Before this weekend I must confess to being a bit skeptical about the judging process at wine competitions and the value of their results. Science is on my side too (Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 3, Issue 2, Fall 2008, Pages 105–113). This study found only about 10% of judges were able to replicate their scores, that is, if they judged a wine as a bronze award, later they might judge it as a silver or no award.
One of the hallmarks in the scientific method is reliability of findings, in other words can we be confident of our results, and in wine judging that would amount to being able to reproduce similar judging scores on different days or on different flights of wines on the same day. My reference study suggests fairly convincingly that competitions might be unreliable.
So, if the results are unreliable and the judges are unable to replicate their own findings why would a winery submit a wine to a competition?
My firsthand account of a large, multi-state wine competition suggests there is great value in submitting a wine to a well-organized and run wine competition. Of course the “value” comes with an important caveat – what do you, the vintner/winery, expect or desire from the experience?
Create a Buzz. Some wineries may submit wine(s) in an effort to increase their medal count as a means to convey to the public the value of their wines. Award winning wineries proudly and deservingly display their awards and trophies to an adoring public. The public, in turn, frequently defers to the judgment of experts when determining a wine pick.
PR Value. Great wines get attention! Wine competitions provide an opportunity to get a second or third opinion on the quality of our wines. High award winning wines (silver and gold awards, in particular) are very good wines. Having the gravitas of skilled wine panelists whose expertise aligns with a winery’s desire for recognition is a public relations opportunity waiting to happen. When properly managed wine competition awards can get a winery a tremendous amount of free-media exposure.
Disconnect? It’s rumored that wine judges prefer big, bold, dry traditionally made red wines so their opinions and expertise are disconnected to the reality of our tasting rooms and regular folks. While personal tasting preferences may lean in this direction it is also true that good wine is good wine and well-trained judges easily distinguish the difference between good and not so good wine.
Opportunity Knocks! The best wines were well-balanced wines. Midwestern grapes are typically high in acidity, much like German Rieslings, and as a consequence many these competition wines were better suited with some residual sugar. And the best ones, over and again, possessed varying degrees of sweetness. Best varietals were consistently identified, stylistic patterns developed, and if I were making wine I would take a hard look at what the judges loved and what our consumers love and notice this one thing – they are very similar.
After tasting hundreds of wines, as an observer during this competition, my perspective about wine competitions were significantly altered. Having a highly skilled panel of experts tasting my wine, even if the result wasn’t what I had hoped for can be informative. Winery’s whose entries did not earn a medal could simply dismiss the findings as evidence of poor judging. To me that would be missing a BIG opportunity. If my wines didn’t earn a medal in a competition where I thought it was medal-worthy, then I’d reevaluate my wines and ask for advice and critique from other winemakers.
A region/state can learn a lot from a competition, such as what grape varietals/cultivars are winning. Like I mentioned, good wine is good wine, and many of the new hybrids are making excellent wine; although, many of us may need to adjust to the reality and limitations of these grapes. Just like winemakers in Germany aren’t making Cabernet Sauvignon but instead concentrate on grapes that grow well and make the best possible wines, in a style that enhances their varietal character, so too should we (the Midwest) focus on making wines from our best vines in a suitable style.
My experience at the competition completely shifted my perspective and now my appreciation for the judging process is radically improved. We frequently turn to science to lend strength to our point of view and in our empirical world-view wine judging does not live up to this high standard; however, despite this fact, I am encouraged by the professionalism of the expert panel and how closely their results likely mirror consumer preferences.