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The Wine Competition Niche
By Robert Whitley
Jan 28, 2015
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The wine competition occupies an historical niche in the wine industry.

At its most basic, a wine competition provides a third-party endorsement of sorts for wines that have been submitted for evaluation by neutral wine professionals. The best wines typically receive medals that they then use to validate the quality of their wines to consumers eager for a bit of guidance given the glut of options.

It was a wine competition, after all, that brought the California wine industry the kind of attention money can’t buy. The Paris tastings of 1976 pitted Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays against the finest red Bordeaux and white Burgundy wines that could be mustered at the time.

At the so-called “Judgment of Paris” the California wines, in a blind tasting using only French wine experts, the California wines prevailed. It was a stunning setback for the French, considered by most wine connoisseurs to produce the world’s finest wines.

But it was an even bigger deal for the California wine industry, which was largely defined throughout the United States by its booming sales of entry-level jug wines. The notion that California wine, specifically wines from the up-and-coming Napa Valley, could hold their own against wines thought to be the finest in the world, had not occurred to most wine consumers.

The late Robert Mondavi took the next step in the walk-up to the modern wine competition, touring the country with his signature Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon to challenge any and all wine experts, from wine critics to sommeliers, to taste his cabernet side-by-side with any wine of their choosing.

We all know how that turned out. Mondavi wines became synonymous with quality throughout the world and Mondavi himself the greatest ambassador before or since for California wine.

Today there are dozens upon dozens of wine competitions in the United States and throughout the world. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that they began to emerge as organized tastings in a way that was meaningful for consumers.

That was just about the beginning of the California wine boom, when the University of California-Davis was churning out freshly minted winemakers at an unprecedented rate and there was a dramatic lack of on-the-ground winemaking experience in America. Young winemakers looked to those early wine competitions for benchmarks against which they could measure their own success.

Consumers embraced the medal system because the introduction of fine wine into the American food culture was still relatively new. Most consumers simply didn’t know what to look for when they were inclined to step up from jug wines to premium wines.

The system has proven comfortable and reliable for wine producers and wine consumers alike over the past three decades. The judges do occasionally miss some very good wines during their evaluations, which I attribute in part to the mercurial nature of young wines. Wine is a living thing and it doesn’t proceed in a straight line from the starting point at bottling to full maturity. There are peaks and valleys and no way to predict when a young wine will be “showing” its best.

Given that, it still helps wineries and consumers to get a read on young wines prior to purchase, because each vintage is a new experience for all concerned.

Gary Eberle, the winery owner largely responsible for establishing the quality benchmarks in California’s Paso Robles region, explains: “If I enter a wine and it wins a gold medal at a credible wine competition, I make sure we promote that in our tasting room. Customers walk in the door, see ‘gold medal’ and I’m sold out of that wine in no time.”

The wine competition season launched earlier this month in California, first with the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition and a week later with the San Diego International, which marked its 32nd anniversary.

In the weeks and months ahead there will be many wine competitions to follow. The key for me is watching to see which wines establish some consistency of result over multiple competitions. Those that manage to win gold medals more often than not are the wines that impress me most. Those that have but one brief moment in the spotlight, not so much.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.