Friday, August 27, 2010

More Thoughts on Wine Competitions

The folks at the New York Cork Report had a recent posting about their position on wine competitions the other day.  It's been a long time since I've read something from someone in our industry that has fired me up so much in a good way.  Here's the link to the article.  Please read it now before going on.....

My takeaway from this is that they have opened their eyes and had the guts to put out publicly what most of us--meaning me and maybe a couple others--have been thinking and saying for years! 

Full disclosure: Allegro does not enter medal competitions.  We do enter the local Pennsylvania Wine Society Tasting since a lot of the members are our customers.  Other than that, no other competitions. 

Before me, John and Tim Crouch (founders of Allegro) did enter competitions for a while, but even they soured on them, recognizing them for being thinly-veiled games of chance.

The main point of the article that got me was when they pointed out the Emperor's new clothes: that there should be transparency and clarity in the wine business.  And, it seems, hardly anyone knows what medals are worth.  Or do they?  I know who knows.....the wine competitions.  They are worth entry fees to keep the competitions in business.  But for the consumer or the media there is no transparency nor clarity on what these competitions actually accomplish.

As someone who has judged thousands of wine, I can't begin to tell you how subjective a process it it.  Do I even like the wine?  Is it flawed?  Is it winemaking or grape-growing that made it this way?  It is my style?  Did I just have chocolate for dessert?  Did I brush my teeth?  Are my allergies bothering me?  Did I drink too much last night?  Do I need to impress the judge across from me?  Is he a pompous ass?  Am I a pompous ass for thinking this?  All these questions play into it.

(As an aside, I think wine critics are of a different ilk, but that's for a different post.)

Bottom-line, wineries like competitions because it's easy to get medals and medals sell wine because no one truly knows what a medal is worth.  It's a fake outside endorsement.  Thanks, New York Cork Report, for calling it like it is.

Lastly, for those of you who don't get it, I'll be starting my own wine competition soon.  Feel free to send me 3 bottles of your wine along with a $50 entry fee.  Tell me the price of your commercially-available wine, and I will send you correspondingly-colored medals.  $0 to $10 gets no medal, $11 to $15 gets bronze, $16 to $20 gets silver, and $21 and up gets gold. 

In other words let the market determine the quality.  It's the core value that our country was founded on.


  1. Carl,
    I couldn't agree more! I can't quite see it from the same view as you however, I'm a home wine maker and I have friends who enter medal contests left and right. My view has always been, I don't really care as long as I like the taste! I've tasted on the Uncork trail, Farm Show, etc etc etc and I can probably rattle off a load of different wines that have won "gold" medals that don't appeal to my pallet... Eh... Good mid-morning read!

  2. Carl,

    I think the NYCR may be onto something worth discussing, but their post was lame, in my opinion. So, their logic is: if the consumer doesn’t know the exact “meaning” of the medal, competition is worthless? What is the meaning of anything? I don’t know, so everything should end? LOL.

    I think everyone knows the meaning of a medal: It means someone, or some group, deemed something better than the competition. We know it’s not scientific. Few things are, including the practice of science.

    Get me started on “man-made global warming”. You know, where those “scientists” who know that Earth is 4.5 billion years old--to the day--use thirty years of inaccurate temperature recordings to determine that Ford Motor Company caused the glaciers to melt 2 million years ago. Ah, science! Is there a trend of warmer temps lately? Quite possibly. Can “science” determine the cause? Laughable. Who shot JFK? Nobody knows. What is the cause of an e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y short trend in temps (30 divided by 4.5 billion 0.00000000001% of Earth’s life) for an inconceivably complex planet in a sea of infinity, which nobody can comprehend? Oh, science has that one buttoned up. The cause and end result, with a dooms day date stamp have been determined with precision. I’m all for treating Mother Earth better, but spare me the fear mongering, science. Does anyone remember the Global Cooling scare of the 1970s?

    I may have digressed. What does that mean to me for wine medals in general? It means, the wine might be worth trying—ideally without having to buy a bottle. Sure, there are other factors. If I’m out scouting big red, a medal on an ice wine may not be enough to sway me to try it. But, if a winery has a wide array of reds, and the hired hand doing the pouring doesn’t know much, the medal on the ‘07 Sangiovese might sway me. What else do I have go by?

    There are so many wines—even at a single winery—that consumers need help in deciding which ones to even try, let alone buy. A medal can be another piece of information. Sure, I want help from winery staff in guiding my tasting, but, of course, they are either biased (winemaker), or just a hired hand willing to pour wine for modest pay. Therefore, a medal indicates that some other group’s bias still found it to be a wine worth trying for me. :]

    Are winemakers exempt from all of the medal-judging tasters’ rules and dilemmas? Don’t you constantly judge your wines throughout the winemaking process? Do you communicate the meaning of your judging to your customers? “To make the best wine”, right? (Before it’s even “done”, no less.) Well, judges are trying to “find the best wine”, right? :] Do you have a juicy steak with each of your hundreds of in-the-making Cabernet Sauvignon winemaker samplings, for proper context? If so, was it an award winning steak? :] Do you offer that steak in your tasting room? No? Then why offer a taste? It’s pointless, right?

    Car shows, sports, dog shows, beauty pageants, wine judgings--what’s the difference? Awards are subjective, and we all know that, but they still have value. I’d rather discuss the overvaluing than to jump on the this-is-pointless wagon.

    I like the transparency idea, but most people would not care. Who’s going to read 9 pages of judging rules that are attached to each medal in a tasting room? Not even weird old me. :] …But the info should be available.

    I’m not for or against wine competition, but when there are so very many wines out there, it’s a natural way to help decide—not determine— which to try, right?

    , Lee

  3. Rich,

    Thanks for the good comments. I have also tried wines which I questioned why they even got medals. In fact, at a prominent wine industry dinner, they once served gold medal wines of which one was highly flawed and close to undrinkable.

    The beauty of our free-market system will ultimately determine if a winery makes good wine or not. It may take 100 years, but in the eyes of the Europeans, that's not long in terms of winemaking....

  4. Lee,

    Great post, man. Although I am not sure if you are for or against competitions (not that you have to be either one.....) I think you hit the crux of the issue in the second paragraph: "Everyone knows the meaning of a medal." I am not so sure they do.

    It's like the ads on TV that say "Going out of business....everything must go!" And then two months later the same business runs the same ad. There's no doubt in my mind that most people think they know what a medal means. They think it means that a wine was judged by experts to be "good." And I have tasted many "medal" wines in my time that were flawed. Not just "not to my taste", but had more hydrogen sulfide (toxic at enormously high levels) and volatile acidity (for which there are government regulations limiting it) than I care to think about.

    There is no science to these tastings, even though I think a lot of people think there could be. At least it's not good science. I think if you asked any self-respecting scientist about human-induced climate-change, they would tell you that they don't know for certain. Hell, they'll tell you the same thing about Darwinian evolution! But what they will tell you is that there is good evidence that climate-change could be affected by us humans. (My folks are scientists, and they tell me that the scientific community is pretty much in agreement on the *possibility* of human-induced climate-change and Darwinian evolution. It's just the media and, hence, general population that it hasn't quite reached.)

    We'll never know for certain, and that's what good science is about. We never know anything about truth in the world through science. Truth has little to do with the material world. Truth is only for us humans. What good science has allowed us to do is to run with certain assumptions that let our lives be better.

    That aside, I still hold firm that competitions are not good for our industry, and not much good for people as well. (I much prefer one person tasting and judging a wine. At least you know the person and their biases.)

    Here's Robert Hodgson, economist, in a recent paper:"However a recent article in Wine Business Monthly (Thach, 2008) conducted as a joint effort by 10 global
    universities with specialties in wine business and marketing found that consumers are not
    particularly motivated by medals when purchasing wine in retail stores. Perhaps consumers are beginning to realize, as discussed below, that winning gold medals may be more a matter of chance than a predictor of quality." He wrote a very good paper showing "scientifically" that competition judges were inconsistent. (

    We're basically talking about the matter of public opinion when it comes to competitions and how it relates to people's perception of their (correct or incorrect scientific) validity.

    All in all, I basically don't like paying someone to say wrong things about my wine. So I don't play the game. That's about as transparent and clear as I can be. Hopefully you like my wine enough for me to keep making it.


  5. Carl,

    I appreciate your time and your thoughts. I was not trying to bring science into wine judging; it just happened. The funny thing is, I think there is a great analogy. Both have serious problems, likely all stemming from the involvement of fallible creatures. :]

    I think both science and wine judging are taken too seriously, are too readily accepted, and lack sufficient transparency. You seem to be giving science a fee pass, but hold wine judging to a sufficient standard. I love wine, but I can live with the shortcomings of its judging if the other choice is to abandon it a la NYCR. The way science is being abused and contorted to advance agendas these days, we need a revolution. Oh how I wish the mass media were part of the solution instead of the problem.

    “…The scientific community is pretty much in agreement on the *possibility* of human-induced climate-change”? How about the 32,000+ scientists who dissent? Somehow that has not made the news. They are all cooks, right. :]

    You're lucky your wines taste so good, or I'd stop buying until the "meaning of this wine" label appeared on each bottle. ;]

    , Lee

  6. Lee,

    Sounds like we may be on different sides of the climate issue and perhaps the wine-judging issue as well.

    There is one area where wine judging and science have another commonality, and that is who pays for them. Most science is paid for by industry somewhere. And that in and of itself is a conflict of interest that is sometimes too much for us fallible creatures to bear. If the person wants to pay for research to prove something, a lot of times it gets proved.

    Wine competitions are paid for by wineries, and we want medals, and they give out medals. If none of the wines deserved medals, would a wine competition hand out any? Yes. Case in point, a lot of the medal winning wines from the 2003 vintage here on the east coast.

    I really appreciate the dialogue here. Maybe sometime it should be over a gold-medal winning bottle of wine.....or maybe not....


  7. If I fell for global warming, I'd ignore the 32,000+ dissenting scientists, too! :]

    Doesn't industry pay for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g? Government doesn't produce any widgets; it's paid for by industry, too. I'll take a refund on that one, please.

    Yes, over wine, but not award-winning--that would preclude your wine since you don't pay up. ;]

    Isn't everything tainted with money? PBS, wine judgings, politics, sports, and even wine making? Do you make each and every wine you offer out of passion for that wine? Or, do you make some because they sell? It costs money to hold a wine judging. Who should pay for it? If nobody, it does not take place; if somebody, it's tainted by money. We're back to the NYCR philosophy of imperfection as an excuse to selectively bail, aren't we?

    I hope your next post is "Thoughts on how to have the perfect wine judging".

    , Lee


By posting on here, you are guaranteeing that what you say here is worthwhile and worth saying. And something that you would say in the presence of your mother. If not, I will be forced to remove it.