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Stop The State Fair Madness

We interrupt your normal levelheaded Vinography programming with the following outraged rant.

Listen up wine industry folks, this whole state fair thing has gone on long enough and it just needs to stop. If I hear one more winery boasting that their Zinfandel won a gold medal at the Butte County fair, and silver at the Cal State Expo, I think I’m going to be sick.

And listen up wine consumers, while I explain to you how utterly ridiculous and meaningless these awards are, and how you should never use them as part of your decision for purchasing a wine.

What I am about to tell you is why, by the way, you shouldn’t join the hordes of people who rushed to Trader Joes yesterday after it was announced that Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay won a double gold at the California State Fair wine competition (most every Trader Joe’s is sold out of Chardonnay as a result anyway, so you’re late to the game no matter what).

State and county fair medals and awards for wine are not entirely bogus, but are close enough that everyone should completely ignore them. I trust a medal from a county fair about wine, about as much as I trust my vegan friends’ recommendations on what restaurants I’d enjoy in San Francisco. Which is to say, not even as far as I could throw them.

First of all, I need a show of hands from the folks that actually regularly go to state fairs. Now I need a show of hands for people who have actually watched any of the judging of competitions that goes on at these state fairs. Now I need a show of hands of people who have actually entered things into these competitions.

I’m betting there aren’t a lot of hands raised out there, but I’ll tell you what. Mine is. I’ve spent an awful lot of time at state and county fairs in my day, so listen up: the so called “competitions” that take place at these fairs and the awards they give out are exercises in mediocrity and the constraints of a limited playing field.

The primary reasons why no one should ever pay attention to an award given to a wine by some sort of fair:

1. While some of the biggest fairs actually get professional wine critics and winemakers to be judges, many of the judges for these wine competitions are simply folks who just work in the industry, or even worse, sometimes are just people who “enjoy” wine.

2. Every fair I’ve been to has got about 1000 different categories of competition for each general area of judging. Entrants don’t compete for the best wine, or the best red wine, they compete for the best Zinfandel, or maybe even worse, the best old vine Zinfandel. This matters because…

3. Often times there are only a few entries in each category. These competitions are not demonstrations of the best products or talent out there, they are demonstrations of choosing among the best of the (sometimes awful) products entered. While on occasion I have seen fairs decline to give out awards when there are an egregiously small number of entrants (say, less than three) but generally they give out an award no matter what. So winning a gold medal can be simply a matter of being the least crappy entrant in a field of three.

4. Did I mention that the only wines that get evaluated are wines that are deliberately entered by potential competitors? This is a problem at ALL such wine competitions, no matter where they are. The title of “best wine” at such and such competition should NEVER be given much credence by consumers since we have no idea who that wine was competing with. At state and county fairs, this is a huge problem, as it is very unlikely that any category of wine has a “representative” sample of wines to judge against.

5. Oh, did I mention that the wines sent to these competitions are sent by the wineries themselves. You only need to see what happened at the New Zealand Cuisine wine awards to understand the issues with this approach. And can you believe that the folks at the New Zealand competition actually test the wines that are sent to them against samples purchased from retail store shelves to make sure they are the same? Guess how often the California State Fair has ever done that? Right. Never, ever, ever. If you think that every winery simply just pulls a random bottle out of one of their cases that is destined for Joe’s Liquor Mart to send to these wine competitions, I’ve got a bridge in Napa to sell you.

So far be it for me to deny Fred Franzia his upset victory, and the last thing I would want to do is imply that he sent extra special wine to the competition.

But I do want to say that I tend to agree with my friend Jack, who expressed his amazement at the news to me this way: “They should just fire all those judges and start over.”

Wineries, stop bragging about your medals and start telling people interesting things about you and your wine, and how and why you make it. Consumers, do yourself a favor and ignore any piece of wine marketing that talks about fair medals. Though you might start noticing the very limited overlap between wines that get scores or good reviews by any wine critic (take your pick) and those that get medals. Coincidence? Well, let’s just say that you don’t see really good restaurants setting up booths at county fairs for a reason. They don’t have to.

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