill Red get a gold? Maybe medals on shelf-talkers help sell wine, but that's it, guidance for the uninitiated in the supermarket.

08.11.08 at 12:38 PM

Alder,

I love it when you get on this rant, it tends to be one of my favorites, behind all things 'terrior' of course.
I think the competitions target two groups of ill informed people; consumers that think a gold medal 'has to be good' and winery owners and marketing people who think someone will actually care. I think these competitions largely serve as a place for some PR for wineries that aren't being honest with themselves about the product they produce or the Brand they are marketing. It is tough to get PR for a winery but I think expense and effort are best spent pursuing recognition that has some wieght in the market.

Mr Brinton,
I would suggest that consumers are exactly what sort of feed back you should be seeking. If wine competetions are the only source of feedback you are getting aside from your tasting room customers I STRONGLY suggest you visit your markets (ie wine buyers) and invite some local winemakers into your cellar. Winning a gold medal might imperess a few customers but it isn't going to give you any idea how you might improve.

Rajiv,
Competitions are very important in NZ and Australia. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, the very best wineries in these countries enter these competitions. The result is that if one wins a gold medal in one of these competitions is actually means something. The second is that in these countries, or rather markets, there is a relative lack of dominating wine personalities; NO Parker, NO Spectator. So these competitions become an important way of getting press. Which leads to my first point above, which I suppose creates a cylce of sorts.

Rajiv wrote:
08.11.08 at 12:40 PM

Tom,

The fact that medals influence purchases, combined with the fact that wine tasting is so subjective that if you enter enough competitions, you're bound to get a medal, create the opportunistic void that has sucked hundreds of competitions into existence.

Something can be both useful and meaningless with regards to quality (most TV ads nowadays are). However I feel that TV ads don't really claim objective quality - rather they try to form abstract associations with their product using cool images/clothing, etc. On the other hand, competitions try to assert objective quality... which brings me to the question of relation to quality.

It is not absolutely clear, as you say, that the results have meaning. Wine tasting is incredibly subjective. By syncretizing the often diverse views and perceptions of a panel of tasters, you do not necessarily make the outcome more objective.

For example, one judge could mark a wine low because it tastes like an amazing cabernet... but it's a pinot. Another judge might mark it high, despite lack of varietal character. This wine might place lower than another wine that's lackluster, but that neither judge completely objects to.

Also, "experienced" doesn't necessarily mean good, especially when it comes to wine tasting.

As for the competitions having some absolute meaning, no matter how tenuous... I have a feeling if the winners were picked at random the results wouldn't be too different - the wines that enter the most competitions win the most medals.

Rajiv wrote:
08.11.08 at 12:45 PM

Jerry,

Thanks, that makes sense. I wonder - are there any operational differences that separate competitions in Aus/NZ from the US? I imagine there are far fewer competitions, which means the quality of the judges can be better? Perhaps these competitions are in essence very similar to the way a committee publication like Wine Enthusiast works?

How comprehensive are these competitions?

hamishwm wrote:
08.11.08 at 1:48 PM

Having been a Judge at the International Wine Challenge in London for a number of years I too have become cynical of too many competitions and too many medals being liberally dished out. Medals are simply an extra marketing tool as expressed by some of the previous comments. As long as the wines are judged fairly by competent and knowledgable tasters the authenticity should be credible. The average consumer (whoever she or he may be) has enough confusion working out what is a good wine. A big Gold Medal slapped on or over the main label will certainly give a bit of extra kudos and confidence in that purchase.

hamishwm wrote:
08.11.08 at 1:57 PM

Having been a Judge at the International Wine Challenge in London for a number of years I agree that there does seem to be too many competitions and medals now appearing from many different and slightly dubious sources. These medals have always been simply an extra marketing tool. The average consumer (whoever she or he may be) has enough confusion making their wine selection. A big Gold Medal makes a clear difference on a shelf and may make a positive purchase decision. As long as the judges and the competition are authentic and uphold a sensible approach to tasting based on experience and education of the wines then thats fine. The issue is who is judging the competitions? Is there a code of practise to uphold respectability and honour?

Gideon wrote:
08.11.08 at 2:04 PM

I used to judge in competitions both in Europe and here, in the US. Gradually, I realized that this is not a game I care to partake in. Making wine is productive, judging wines in the context of a "competition" is absurd.

I have encountered a number of examples of wines, which in the context of a "flight" - 8, 12, or 150 wines ligned up - showed as exceptional only to be revealed as over the top, out of balance, or simply banal when tasted over time at the dinner table. Other wines which were too subtle or elegant to even be noticed sometime turnn out to be real gems... Now you may say "this is simply a sign you must be a mediocre taster"... and I may be, but the same phenomenon was described to me numerous times by other winemaker friends and colleagues in the industry.

Traditionally, wine is not an Olympic sport and suffers from the very notion of competitivness. The main reason for this is that what stands out in a lignup is intensity, power, richness of body, alcohol level, oak... none of which is necessarily a fault, or a pre-requisit for excellence. And wines which are designed to excell in competitions, often disappoint when consumed as a part of a meal. Wines of real character blossom in intimate circumstances, when enough time and proper attention is given to them.

So the wines I make at my own winery are never sent out to any competition or review. The main channel I use for promoting them is consumer and Trade tastings. In those, people with enough interest can explore and find out for themselves what is available and what they like best.

The best "medal" any person who makes wine can get is an email from an enthusiastic consumer who has just had a great experience with a bottle of your wines in a restaurant, friend's home, whatever.. because when they go on and tell their friends about it, this is personal and direct.

Mark Henry wrote:
08.12.08 at 8:43 AM

As a small winery owner (my wife and I are the vineyard, winemaking, bottling, sales staff), in a region without the heady cache (North Sierra Foothills), those gold medals aren't just validation for us, they are a necessity. Wine buyers are besieged daily by an army of professional wine sales people, presenting thousands of wines. My experience is that my gold medal is like my college diploma was in my youth...it keeps me from being turned away immediately. Once the buyer gets to know our wines, the medals become considerably less important. One day, I won't need to enter competitions at all. Until then...

Mike Holland wrote:
08.12.08 at 3:46 PM

How about the perspective of the home winemaker aka the amateur vintner. Our club puts on a medal competition open to any home winemaker who wants to the outrageous fee of $10 on a sliding scale down to $5. We break even. We hand out medals. But the most important we provide is feedback and constructive criticism to the winemaker for the most selfish reason imaginable: we want to drink better wines from those make wine for themselves. No commercial entries are allowed and members who have gone pro are unable to enter. Just in case there's any confusion, winning a medal from us is all about bragging rights and has no commercial value at all. We like it that way. You can't buy a medal from a competition like ours or clubs like us.
Your points are valid and thank you for the discussion.

Alder wrote:
08.12.08 at 6:09 PM

For anyone who thinks that these competitions represent real validation of quality and aren't just opportunity to buy PR I offer this link.

And for those too lazy to click on the link, here's the list of medals that ONE winery has won in the THE LAST 6 MONTHS:

1 Best of State
1 Golden State Winery of the Year
46 Gold Medals
107 Silver Medals
74 Bronze Medals
23 Best of Class Medals
1 Best of Region
2 Best of Show

Now, I don't know jack about this winery, but c'mon people, gimme a break. If the wines are as good as the medals say, how come we've never heard of them?

Rajiv wrote:
08.12.08 at 6:37 PM

And the coup de grace goes to.... Alder. Thanks for that link! How utterly ludicrous!

Mark Henry wrote:
08.12.08 at 10:04 PM

Alder writes:
"Now, I don't know jack about this winery, but c'mon people, gimme a break. If the wines are as good as the medals say, how come we've never heard of them?"

Because they aren't located in Napa/Sonoma/Paso Robles?

Just a thought.

Alder wrote:
08.12.08 at 10:21 PM

Mark,

Thanks for the comments. I make a pretty concerted effort to taste wine from all over California. One place I'm certainly less familiar with is Temecula, which is where this "Winery and Resort" is located. But I'll tell you this: if there was top quality wine being made in Temecula, I would have heard about it or someone I know would have heard of it. And in fact I've heard quite the opposite.

Mark Koppen wrote:
08.13.08 at 10:47 AM

Thanks, Alder - case closed. I've been doing wine marketing for over 18 years, and stopped doing wine competitions over 10 years ago now. We kept hearing that they only had limited value in the tasting room, and no value in the trade, except for a few of the well-known ones, like the Orange County Fair - and that influence was only local. I'm pretty sure no one in the trade has put much stock in medals for some years now - and just maybe two-buck Chuck winning a gold at the CA state fair was the final nail in the coffin.

08.13.08 at 12:49 PM

Alder,

I sort of have a problem with your logic; "If the wines are as good as the medals say, how come we've never heard of them?". At some point you hadn't heard of Patton Valley Vineyard. There are tons of reasons why someone hasn't heard of a particular brand, most have nothing to do with quality.
Like you, I too, fail to see the value in 'medals' as either a consumer or producer. I do understand that some brands need something to get started, some sort of external validation. If so go for it. It just isn't going to attract my dollar.
I typically really like Appellation America but they started thier 'terrior awards'; which I assume is supposed to give medals to wines that most show thier 'terrior'. I am the only personal that makes wines off of my vineyard and thus am the only example of it's 'terrior'. How in the hell is someone going to judge my wine as to the degree to which it shows terrior if there is no one to compare it too? This highlights my problems with both competitions and terrior!

Alder wrote:
08.13.08 at 1:21 PM

Jerry,

I think this is a matter of degree. There are plenty of good wineries, especially newer and smaller ones, in California that I haven't heard about. There are many fewer good wineries out there that have had serious critical acclaim that I haven't heard of. My point is that if people are arguing that these medals somehow represent legitimate critical acclaim that should be meaningful industry-wide, then a winery that won 450 medals in the last 6 months would actually be real news that California wine lovers would be talking about, and their wines would be sold out, allocated, and flying off the shelves at every retail outlet that managed to get their hands on some bottles. No?

Rajiv wrote:
08.13.08 at 1:53 PM

450 medals and no one gives a damn. 90 pts from Parker/WS/Tanzer would have a lot more impact. How much does it cost to submit a wine to enough competitions to win 450 medals? How much does it cost to submit a wine to all three critics?

It's all-too-tempting to conclude that the winery either doesn't believe in their product, or their wines just failed to impress any critics, so they instead decided to enter hundreds of wines in competitions.

Has any wine writer written anything on a single wine of this winery? 6 pages deep in google and nothing yet. I guess their wine hasn't excited a single person enough to write about it.

Their could be a perfectly logical explanation as to why no one has heard of them if their wine is that good... but it escapes me.

Eric wrote:
08.14.08 at 9:02 AM

Alder,

Great subject matter as usual and great debate all around. I want to offer two more real world perspectives, one from my life outside the wine biz, and one more now that I'm in it.

Back in my other life I ran a software company that catered to screenwriters. At some point we realized that with it being so difficult to break into Hollywood, and our popularity as a company giving us access to show biz decision makers, starting a competition would be a good idea. Certainly this was self serving, another way to brand ourselves within the industry. But we also genuinely wanted to find that writer, someone we might never know otherwise, and give them a shot.

And sure enough, after a few years of successfully running this competition we were accused of it being simply a money making venture. And no disrespect but the same logic you applied to the wine competitions above ($500 x 800 wineries=) was applied to us. People simply multiplied the number of entries submitted with what we charged per entry, subtracted our prize money (there was a cash prize component too) and thought, what a scam.

What they didn't realize is that in order to properly read upwards of 4000 screenplays, we had to hire dozens of professional script readers to evaluate them, used staff time to process all the entries, when things switched over electronically we paid to print out a hard copy of every submitted script, etc. Point being, the contest itself was not a money making venture. Rather our hope was, if the person who wins the competition sells their script (which almost everyone has), we'd sell more SOFTWARE, our main source of revenue.

Now I'm not sure what these contest organizers have to gain, other than perhaps their own reputations in finding great, previously unknown wine, but I at least want to defend the practice as not completely a money hungry endeavor.

In my life in the wine business now, running two wine brands, I'll say that we have not found great value in these competitions because as I think many have rightly pointed out, those awards only tend to look good in a tasting room or on a store shelf. To be honest though, most in our position (under 10,000 cases) don't have a tasting room and have to fight to the death (if we can get a distributor to return our phone calls) to even sniff a store shelf.

So for small guys like us, any recognition in a very crowded marketplace is one step forward in the process of getting people to know about and hopefully enjoying your product. So in that sense, if the marketing budget allows it, there is no harm done. The consumer will always ultimately make up their own mind after tasting a wine, gold medals or not.

The last point I'll make in this already ginormous post (if anyone is still reading, thanks). We have not actively sought out scores from the "legitimate" wine press but when we have been scored, getting both very good and also some mediocre ones, neither number affected sales *one* bit. The phones did not ring off the hook with the good nor stop ringing with the bad.

At the end of the day, you just have to keep plugging away and make real human connections with your customers. Only we can do that, and there is no substitute for it...

Cheers!

Eric

Big Daub wrote:
08.14.08 at 12:57 PM

Once Upon an Insecurity.

Medals on a “wall of ego” in a tasting room validate the winery.
It gives an impression to the consumer of quality, acceptance, fame and a healthy dose of “hey, get on board with us”. Wineries are insecure and so are consumers. So, “competitions” sell an illusion of hope to wineries that if medaled, they will rise from the muck of insignificance and be catapulted into the Sally Field world of “…you like me, you really, really like me”, therefore selling more wine and so on and so forth.

What are lost here are consumer education and the importance of their personal experience. Like Mark Henry in this thread before me, I own a small winery. My tasting room has not a single medal on the wall… and I have a box of them I could. Why? The answer is “why?” I deplore the notion that one of my tasting room guests would have any outside influence over their own experience (be that Parker, WS or Kuato). It’s a tasting room, which means subjective, right? Now, shelf talkers do help when that lonely bottle in a store’s cramped wine department is elbowing for recognition. But a tasting room is where the consumer is allowed (should be allowed) to discuss their feelings, experiences, tastes, and preferences with the winery and walk away feeling validated. As we all know, staff at most tasting rooms talk down to and over the heads of their guests and even have the audacity to tell them what they’re tasting in the glass. So I guess you’d need a “wall of ego” if you’re going to subject them to such a beat-down.

Here is the point… it’s the consumer or tasting room guest that must feel validated, not the winery. Once they are, insecurity fades. They get a perceived “ownership” in the winery and take that positive and empowering experience out into the world. I stopped sending wine for outside review and competitions a year ago. It irked me so when someone would come in to buy another case of a wine they liked, only to tell them we had sold out of it week earlier. Then thinking in the back of my mind where those bottles went, what I had spent to send them and why.

Paul Sharp wrote:
08.18.08 at 1:12 AM

Good post Alder.

Heres a link to some analysis of last seasons New Zealand wine shows. http://www.wineoftheweek.com/blog/blog200801-1.htm#20080131
It shows a lack of overlap in the gold medal awards.

08.18.08 at 3:59 AM

Alder,

This is a matter of degree methinks. If you are entered into the Slack Jaw Valley Cletus McGee Invitational and “silver out,” I doubt there will be much of a following. If you make a splash at the SF Chronicle, you will sell a bit more.

That having been said, this same phenomenon is happening in literary circles, as well as screenwriting as has been alluded to earlier. There is a desperation that is fed by this type of borderline “vanity medals” that we see in the “vanity press.” Submit your proudest pieces of poetry to poetry.com and you will soon receive notification that you have been selected for inclusion in an “anthology”, for a fee. Of course you’ll want to add an author bio, guilded edges, leatherbound spine, and copies for all your fans.

Now I’m not saying all of these competitions are as we fear them, but I have judged on one in SF, one in Dallas, and one in Portland. And I can tell you that the scores are pretty bizarre. People not qualified to judge Champagne (myself) will be swapped on a panel if need be, without notice. People fight to not have to wind up in the sub $10 white zin panel, which usually gets relegated to distributor merchandisers, not real judges. The organizers care about two things: the number of entrants and subsequent press. So they encourage Gallo to enter all twelve hundred SKUs and then tell the local paper just how many wines they are judging – “with only 25 gold medals awarded from over 2300 wines submitted” or something of the sort.
It’s a buyer beware scenario, both for the end consumer who purchases based on medals from county fairs (all six of you) and the winery itself. You have to be careful where you spend your winery dollar, not just on credibility, but on who is judging (do you know this guy is an in-fashion pinot whore but loathes zin?) and how your wines are paired. Are they paired by varietal, by pricepoint, or are they grouped by the sub-species represented on the labels (g’day mate.)

I have seen some retail sales spikes from local/regional panels, and no one cared about the process, and it was akin to a lottery as to who won golds and who didn’t score at all, (my favorite was when Domaine Serene couldn’t grab an honorable mention and Rex Goliath took a silver, no offense to either Pinot, but really…) and the only way sales were increased was when the local retailers took out full page ads in their newspapers to hock their wares and amplify their standings in the competition. This is why so many newspapers are on board with wine competitions, its double-dipped paid advertising, you charge them for the right to get judged, regardless of usable outcome or not, then in order for the local retailers to benefit from it, they have to buy advertising. Brilliant, industriousness that hasn’t been realized since the mob days of a bygone era.

But I digress.

It’s a market trying to find another means of validation besides the big three ratings fairies (*ping* I anoint thee a 90+) to fill the whitespace in their marketing material, POS, “trade only” website sections, and tasting room walls. But like the eager poet, they need to beware.

Tannat

JD in Napa wrote:
08.18.08 at 7:41 AM

Hey, Alder: looks like you got somebody all reved up regarding the value of competitions!
http://www.wine-blog.org/?p=464
Of course, there's apples and oranges of difference between the competition she describes and the ones you decry, but apparently she felt compelled to throw out a "So There!" Happy daze.

08.18.08 at 9:01 AM

Hi Alder. In a recent conversation with several journalists who review wines they had this bit of advice for all of those wineries who are frustrated by the last of attention for their wines. Try including a sticker on the bottle you send to journalists with the proper contact info, retail price, date sent, as well as rubber-band printed info on the wine and the winery to the bottle. A lot of these wines don't make it to the review process because the writer doesn't have the time (or the patience) for finding out about the wine that you want them to taste.

When wines come to us that don't have the info attached, we put them into our 'donate to charity' box.

Fred wrote:
08.18.08 at 1:59 PM

In his initial post, Alder refers to the effluvia of competitions as being “like a whole little economy that has sprung up to feed on insecurity, mediocrity, and hope.” I couldn’t agree more. And, like Alder, I don’t fault the organizers but rather the wineries who mistake medals for marketing.

Marketing is rarely about Quality (which medals and scores infer). Marketing is about qualities –- the things that make you different, interesting, meaningful, memorable. Rather than do the hard work of figuring out what to say about themselves, how to say it and who to say it to, many wineries simply ship bottles to writers and judges and assume the rest will take care of itself.

Instead of paying to have their product judged, wineries should invest in having it “positioned.” Three such practitioners have posted to this thread.

Jay wrote:
08.18.08 at 8:48 PM

Of course medal wines sell better in winery tasting rooms -- that's the whole manipulative idea. And with consumers who act like sheep, it works. I agree with your assessment. The system is misguided -- and corrupt. All a winery who makes even a barely decent product has to do is buy enough entries into enough wine competitions and they are bound to win a medal sooner or later. And then they will capitalize on it forever.

Joel wrote:
08.19.08 at 11:05 AM

Heh, heh, heh. What do you think about the Michigan Wine Competition, where we recently awarded medals to 73% of the wines that entered?

Alder wrote:
08.19.08 at 7:38 PM

Well, I'd say that if the Olympics awarded medals to 73% of the people that competed, it would be a completely worthless exercise.

Rich wrote:
10.22.08 at 10:25 AM

Alder, thanks for this - I agree completely. However, as a small "boutique" winemaker/producer/owner it is almost impossible to get my wines noticed unless I get either a ranking from one of the big three (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, or Wine&Spirits) or win a competition. It's amazing that winning one gold medal will sell your wines. A colleague was just written up in WS and won a medal at a comp and he sold out his wines in two weeks. So, while, yes, I agree that the competitions are bogus, we, as wine people, are in a Catch 22 situation...

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