Wine Competitions and Medals: A Panel at Vino2011

The signboard outside the door read: “Where have all the medals gone? Given the ubiquity of point ratings, do wine competitions still matter?”

Thirty or forty of us assembled on Tuesday to hear the answer to those two questions as part of Vino2011, also known as Italian Wine Week.

In service of the answer, W.R. Tish, a wine writer and blogger, had recruited the following panel of experts:

Anthony Dias Blue — Executive Director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, lifestyle consultant, and author.

Dan Berger — Wine writer and organizer of the Riverside International Wine Competition.

Alfonso Cevola — Italian wine director for Glazers and blogger at On The Wine Trail in Italy.

Tom Hyland — Freelance wine writer and blogger at Reflections on Wine.

Jean Reilly MW — Wine buyer and Director of Purchasing at wine retailer Morrell and Company.

W.R. Tish: I think to start, what I want to point out is that medals are out there in large volume. But they’re not necessarily being talked about and considered in the buzz of the wine scene. I want to ask each panelist about which wine competitions they judge, and which ones are important.

Anthony Dias Blue: I’m going to say mine is the most relevant. I judge one a year, I have in the past done quite a few. Actually I now do another in Japan, and I’ve started doing a third one in China. I run the San Francisco International Wine Competition. We got 4000 entries last year, and we’re the largest in the country. If medals are on the wane, then our people don’t know that, our numbers have gone up every year for more than a decade. We sell more than half a million medal stickers to wineries every year.

If people are using these stickers then we need to make a distinction with what is sold out the cellar door. The medals make a huge difference in that environment. People are interested in trying and buying wine with medals.

Dan Berger: I judge between 10 and 11 competitions each year. Part of that is staying current with the industry, blind tasting removes the baggage, and factoring in regional characteristics, varietal characteristics, and if done well, I get to see an entire category of wine relatively comprehensively. I do the Chronicle competition, the LA county fair, the Canadian, the Australian, the Concours Mondial in Europe, a big German Riesling tasting, and I run the Riverside International Wine Competition, now in its 30th Year. I believe in competitions because the evaluation of the wine is without knowledge of what you have in front of you. If you hold up a bottle of Petrus, and look at it, and try to evaluate it with any objectivity, you’ve lost. Competitions allow evaluation without baggage. We have the opportunity to see wines irrespective of their price. Price gives the impression of high quality. But there is no relationship between price and quality, we know this because of blind tastings.

Finally, the wine competition results are available on web sites more than ever, and there are a number of wineries that consider medals vital to their marketing efforts.

Alfonso Cevola: I judge 2-3 competitions a year. I did one in Lodi recently. But the one I’ve gotten most attached to is the Dallas Morning News competition. It really impacts our local businesses. I see the results. I’m not really into the judging as much as these gentlemen [on the panel] are.

Tom Hyland: I don’t judge much. I judged once in Tuscany, and did the Dallas tasting 8 years ago. Most of what I do in terms of judging is when I go to Italy 4 to 5 times per year, a guest of various consortia, and I attend ante prima tastings. These wines will be presented to journalists such as my self before they are presented to the world. That’s my judging,

Jean Riley: I’ve done some for the Grand Jours de Bourgogne. The first competition I judged in, I was disappointed in both the quality of the panel and the methodology. More than medals, what I see in my business these days is these 100 best lists, 10 best lists. They are the new medals. They are really driving the business. These 10 best lists are medals without saying gold, silver or bronze. They are a direction that the whole industry is shifting towards.

W.R. Tish: I don’t judge many competitions either. Regardless of what competition or methodology, we’re all looking at the same process. The whole medal process is about singling out quality for the purpose of differentiating from a crowded marketplace. There are multiple ways that accolades happen these days.
We are all mindful of the fact that not all medals are equal. One of the strengths of medals is that they are easy to understand. The idea behind medals involves simplifying what is so incredibly complex, something so complex that we forget how overwhelming it becomes. I think back to my own early days in wine where medals played a role in simplifying the ultra-complicated world of wine for me.

We’re going to look at the pros and cons of medals today.

Has there ever been a specific wine that you can recall that you were personally made aware of because it got a medal? Either when you were shopping, working in the wine trade, or judging competitions?

Jean Reilly: I don’t think in my work I can come up with a wine that I was made aware of by a competition. I do remember, as you probably did, that moment when you’ve got your 7 bucks and you’re going into a wine store looking for something good that you can afford. I remember I saw an Australian wine with a gold sticker and I bought one. Yesterday I was sitting around thinking about this talk. I happened to be holding a jar of peanut butter that said 4 out of 5 choosy moms choose JIF. That’s basically a medal. Medals run the gamut. As a buyer I don’t find that the medals mean too much to me, but they mean A LOT to the people selling the wine.

The salespeople need a story, something to catch your interest, some way to distinguish this wine from another. I’m often on the receiving end of being told they have won medals.

Tom Hyland: I can’t think of any specific examples. I recall a shopping experience and seeing Riojas that had won competitions. I picked up a couple of bottles. Same with ice wines from Washington. That medal meant more to me than points. That told me it was a wine of quality, something to look out for.

Alfonso Cevola: I did have a specific wine I discovered when I was judging in Dallas with Dan Berger. We were judging Cabernets, It was gruesome. We were arguing over a wine. If it’s going to be a gold medal, he’s a cruel taskmaster. The wine was a J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet. We put this wine through its paces. We asked all the questions, not just because it was the fruitiest, oakiest, highest in alcohol. But we finally did end up giving it a medal. That wine really stuck with me over the years. If I went into some restaurant and saw it by the glass, knowing the competition and the process it had to go through to get the medal, I would always order it.

Dan Berger: I can tell you about hundreds of wines I’ve discovered as a result of competitions. 1978 Davis Bynum Pinot in the 1981 Sonoma Harvest Fair. The wine ended up with silver, because other panelists didn’t understand it. It was the first wine made by a guy named Gary Farrell. At the 2002 Harvest Fair, I discovered the 2001 Hanna Sauvignon blanc. In 1980 it was the 1978 Zinfandel from Hop Kiln. That competition completely opened my eyes to the wine.

But the number one wine we discovered? Prairie Berry Winery in South Dakota entered two wines at Riverside Wine Competition. They were submitted because winemaker decided they were very good. They were assigned to two different panels. The panels didn’t consult. They had no idea what they were judging. One was red made from Frontenac. The other was a rosé from Frontenac. Both won golds. Those medals opened the door, today you can’t buy a bottle from Prairie Berry Winery, they’re sold out every year. I rest my case.

Anthony Dias Blue: I’ve got a million stories too but the most dramatic would be mid 80s when first NZ Sauvignon Blancs started to hit the panels. These wines stood out so dramatically. They’ve done well ever since. And then there was a small winery in Sonoma named Canahan. I’m not sure if this story is apocryphal. But it was a small winery, the labor of love for a single guy. He made 300 cases of Syrah in his garage, and on a lark entered the wine in the competition. Apparently he was was sitting dejectedly in the garage, thinking to himself “what am I wasting my time doing this for” getting ready to throw in the towel. At that moment the phone rang to tell him that he won sweepstakes for the San Francisco International Wine Competition. He’s still making wine today.

W.R. Tish: When we talk about medals, we’re talking about the point of the process after which a panel has tasted jugged and done what they do. That part of the process is invisible to the public. People in trade care about that part much more than consumers. They tend to be critical of panel composition methodology, how many wines are tasted in how much time, etc. To me, what happens about medal competitions is wineries playing the lottery. They spend money to get the big prize. Just like with the Olympics to get the gold. Some will enter many, some will enter regionally, etc. The origin of medals, a lot of these medal competitions started out as regional fairs. Especially in California. Not unlike where pigs and pies were being judged.

Dan Berger: This is really vital. It comes back to the county fair. These events were set up as commercial entities to help the industry. The fact was that the results would be distributed to consumers, but the event was industry focused: people would find out which commercial products would be best. The commercial aspects of these competitions, was always for the industry. These competitions offer wineries the opportunity to be judged by experts. No doubt there is benefit to the consumer, but the benefits are for the industry first.

W.R. Tish: Oh, I didn’t mention my own positive experience with medals. I’ve used medals to buy several wines. Marques de Riscal in Spain felt strongly enough about their medals they used to put theirs on the label it was so important. V. Sattui draped medals from their tasting room ceiling. So how do medals help or not help Italian wines specifically? Well, the idea of medals simplifying a complex universe of offerings may be a great service for Italy, maybe more so than for any other country.
I want to do a list of the cons of medals.

Criticism of medals and competitions is that there is “grade inflation.” People say “well almost every wine that gets entered gets a medal.” Though this isn’t much different from the fact that most wines that get rated get an 80 or above, which is “good.”

Within the trade the idea of palate fatigue and accuracy of judging panels also tends to get raised. People ask “how can they pick out the good wines if they’re tasting 200 before lunch and 300 after. How can they be valid or valuable when the wines are basically run through a mill?

Another criticism is dilution — there are too many different competitions and too many different medals for them to really matter.

People criticize inconsistency of methodology — Jean mentioned she wasn’t thrilled with a panel she was on. As consumers we don’t know what the methodology was. We don’t know if it was average scores or ranking, we don’t know if the wines were tasted at the end of the day or at the beginning, etc. You’ll never know unless you look it up online, but who wants to? That defeats the purpose.

And people criticize the inconsistency of results — I have a problem with this. When I see that a wine has a bronze somewhere and a platinum somewhere else, which is more valid? Over the recent years, I’ve gotten a sense that fewer of the high-end wines are being entered into competitions because there’s a downside if your $75 gets a silver.
Finally, some say that medals are passé for consumers today who look for other accolades like points.

Dan Berger: I can rebut every one of those.

Inflation? if you see a wine competition that gives 82% of the wines entered medals, look askance. At Riverside we give 61-64% medals. Is that a lot? You can debate that.

Fatigue? Palate fatigue is real. At my competition you will not taste more than 120 wines in a day. We dismiss the judges after 120 wines.

Inconsistency of panel makeup? I totally agree. Some competitions have weak judges. Some have weak and weaker judges. We don’t have collectors as judges at Riverside. It’s all industry people.

As to how the wines are delineated, we have separate categories for different varietals. The wines are judged separately and the judges are told what they are judging. If you have California Sangiovese lined up blind against Chianti that doesn’t make any sense.

Inconsistency of results? I rest my case on a single wine. Ventana Rubystone received gold in every competition it entered. In every competition. Ruby stone is a fabulous wine. It’s a $19 bottle of wine. The fact is that only last year did they decided that they would start using the medals to sell.

Alfonso Cevola: There’s plenty of dessert wines with gold medals that are sitting in our warehouses. In the middle of the country, there is more interest in medals, It’s a regional thing. These secondary markets are excited about these things.

Jean Reilly: Don’t you think that’s the part of the country in which the fairs are more important overall?

Tom Hyland: I had two questions for you Dan – regarding the italian wines in your competition — when you’re putting together Barolos, are you contacting producers or importers to solicit wines? Where are the wines coming from?

Dan Berger: We have only a scant number of Italian wines entered each year. We send out notices to wholesalers across the US about the competition, but we don’t get many.

Jean Reilly: I noticed in preparing for this, medals seem to be less common in Italy. Is that true?

Anthony Dias Blue: Yes, that’s because they don’t enter. Only the French are worse. They’re only thinking of the downside. As if they don’t get a medal they look bad. We don’t list the wines that are entered, so there’s no downside that I can see. There are 4500 wineries in Italy, it’s overwhelming for the consumer. This morning there were 100 wineries that don’t have importers trying to get importers. The wines were really nice. There’s a cacophony of wines coming from Italy, and it’s a problem for consumers. I think the way to stand out from a crowd is to enter these competitions.
There’s a slight difference between Riverside and our competition — I got rid of all the winemakers on panels. I think they have the tendency to be what I call “cellar blind.” They tend to taste mostly their own wines, not other peoples, and they then tend to want everything to taste like theirs.

Dan Berger: I want to answer that. This was one of the key factors in putting the Riverside competition together in 1982. I read Amerine’s book on sensory evaluation. There are checks and balances that need to be in place for a tasting. The intermix of the four panelists on each panel has to be accommodating to the tendency towards cellar blindness and style. I try to find experts in a certain kind of wine, in addition to the mix of those judges is a mix of those people with different opinions. The rules of the Riverside competition is that there is mandatory discussion before a medal is given. You must explain your rationale for why the wine deserves a medal or why it doesn’t. The fact you love it has no bearing in our competition.

Tom Hyland: As a follow up on Andy’s comment, it’s a shame that Italians don’t enter these competitions. Italian producers tell me all the time that such a wine got 92-93 points. That’s fine. But you never see a 95-point Soave and you never will. If there was a competition and Soave people entered, you could say that this was the best Soave of the group. If you’re a traditional producer and you age your wine in large barrels with indigenous varieties, you’re making a wine that is different than what leading wine critics define as a 95 point wine. It’s easy for people to say 95 from some magazine. I’d rather see gold medals for Soave or Montepulciano.

Alfonso Cevola: There is a competition in Italy for Italian wine. It’s not very relevant for America. It’s days long, at VinItaly. They judge almost every wine. Every producer who gets an accolade posts it right there at VinItaly at their table. People post it at the winery. It’s not relevant to our market, so you don’t hear about it.
For these folks it’s all relative. It’s about how well a winery can promote whatever they get. These medals have been eclipsed by other things, like Gambero Rosso, which is a huge industry. But it’s also important to recognize that If you get a 91 point rating on your $15 wine you sell 2 containers at Costco. A competition gold isn’t going to do that.

W.R. Tish: I want to move on to other accolades and the public perception of medals vis a vis those accolades. Some talk of this like “inside baseball.” How all this happens doesn’t matter once the wines are in the market, and doesn’t matter at all if the message doesn’t get out that a wine has won medals at all.

Anthony Dias Blue: We take the double gold and gold winning wines from our completion, and we take them on a tour of 14 cities in the Fall. We are basically doing the marketing for these people. We are a complete service and full service.

W.R. Tish: So when people hit the lottery they hit it big. I think we all realize that certain characters of Italian wines aren’t going to translate well in the judging process. Another key factor is who enters the competition? There’s a real block for Italian wines, if you’re not getting them into the competition means that they’re not getting there.

But there are a lot of touchpoints. Ratings from a ton of different outlets. There’s social media accolades from different outlets. I want to ask specific questions. Jean you’re a retailer. Do you ever have someone walk in looking for a medal wine, or have a medal mentioned? How often does the word medal get spoken in your store?

Jean Reilly: In the store it’s pretty rare. If there’s a sticker (which is less and less common) our sales people will use it. But people will walk in and say I want this 91 point, or that one that was in the Spectator top 100. When people are selling me the wine, I hear about medals a lot. It doesn’t make much of an impact on me. There are so many competitions, for me its the dilution factor. When I hear it won a gold medal, it’s the “south austin international global blah blah faire…” Nothing I’ve ever heard of. It’s not important in my buying decision and not important to the consumer.

W.R. Tish: Tom, do you think blogging has reached a point where something gets written up on a blog or raved about, is that getting to be part of the competition for medals?

Tom Hyland: I do, its part of the conversation. I was introduced to a Barbaresco estate and wrote about it. Restaurants read my post and bought wines as a result. Blogs are so unique to the person that writes them that you don’t know how much attention any one buyer is putting on that. But with this one post there were placements as a result.

W.R. Tish: Blogs have micro audiences, but they can have impact greater than the number of followers.

Jean Reilly: I find it much more that the person who does points or medals or scores is much more liable to be influenced by something like that. They all tend to be online. I looked up a wine before coming here that was #7 on WS list. Of the 307 bottles out there to sell, 296 were online. These are consumers who do shopping in different ways.

Alfonso Cevola: Blogging has an impact. If you Google a certain wine, you’re not going to get the Spectator review or the Wine Advocate review, those are private sites. You might get something Alder has written about or Tyler. That will lead the person online into a conversation. Not via the score route, but the viral route of interest.

W.R. Tish: Dan and Andy together, over the years, have you sensed any significant changes in the pattern of how the wineries use the medals. Are the stickers you sell not as important or getting it on the homepage of the web site. Just as a data point, I used to get full page press releases about the medals that wineries had won. That just doesn’t happen any more. Are wineries using medals differently?

Anthony Dias Blue: We sell so many of those stickers.

W.R. Tish: it’s not just Barefoot [Winery] buying all of them?

Anthony Dias Blue: [ laughs ]. With spirits we just get so much advertising, almost every single gold medal we award in spirits gets a full color bleed ad in some magazine somewhere. They buy the graphics for the awards from us to put into the ad.

Dan Berger: Riverside was set up in the agricultural district, and over the years we evolved to be more responsive to the industry. We listened to what the industry wanted. Gary Eberle told me in 88 or 89: “as soon as we win gold, silver, or bronze, the wine flies out the door. We’re not submitting wines for review anymore, we’re submitting to every competition we can do, we use those.” Gary wanted the stickers. We don’t charge for them. They print off your own printer. There’s a shelf talker. It’s personalized with the medal you won, printed off our website, no charge. A table tent, print off the website, no charge. You want a certificate, you can print from online to your printer, no charge. Link to your web site, no charge. Why are we doing this? Because we’re seeing it be useful to people.

Those wineries that are sensitive to the question of marketing, they are actually taking a positive approach. We are now adding case cards. We are now making judge comments for the world to see, not only the winery.

We put this together with an outrageous amount of money. To me it’s unbelievable what we’ve created. We haven’t made a nickel. We’re enjoying our time getting into the forefront of the competitions. But we’re small. We’re easier on the judges. We only get about 2100 wines.

W.R. Tish: I want to turn us towards Italian wine in particular. If you are a supplier, importer, or marketing PR person, or someone who sells at restaurant or retail venue, is there a specific type of accolade that has replaced medals, or is better than medals for Italian wine? Or are medals not being utilized properly by Italian trade top to bottom to promote their wines?

Dan Berger: Let me answer that as much as I can. I went to the Slow Food convention in Torino. We toured through the wine event with thousands of wines. The wines were behind the counter, sommeliers in front of the cases, but zero literature. I saw for four days of walking through that facility. There was very little wine being sold. No ratings shown. They were trying to not demean those wines who had gotten poor scores. We’re talking about an international conference with thousands of attendees, and no one was buying any wine.

W.R. Tish: Well with Gambero Rosso, they do their tours around the country here, but even they don’t have much traction here. Is Italy dysfunctional to the American market?

Tom Hyland: Yes. Gambero Rosso is much more important. Lots of people go there because Sassicaia is there. How do these tastings translate to sales?

Jean Reilly: there is a small but committed core of wine collectors that buy Tre Biccheiri wines. And if wines get two or even one glass, and they don’t have an importer, they do get one. Bam. Just like that. Importers promote these awards heavily to me. VinItaly, not so much.

Alfonso Cevola: I’m trying to crawl back into my Italian brain. These aren’t as important to an Italian as they are to an American. Wine is intrinsic to our culture. We’re interested in status or some other something. Luca Maroni, Gambero Rosso, etc. There is no wine spectator in Italy. We thrive on chaos and randomness. Trying to get 70 million italians to agree with anything is impossible.

Jean Reilly: Aren’t Italians skeptical of anything official? Don’t they get suspicious of who someone paid off to get an award? Generally anti-establishment?

Tom Hyland: Andy’s point is exactly correct. Some of those $75 brunello producers need accolades. And then you have people in Campania who have great wines, they just don’t promote their wines very well. When they market, they use things like the fact they have Vesuvius in their backyard. It’s quaint storytelling, but it’s 180 degrees from points.

* * *

At this point the conversation was opened up to the attendees for questions.

I asked the following question: “would the panelists care to comment on the study published by the American Association of Wine Economics that found, for any given wine, that there was no statistically relevant concordance between the results across different wine competitions?”

That went over like the Hindenburg.

Dan Berger grabbed the microphone, and for a second it looked like he might jump over the table at me.

Dan Berger: That was a fraud. That paper was a fraud. He was not doing a scientific report. I told him not to publish that report. When you have different types, styles and competitions that have different styles, the end result is that you’re comparing one competition to another, and it’s like apples and oranges.

[The conversation got heated here. Berger does some yelling. And so I was not taking notes.]

Jean Reilly: If you take all of the competitions in the US, most don’t have a valid methodology like Dan’s/ There are several other competitions that do.

Me again: but doesn’t that undermine the argument that the medals handed out by these competitions are useful tools for consumers?

Andy: You have to pick and choose your competitions.

W.R. Tish: I think that kind of analysis can be applied to points, this is mostly an emblem of wines and competitions. All this stuff about methodology is over the head of most people.

At which point I shut up so that others can ask questions.


Q: My question is to the panel around how to pass the gatekeeper. How do we deal with people who care less about accolades? How do we convince them to pay attention to medals. What do you do to get them to pay attention to our wines?

Alfonso Cevola: The last thing I want to do is convince a young buyer to pay attention to what I believe in. I read blogs, The Wine Spectator, Gambero Rosso, everything I can, and then I go and talk with people. And when I talk with an account, I don’t talk about scores and medals. You say, here’s the wine, taste it, and then you have to have a relationship with people. You have to get their trust. I have a young sommelier that won’t believe ANYTHING I say. To turn this around this competition thing… If something gets a gold medal, there’s huge business to be done.

Dan Berger: As competitions we’re not out to eliminate scores. It’s an alternative. It’s a different point of view. If you want to look at another type of marketing it’s a slightly different perspective. You have homogeneous tastings. You have wine against wine where you can compare.

Q: It seems like there’s a problem on the uniformity of the competitions? What can be done about that?

Dan Berger: We can’t deal with the problem of non uniformity of judges. We tried in 1988 to get people to adopt a uniform judging system, and we tried again in 92 or 93. Finally in 1998 the LA county fair and Riverside, Long Beach, and Dallas Morning News decided they would use the same numbering system and basic structure. The problem was that LA judges by price and by barrel fomentation status, for instance. There were 800 categories of wine. This was weeks in the making. Bob Small agreed to do it. Dallas morning news didn’t use it. I finally gave up the idea.

At this point Tish made his closing remarks.

W.R. Tish: We are at a point in wine history not of over saturation, but a situation of broad complex choices, and I don’t know that medals are the answer, I don’t know that they’re not the answer. There are some mega competitions such as the San Francisco International. Moderate sized ones like Riverside. And there are micro competitions. Some with only GenX or sommelier judges. These may have come full circle back to a regional county fair model. It’s really an evolution thing. Italian wine marketers: focus on where you intend to sell your wine. In Houston and Dallas, those competitions have resonance. They are well known in that market, They are important there. We may have gone past the point where there is a national market for these medals. It’s easy to approach or pinpoint where they will have the best impact.

The whole way people exchange share and communication has changed. The medals are in the rear view mirror, but I wouldn’t rule them out. They may come back in a different form. They way they get awarded and communicated is changing.

* * *

This panel session disappointed me for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Dan Berger, and to a slightly lesser extent, Andy Blue came across as incredibly defensive right off the bat. As a result, their constant defense of their own competitions made it hard for the panel to address the topic at hand. Two of the members already had their minds made up (which was fine) and were busy trying to convince everyone else of their point of view (which was not fine).

And then there’s the fact of my own belief that competitions and their medals as a whole do a disservice to consumers by failing to be reliable guides to quality, for all the reasons that Tish rattled off as “cons” and for the rule that my own experience has taught me over the past seven years of tasting thousands of wines per year: the more medals a winery displays or brags about, the worse the wine tastes. Yes, this is what I have learned. A surefire way for me to get a really lousy mouthful of wine is to walk up to whatever table at a big public tasting is draped with medals and try something they’re offering. I’ve never found an exception to this rule, thought I keep trying to prove it wrong.

That’s not a commentary on the competitions that Dan Berger and Andy Blue run, which seem to be among the better ones on offer. It’s a commentary on how the overall competition system is failing consumers.