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An Argument That Doesn't Hold Water
By Robert Whitley
Sep 8, 2009
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A recent report in the Los Angeles Times has once again raised the issue of how the public should assess the results of wine competitions. The article, written by Jerry Hirsch, is based on a study by retired Cal State Humboldt professor Robert Hodgson that was published in the Journal of Wine Economics.

Hodgson, who owns a small winery in northern California, embarked upon the study after noticing the inconsistency in awards as his own wines competed across the state. Fair enough. Hodgson’s professional background would seem to indicate he is well schooled in statistics, so I will accept his analysis of the numbers at face value. He looked at more than 2000 wines that had been entered in more than three competitions.

“Of the wines that entered five competitions and got at least one gold, about 75 percent also received no award in at least one of the remaining competitions,” Hodgson told the Times. “How can you explain this huge discrepancy? Either the wineries are sending non-uniform samples to competitions or the judges are simply unreliable instruments for assessing quality. What is the consumer to think?”

Well, that quote certainly got my attention, for I am a consumer advocate. My job, distilled to its essence, is to use my soapbox to spread the word when I’ve come across a wine I truly adore. Occasionally I will go on about wines that struck an off note just so you know I don’t fall for every bit of swill that splashes into my glass.

I’m also a denizen of the wine competition world. I run five of them, and in my spare time I often judge at other wine competitions around the globe. I believe in them. Yet I have no quibble with Hodgson’s analysis. It is his conclusion that bears scrutiny. Allow me to explain.

First, a true story. A few years ago a winery entered a sauvignon blanc in the Monterey Wine Competition, which is staged in late winter and is one of the numerous competitions I oversee. The wine received no award, a result that surprised me based on the track record of previous vintages.

I tasted the wine myself. It was thin and watery, lacking any identifiable fruit, and utterly bereft of personality. I concluded the panel of judges was on the money when it turned thumbs down on this particular wine.

A few weeks later the same wine was entered in the San Diego International Wine Competition, another of my children. There it medaled. I believe it was a gold, but the larger point is that a different panel of judges found the wine to its liking. Again I was curious and tasted the wine.

It had changed. The nose exhibited an abundance of fruit, and the palate was fresh and alive. The wine now had plenty of zing and it was easy to understand the judging panel’s decision. Once again the judges nailed it.

Now I was really curious when the same wine showed up at the Critics Challenge a couple of months later. In this competition all of the judges are renowned wine journalists with vast tasting experience across a broad spectrum of styles. I wondered what would happen. It was pure platinum, the highest award given at the Critics Challenge, and it very nearly won the vote for Best of Show white wine.

Yet again I tasted it. Yet again the wine was different. It had found another gear, becoming weightier, fleshier, and all with a seductive backnote of minerality that I always find attractive in a sauvignon.

How can this be, you might ask? Fair question. The answer is quite simple, and I am fairly certain the notorious Hodgson knows it better than I, for he owns a winery and should be an expert witness on the subject by now.

A bottle of wine is a living thing. It isn’t Pepsi Cola or Sprite, chemical beverages that are made by recipe and meant to taste the same no matter when they are consumed.

Wine evolves from the time the grapes are pressed and the alcoholic fermentation begins. It changes in the tank; it changes in the barrel. It certainly changes in the bottle. Ask any winemaker and he or she will tell you their tasting notes are anything but consistent as they assess a wine’s progress prior to bottling.

Winemakers decide to bottle only after they determine a wine is ready. If wine didn’t change, what in the world would they be waiting for? What’s more, the evolution doesn’t end at the bottling line. There is a point at which every wine reaches its peak. The path to that pinnacle of pleasure is anything but a straight line.

There isn’t a winemaker alive who hasn’t bottled a wine and then tasted it a couple of months later only to wonder what the hell went wrong. Most of the time that’s a temporary condition and the wine – if it is well made and from quality grapes – will come around with time.

Sometimes that’s a matter of years, sometimes a matter of months and often only a matter of weeks. And that’s my point. At the early stages of a wine’s life, it is the wines more often than the judges that are inconsistent.

Savvy vintners know this. Professor Hodgson should know this. It is precisely the reason so many wine companies enter multiple wine competitions. Winemakers have no way to predict how their wines will behave – perform if you will – from week to week. So to some extent it is a crapshoot.

Smart vintners know a quality wine will eventually emerge under close scrutiny, and that it will eventually impress someone. They also know that sometimes even a quality wine fails to shine.

They enter these competitions because they realize they can’t always count on the popular wine publications to taste and evaluate their wines, let alone bestow a rating that will drive sales.

Gary Eberle of Paso Robles actually prefers medals to ratings. His wines consistently do well on the wine competition circuit, and Eberle knows from experience that a gold medal will cause a run on a wine at his jam-packed tasting room on Highway 46 in Paso.

V. Sattui, a Napa Valley winery that only sells its wines at its Highway 29 tasting room in St. Helena, posts its big competition wins on a billboard in front of the winery. The winners fly off the shelf.

None of this is to imply that competition judges don’t sometimes blow it. I constantly assess those who judge at the competitions I manage, and replace judges I observe making lousy decisions.

Any competent wine competition director would do the same. After all, we are only as good as the wines we recommend. And you, ultimately, are the best judge of that.