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The Other Side of the Fence on Wine Competitions

I’ve come to find Alder from Vinography and his writing very educated, grounded in classical wine appreciation, and demonstrating jurisprudence against lighter blogging wine fare, while completely eschewing the sophomoric.

Imagine Alder writing a post like I have about casting the Surreal Life with celebrities that have a wine label … built the mental image?  Me neither.  It’s too déclassé for the quality of wine knowledge that Alder imparts.  He’s at the pinnacle of wine blogging, alongside Dr. Vino, which makes his post over the weekend decrying fair wine competitions uncharacteristically sharp and bordering on incendiary.

I initially didn’t think much about the Two Buck Chuck California State Fair imbroglio when I read the post at Quaffability in which John basically said fair medals aren’t a very good indicator of wine quality.

But, my radar went off when Alder echoed the sentiment and went on to say,

“how utterly ridiculous and meaningless these awards are, and how you should never use them as part of your decision for purchasing a wine.”

Make no mistake, it’s a decently reasoned argument, if not somewhat glancing in actual fact, but, in my opinion, he loses me when he says, as his riposte to end the post that wineries should:

… stop bragging about your medals and start telling people interesting things about you and your wine, and how and why you make it. Consumers, do yourself a favor and ignore any piece of wine marketing that talks about fair medals. Though you might start noticing the very limited overlap between wines that get scores or good reviews by any wine critic (take your pick) and those that get medals. Coincidence? Well, let’s just say that you don’t see really good restaurants setting up booths at county fairs for a reason. They don’t have to.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but this post seems elitist, misguided, benignly lacking in an understanding of how the rest of the country drinks outside of the land of milk and honey in San Francisco and lacking any level of understanding of how difficult it is to create mindshare with consumers in the wine industry.

Methinks that competitions are perfectly acceptable for small wineries (and large) that don’t ever get reviewed by the wine media elite as some level of arbitration of quality. 

For a different take on wineries using their “story” see this Decanter quote from Linda Murphy’s column in the June issue.  She’s tired of the “story,” it seems, in a column highlighting Charles Krug:

Quality: the simplest way to publicise a wine

Winery takeovers and makeovers come in such a steady stream these days that I go numb from all the announcements. Winemakers change jobs as often as parents change diapers. Consultants come and go, to polish both wines and marketing campaigns. Everyone has a new brand, alternative closure, hi-tech sorting table, solar energy system, fundraising dinner, organic, biodynamic or sustainable farming scheme, and a child who has just graduated from university and returned to tout the above accomplishments as a PR manager.
But no PR ploy works as well as putting quality wine in the bottle,

For a nicely done first person narrative about being a judge in a large-scale state fair wine competition, see this three part article from Jerry Shriver from the USA Today from last summer:

Wines of Mettle Pt. I

Wines of Mettle Pt. II

Wines of Mettle Pt. III

For my money, I always follow ‘caveat emptor’ for virtually all wine because a medal or a ribbon doesn’t know my palate.  And, in addition, I certainly think this sort of attitude whereby we look down our nose at state fair competitions is incredibly misguided and definitely is a set-back in wine blogosphere thought-leadership.  As I mentioned, the post is well-reasoned, if not a touch discursive, but I’m going to urge readers to look at the total picture of tastings that are blind and perfectly honorable ventures run by hard-working, well-intentioned people.


Posted in, Around the Wine Blogosphere. Permalink | Comments (10) |


On 07/02, Saint Vini wrote:

Okay, but all that said, don’t you agree that a system that picks Charles Shaw Chardonnay as a Double Gold Medal winner is at least slightly flawed?!?  At most, horribly flawed?!?

I think that was Alder’s point….


On 07/02, el jefe wrote:

Yes, flawed - but as long as the system continues to create marketing and sales opportunities for wineries - we’ll keep feeding it…

As far as “putting quality wine in the bottle” as the most effective PR play - well sure. But you still have to make noise about it or no one will know…

On 07/02, JB wrote:

It seems a matter of who is doing the scoring…golds and double golds are the same as 90s and 91s from the big wine critics, and maybe even the big wine bloggers. So either it’s all hogwash, or it’s all relevant.

Most people need some sort of reference point when buying wine, and it is up to each individual to decide who their refernece point will be, who their trusted sources of information are, who will guide them through the sometimes confusing wine discovery process.

As for Charles Shaw getting a double gold, well, I’d like to find out who the judge was, and then I’ll stay away from that person’s recommendations. I wouldn’t trust them. And scores, medals, ranks, anything, comes down to who you trust.

On 07/02, Jo wrote:

Several things going on here.

1) Double gold means every s-i-n-g-l-e judge gave the wine a gold medal… Every single one of them…

2) I have to thank Dan Berger for bringing me (gratis) to his Riverside Wine Competition, so I could see how they work… And they work, and work, and work… Near exhaustion. So, I can’t ever think of them as Willy-Nilly again… Which I never did, anyway. (Everybody’s got his or her own palate, and is entitled to an opinion.)

3) It’s easy to not understand how important third party endorsements are, until you’re up against the wall as a sales rep, with a wine buyer who’s NOT willing to taste you wine (amongst the thousands being offer); not because s/he’s insecure about his or her palate, but just because s/he wants to know what company s/he’s keeping. When you have to jump through those hurdles, you’ll take you licks from anyone giving them away. Hurray for wine competitions… Are we really suppose to wait for Mr. Parker or Mr. Laube to bless this wine? If we do, it won’t sell on its own. (Okay, sales is the transference of enthusiasm, but I know scads of sales people who would rather be golfing.)

3) A group think, Boys and Girls, that’s what happens at a Wine Competition. Who are we to doubt what a “group think” came up with? No, I don’t represent Charles Shaw (and never have). Would you prefer that the judges fixed their scores? Would you prefer that they addressed their own credibility and integrity by fixing their results? Hum…. If so, this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

What the heck… Let the chips fall where they may. I know what works on my palate, and don’t wait around for a third party endorsement… But, there are those who do, and the check-out guy at Traders Joe’s on Sunday told me that the extra floor stack (when I asked him if her heard about the double gold) said, “Yeah, it’s flying outta here, and it’s being bought by people who’d never buy the wine!”

They’ll be the ultimate judges. The upside? Lots of bulk wine is being sold through, making better wine rise to the top. Cream always rises to the top, n’est-ce pas?

On 07/02, Jo wrote:

A Sioux once told me that every piece of work has a mistake deliberately left in it. That’s where the spirit is allowed to exit and enter the work… Never mind my mistake… ;^)

On 07/03, el jefe wrote:

I added a couple comments to the vinography post, attempting clarity…

On 07/03, Jo wrote:

Well done… One man’s double gold (Riverside International Wine Competition)is another man’s 98 points (California State Fair). ;^)

Good point, also, about “There is no relative ranking here, like a top 50. It’s a points judgment, just like your own 10 point scale, and just as subjective.”

Bottom line for me? Moving that much bulk wine through the system has perhaps made better bulk wine become available. What was once at the lower end of the spectrum may have become exhausted, and perhaps… just perhaps… TBC now has a higher flavor profile? It could happen…

On 07/03, Alder wrote:

Yes, consumers want a reference point for purchasing wines, but of the data available in the marketplace, these medals are some of the most unreliable.

I understand that my rant may seem to be criticizing what some may see as a “valuable tool” for smaller wineries to “get noticed” but I am choosing to play the role of the critic, and to say that there are better ways for those wineries to spend their time, energy, and money than fairground competition for their wines.  This is not elitist, it is just critical advice.

Having said that, baked into my (yes, correctly assessed as more vitriolic than usual) rant against state fair medals is this underlying experiential truth:  most of the wines that I have ever tried that come with state and county fair medals around their necks haven’t lived up to the promise of that gold or silver shining thing.

Which is why I suggest that consumers pay them no heed, and that wineries turn their attention elsewhere, perhaps, as some have suggested, simply to making better wine.

With regards to Franzia’s success, that was merely the springboard for my comments. I have a ton of respect for the guy, if only because he’s turned thousands of people into regular wine drinkers that may not have been predisposed to be.

On 07/03, winebroad wrote:

Great points, Jo. I went to TJ’s the day after the Charles Shaw results were announced and there wasn’t a single bottle left of the Two-Buck Chuck Chard. I tried again at a store in another city and found only a few lonely bottles left (meanwhile, all the other non-medal-winning “flavors” of TBC were still available by the case). The public clearly values medals and scores, like it or not. Some wine competitions are run better than others, but from what I’ve heard, the State Fair contest is one of the good ones. In deciding whether or not the results of the Chard. competition have merit, it’s a good idea to look at the other wines Charles Shaw was up against, and how those wines scored. But that info hasn’t been released yet.

On 07/03, Jeff wrote:


Thanks for the comments.  It’s a good debate.  As a reasoned person, I can see both sides.  Alder’s point isn’t lost on me.  But, I guess I’m still in the camp that says that medals and these competitions are a tool, amongst many tools, to determine if a wine gets my buck.  Let’s face it, with so many SKU’s available, anything that helps differentiate one seemingly decent label at $15 against another at $15 is always a good thing.

Thanks for the spirited dialogue and thanks to Alder for commenting here!



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