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Why Wine Competition Medals Do Matter
By Robert Whitley
Jul 13, 2010
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Wine writer Elin McCoy, best known as the wine columnist for Bloomberg News and author of a book on wine critic Robert Parker,  posted a column last week at ZesterDaily.com titled “Do Wine Medals Matter?” And I was recently interviewed by William Tisherman, a well known wine journalist from New York, on the same subject for a forthcoming article in Beverage Media, a beverage industry trade publication.

As a journalist myself, I almost feel as though my colleagues are beating me on my own story.

That’s because I run, as Director, five significant wine competitions here in the United States. This sideline began with the inaugural Monterey Wine Competition in 1994, which I helped organize from scratch with the backing of the Salinas Valley Fair in Monterey, California. Earlier this year we staged our 17th MWC.

Eight years ago I had the brilliant idea to launch a wine competition in which all of the judges would be famous, or in some cases infamous, wine journalists. I called it the Critics Challenge and it has been going strong ever since. At about the same time I was approached to take over the venerable San Diego National Wine Competition, which I promptly renamed the San Diego International. At the SDIWC we recently celebrated our 27th anniversary.

Then last year I added two more international competitions: the Sommelier Challenge (all of the judges are sommeliers) and the Winemaker Challenge (all of the judges are winemakers).
Not to overstate the obvious, you could say I do believe wine medals matter. Let me count the ways.

First, a wine competition medal is a neutral third-party endorsement. This can be a powerful tool for a winery attempting to distinguish its product from an ocean of competitors. Used properly this can be a powerful marketing tool, for competition judges taste each wine blind and are not influenced by the name on the label. It’s reassuring to consumers to know that someone other than your mother-in-law has vouched for the quality in the bottle.

Second, a winery has no guarantee its wines will be reviewed by the major wine publications. And even if a winery does manage to get its wines in front of the critics at the big pubs, there’s no guarantee the review will be kind. What’s more, quality isn’t always the issue. If a certain critic likes his wines austere and mineral driven and your wines are big, bold and juicy, you can forget about that high score. And if the critic likes his wines big, bold and juicy and yours are austere and mineral driven, you can kiss that “Best Bet” goodbye.

Third, a venture into the world of competitions lets a winery know where it stands. That may sound trite, but it is in fact a point of pride with many vintners. Gary Eberle, owner of the Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, is a case in point. He enters about 10 competitions a season and closely tracks how his wines fare. He wins his share and loses his share. But I remember chatting with him at the 2009 Paso Robles Winemaker Cookoff (a charity event where I judge the food) when he practically popped the buttons off his short as he bragged that his Barbera that year had won nine gold medals in 10 competitions.

That’s when you know you’re doing something right. Eberle is one of those who values competition medals, noting that gold-medal wines are the hot sellers at the winery tasting room. Other big-time wineries that seem to dance every competition dance include V. Sattui, Cakebread, St. Supery, Grgich Hills, Domaine Carneros and Jarvis, all from the Napa Valley.

These wineries deserve the utmost respect because they’ve already established themselves and would seem to have more to lose than gain by throwing themselves to the judges. I, for one, admire the confidence that demonstrates. They believe their wines are outstanding and the medals will flow, regardless of the competition.

After all, it was a competition – the 1976 Paris tastings staged by Steven Spurrier – that cemented California’s reputation as world-class worthy. Where would California wines be today if those Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays hadn’t smoked Bordeaux and Burgundy such a very long time ago?

None of this is to suggest wine competitions don’t have a down side. Young wines do not always behave, and sometimes show little character or charm at the moment of truth. One week they are bright and vibrant, the next week – nothing. It’s only after reaching a certain stage of maturity that a wine fully stabilizes and holds its peak over a period of time. Unfortunately, most wines are judged in their volatile youth.

And the quality of the judging varies. As a competition Director, it is my job to watch the judges closely and weed out any that I deem to be weak.

One “problem” that competition skeptics raise is the issue of palate fatigue, brought on by tasting too many wines at once. It’s up to the Director of each competition to recruit competent judges, usually wine professionals. A professional, such as a winemaker, often tastes 50 to 70 wines at a time in the course of doing the job. Winemakers walk their cellars every day with a wine thief, a glass and a notebook, making notes on up to 100 wines, without missing a beat.

In fact, a professional’s palate becomes more well-calibrated and precise as the number of wines mount. Palate fatigue is not a problem unless the number of wines presented in a day is truly excessive. In addition, most wine competitions today send out a good mix of categories to each judge to keep the mind, as well as the palate, fresh.

Finally, wine competitions are good for you, the consumer. They produce genuinely unbiased recommendations from an array of wine professionals who make it their business to know good wine.

How could anyone not see the value in that?

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Email comments to Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.