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How Wine Competitions Shaped California Wine
By Robert Whitley
Apr 23, 2008
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Over the 15 years that I've been running major U.S. wine competitions, I've often wondered why they do it. Enter wine competitions, that is. It's a rhetorical question. They do it because competition is good. How? Let me count the ways.

Robert Mondavi, the only real marketing genius in the history of U.S. wine, probably started the first domestic wine competition. The competition was Robert Mondavi Winery versus the world, waged shortly after the then-youthful Mondavi had opened his new winery in Oakville, California, in the 1960s.

You've no doubt heard this story many times. Robert would visit an influential critic, or sommelier, or wine merchant in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C., and take them to a fine restaurant. He would then summon the wine list and ask his target to choose a wine, any wine, from the list.

Out would come the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, and the two wines would be tasted side by side. All the better if the competing wine came from a famous Bordeaux Chateau and cost a bundle. Sometimes the Mondavi Cabernet got the nod, sometimes it didn't. Winning wasn't as important as demonstrating that California wines belonged in such exalted company.

California wines at that time were deemed inferior to their French competitors. Nowhere was that more evident than in the fine wine shops and four-star restaurants of the big cities of the U.S. The French section was always accorded more space and attention than the California section.

Imagine everyone's surprise, then, when California Cabernets and Chardonnays bested the elite reds of Bordeaux and whites of Burgundy at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. This, in fact, was the wine competition that put California wine on the map.

Thanks in no small part to the Judgment of Paris, the influence of French wine in the United States went into decline and was soon eclipsed by the dynamism of the California wine industry. Today you will find considerably more retail space dedicated to the wines of California, Oregon and Washington than the wines of France.

The U.S. wine industry owes a tremendous debt to the concept of wine competitions, and for a number of years after the Judgment of Paris the giants of California wine such as Mondavi, Beaulieu and Beringer were faithful to their roots and loyal to the wine competitions that sprang up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, et al.

I even remember a year when the Joseph Phelps Insignia, which I consider the finest red wine produced in America, swept the Best of Show at the Monterey Wine Competition. And another when one panel of judges came across a stunning Merlot and decided to keep their glasses so they could use this superb example of big-time Merlot as their benchmark for all the other Merlot to follow.

It so happens that the wine they had singled out was the Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot, which is easily one of the three or four best Merlots produced in the U.S. The judges were tasting 'blind' of course and didn't know what they had in the glass. They only knew it was one great bottle of red wine.

Not all of the good that comes from wine competitions is about the successes. Often times it has been the failures that have had the greatest impact.

Entering wine competitions became a way for winemakers to measure their progress. If they consistently won medals, they could feel confident about their direction. If they consistently came up empty, they knew they still had much work to do.

One common phrase when I first started judging wines at commercial wine competitions was 'not in my mouth.' These were wines that were so obviously flawed that no competent judge had to taste them to know they were awful. Usually if a wine smells really bad, it tastes really bad.

That doesn't happen so much any more, and I give a share of the credit to the well-run wine competitions of the U.S. that recruit expert judges. You simply can't get a bad wine past these folks. The result has been a tremendous effort to clean up bad winemaking.

Though incompetent winemaking hasn't gone away entirely, it is now the exception rather than the rule. Winemaking has improved to the extent that event large commercial wineries that produce in massive volume can control quality and make wines that are clean and delicious - and that win medals galore.

I continue to believe in the relevance of wine competitions, despite the fact that sometimes deserving wines slip past the judges without a nod. That has more to do with the nature of wine than anything else.

Any winemaker will tell you that the tasting notes on a single barrel of wine vary from week to week and month to month. Even with quality wines, there is no straight line in the evolution of a wine from the time of bottling until it reaches its peak. It's all hills and valleys, and a young wine has to hit it just right when it's sitting in front of a panel of judges.

I tip my hat to the great wineries that continue to enter wine competitions even though they've long ago established their cred. In the 2008 San Diego International that would include Cakebread, Grgich, Joseph Drouhin, Quinta do Vesuvio and Henriot.

They realize, much as the young Robert Mondavi did, that it's important to stay in the game. It keeps everyone on their toes, and no one benefits more from the improvement of the breed than the wine industry itself.


Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.