Why I am Dubious of Wine Competitions: Medals for Everybody

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Anthony Dias Blue, executive director and founder of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, and editor-in-chief of The Tasting Panel Magazine

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL WINE COMPETITION TASTING – DOUBLE GOLD WINNERS – 25 Lusk Street, San Francisco, California (9/26/2011)

I am intensely dubious about wine competitions. They are very common–it seems like almost every county fair in this country, and lots of newspapers, like the San Francisco Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, sponsor one. They do seem to be very important in Australia, where judges receive some training for them and I gather they have higher generally accepted standards for them than there are elsewhere. Almost universally, however, the wines that most of us in the fine wine world acknowledge as truly great never enter such competitions. Such wines are already well known, the wineries that produce them already experience more demand for those wines than they can satisfy, and such producers certainly don’t need to risk coming in second to some unknown producer in a blindtasting at the Fresno County Fair. That leaves a lot of unknown wines that are looking for any kind of recognition, or producers that feel the need for regular validation in the form of a bronze or silver medal at some local fair, as the usual participants for these kinds of things. Yes, the Judgment of Paris had a resounding impact back in 1976, because even some French experts ranked some well selected California wines ahead of French wines in that blindtasting, giving a great boost to the reputation of California wines. That competition, however, was an anomaly that happened to get widely reported, which is also a major fluke for a wine competition. I challenge you to name a single other wine competition that has had any significant or lasting impact on the world of wine.

Besides having to submit several bottles of their wine, producers are usually required to pay a fee of some kind. So you have to be pretty desparate for this kind of recognition to go through the application process and pay somebody to judge you. And what’s in it for those that sponsor these competitions? They get some free wines to make an event out of, and some fees to help with event expenses. From my perspective–and I’ve tasted through just about everything at the L.A. County Fair wine competition in years past, which is a very large competition with entrants from around the country, and the Sonoma County Fair wine competition, both with predictably largely dismal results–such competitions are usually much ado about nothing. One or two wines that no one has heard of before may get a little favorable attention as a result, but the vast majority of wines entered are dreck that few of us want to be drinking. Nonetheless, a great many ribbons, medals and/or prizes are handed out, because we live in a world, in America at any rate these days, where every child (or vinous “child,” in the case of wine producers) is “special,” so all deserve some kind of damn prize. At RJon Wine.com, however, we try to keep it real. That’s why I have to speak the truth that those who feel the need to enter their wine in some kind of competition are either very needy for validation of some kind, or are having such a hard time selling product that they’re willing to pay a fee so they can be at least guaranteed of garnering a “bronze medal” somewhere, that they will then tout in whatever marketing materials they’re starting to put together. (For an egregious example, see my piece on Brassfield Winery here, and take a look at the extensive list of their medal winnings on their website. As I mentioned in my piece on Brassfield, the winery’s website claimed until recently that, “In its short history, under [former winemaker] Kevin [Robinson]’s direction, Brassfield Estate Winery has won more than 500 awards at the nation’s most prestigious wine competitions.”)

That brings us to the San Francisco International Wine Competition. This event claims to be “the largest and most respected international competition in the United States.” The 31st annual competition was held over three days this year, from June 17-19, at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. According to the event’s press release, four dozen wine experts judged wines in blindtastings in various categories. A total of 4,184 wines from over 1,200 wineries, representing 20 states and 29 countries, were entered by producers for consideration this year. The Tasting Panel Magazine published the gold and double gold winners in its August issue. Double gold winners, of which there were 153, resulted when all the judges on a panel agreed that a gold medal was warranted. In addition, there were 290 gold medals awarded, 1,102 silver medals, and 1,549 bronze. There were also 22 different “best of varietal” awards, 18 wineries recognized with “best of nation” awards, and five “best in show” prizes. Finally, there were three special awards: Constellation Wines U.S.was recognized with “Portfolio of the Year,” winemaker Bob Iantosca of Gloria Ferrer was awarded the André Tchelistcheff “Winemaker of the Year” award, and the “Winery of the Year” title went to Hogue Cellars.

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I recently attended the San Francisco edition of a multiple-city tour of the double gold winners of both the International Wine Competition and the World Spirits Competition. Actually, it didn’t really include all 153 double gold winners–there were only a measly 26 wines from the International Wine Competition on hand. I gather that part of the inducement to producers to submit their wines to the competition is the promise that the ultimate winners will receive exposure in both Tasting Panel Magazine and on this road tour. Nonetheless, producers of only 26 of the wines apparently felt it in their interest to submit additional bottles (and more fees?) for the purpose of this multi-city tour. I would also have liked to taste some of the winners of the World Spirits Competition that were poured at this event, but because it was my first of three major tastings on the same day, I sampled only a few of the more exotic spirits entries. I was afraid that tasting through all of the spirits winners would have destroyed my palate for the Loire and Champagne tastings that were yet to come on the day’s agenda.

So was there anything of merit out of all the more than 4,000 entries that dwindled down to 26 wines for tasting at this event? Not much, as you might expect, but a few items of note. There were three very good New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs featured in this tasting, the best of which was the 2010 Saint Clair Estate Selection, which I rated 92+ points. The better values, though, were the 2010 Stoneleigh, which I rated 92 points that sells for about $13, and the 2010 Huia, that I thought merited 91+ points and is selling for $13 to $15. Another excellent value was an unusual sparkling Torrontés–the 2011 Raza Torrontés Dolce. This was a clean and refreshing sparkler with some sweetness and good acidity, that would pair very well with fruit salad or berries, and make a lovely, inexpensive addition to a relaxing Sunday brunch. It sells for only about $10.

One of the more bizarre groups of “double gold” winners was the trio of box wines, which received a lot of comment from the assembled media and trade reps at this tasting because they’d all been poured into stylish and expensive decanters for the tasting. How many of us drink box wines, let alone serve them in Riedel decanters? One of these wasn’t all that bad–the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc version of the Target Wine Cube, that I rated an acceptable 85 points. One of them, however, I thought was quite dreadful–tasting spoofilated and acidified. How did a panel of wine experts all manage to rate that mess a double gold? I have no clue.

The best of the reds at this tasting, wines that I rated at least 91 points, were the 2009 Martin Ranch Malbec Thérèse Vineyards Dos Ninas Vineyards (91+ points); the 2008 Cakebread Cellars Merlot (91 points); a 2005 Bethany Shiraz GR10 Reserve (91+ points); and the 2007 Long Shadows Feather (91+ points). The WOTD for me at this tasting was one of the few spirits I couldn’t resist–the complex, flavorful and refined 1981 Château de Laubade Bas Armagnac (95+ points).

For the complete list of wines poured and my tasting notes, see below.

Sparkling

  • N.V. Perrier-Jouët Champagne Blason Rosé – France, Champagne
    Light orange pink color with small to medium bubbles; tart strawberry, light chalk nose; very tart cranberry, tart red fruit, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • 2011 Raza Argentina Torrontés Dolce – Argentina, La Rioja, Famatina Valley
    Very light yellow color with tiny bubbles; fresh, lifted, green apple, peach nose; tasty, demi sec, tart green apple, green melon palate with acidity; medium-plus finish (great value at $10, would be ideal with fruit salad or berries) (90 pts.)
  • N.V. Cook’s Spumante – USA, California
    Light yellow color with lots of small bubbles; floral, jasmine, honeysuckle, ripe apple nose; sweet, creamy textured, ripe apple, honeysuckle, ripe peach palate with low acidity; medium finish (86 pts.)

Sauvignon Blancs

  • 2010 Huia Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Light yellow color; very smoky, tart gooseberry nose; intense, smoky, tart gooseberry palate with near medium acidity; medium finish 91+ points (good value at $13 to $15) (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Estate Selection – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Light lemon yellow color; ripe gooseberry, tart kiwi fruit nose; intense, tart gooseberry, grapefruit, mineral, tart citrus palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (very good for the style) (92 pts.)
  • 2010 Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Very light yellow color; appealing, tart grapefruit, light smoke nose; tasty, rounded, tart grapefruit, tart citrus, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (great value at about $13) (92 pts.)

Box Wines

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Assorted Whites

  • 2009 Weingut Türk Grüner Veltliner – Austria, Niederösterreich, Kremstal
    Light lemon yellow color; tart pear, citrus nose; simple, tart pear, tart citrus palate with medium acidity; medium finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
  • 2009 Wyndham Estate Chardonnay Bin 222 – Australia, New South Wales, South East
    Light lemon yellow color; lemon cream, pineapple nose; tasty, tart pineapple, lemon palate, good for the style; medium finish 88+ points (good value at about $10) (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Fritz Winery Chardonnay – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Light lemon yellow color; cream, vanilla, lemon chiffon nose; lush, tart lemon, creamy, light vanilla, tart pear palate with good acidity; medium finish 90+ points (very good value for under $20) (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Long Shadows Wineries Riesling Poet’s Leap Late Harvest Botrytis – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley
    Light yellow color; appealing, tart peach, nectarine nose; lush, tasty, silky textured, tart peach, apricot palate with some acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)

Pinot Noir

  • 2009 Jenner Vineyards Pinot Noir – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
    Medium ruby color with pale meniscus; intense, ripe cherry, raspberry nose; tasty, tart raspberry, tart cherry, strawberry palate with good acidity; medium finish 90+ points 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Scheid Vineyards Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Monterey County
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; nice, complex, tart cherry, sous bois, tea nose; tart cherry, sous bois, smoke palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

Assorted Reds

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  • 2009 Hearst Ranch Winery Tempranillo Chileano – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Dark ruby color; spicy, maraschino cherry, cherry syrup nose; plush, ripe cherry, baked cherry, cinnamon palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Martin Ranch Winery Malbec Thérèse Vineyards Dos Ninas Vineyards – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Clara Valley
    Very dark ruby color; wild berry, baked raspberry, violet nose; tasty, tight, tart berry, violet palate with near medium acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Cakebread Cellars Merlot – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Dark ruby color; plum, baked plum, lightly herbaceous nose; tight, tart plum, cassis palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (91% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 The Winery SF Grenache Flower Power North Coast – USA, California, North Coast
    Medium ruby color with pale meniscus; candied red fruit, cinnamon, veiled smoke nose; narrow, tart red candy, ripe cranberry, cinnamon palate; medium finish (82 pts.)
  • N.V. Austin Hope Winery Troublemaker Blend 2 – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Very dark ruby color; roasted plum, charcoal, creosote nose; creosote, smoke, tart black fruit palate; medium finish 85+ points (73% Syrah, 12% Grenache, 8% Petit Sirah, 7% Mourvedre) (85 pts.)

Shiraz/Syrah

  • 2005 Bethany Shiraz GR10 Reserve – Australia, South Australia, Barossa
    Medium dark red violet color; baked plum, baked berry, American oak nose; tight, tart cassis, tart berry palate with good acidity; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Zonte’s Footstep Shiraz Lake Doctor – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, Langhorne Creek
    Very dark ruby color; dried currant, baked berry, spice nose; porty, tart cherry palate; medium finish (83 pts.)
  • 2008 Henson Wines Syrah Michaud Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Chalone
    Opaque purple red violet color; roasted plum, poached pear nose; odd, tart black fruit, tart pear palate; medium finish (84 pts.)

Cabernet and Cab Blends

Fortified Wines

  • 1998 Justino Henriques Madeira Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium brown color with amber meniscus; intense, praline, caramel nose; creamy textured, tart caramel, salt water taffy, lemon coffee palate; medium-plus finish (85 pts.)
  • 1976 Manoel D. Pocas Junior Porto Colheita – Portugal, Douro, Porto
    Light medium orange color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; focused, tart orange, blood orange, raspberry cream nose; silky textured, tart raspberry, blood orange palate with good acidity; long finish (90 pts.)

Spirits

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  • N.V. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin – Netherlands, Schiedam
    Clear; intense, juniper, floral, lemon oil nose; tasty, juniper, floral, lemon oil, lime palate; long finish (91 pts.)
  • N.V. Kai Young Coconut Shochu – Vietnam, Lam Dong
    Clear; intense, coconut flakes nose; rich, sweet, coconut flake palate; medium-plus finish (85 pts.)
  • N.V. Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu – Vietnam, Lam Dong
    Clear; intense, ginger, lemon grass nose; soft, sweet, almond, ginger, lemon grass palate; medium-plus finish (84 pts.)
  • 1981 Château de Laubade Bas Armagnac Vintage – France, Southwest France, Gascony, Bas Armagnac
    Medium gold color; refined, tart baked apples, baked pear nose; delicious, flavorful, intense, refined, pear, baked apple palate; long finish 95+ points (95 pts.)
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3 Responses to Why I am Dubious of Wine Competitions: Medals for Everybody

  1. Raza Dolce says:

    Thanks for the kind words RJ!

  2. Jason Phelps says:

    Unless you take a look at the methodology of the judging of a given competition, do they use the UC Davis 20 point scale or some other accepted competition format?, you might be comparing apples to oranges. Many competitions use a standardized format and certified wine judges who have experience with the process of judging wines. Others use a mix of certified judges and knowledgeable wine tasters, special guests, etc. The use of some type of objective scoring and structure to the judging will produce the most realistic results. From such competitions the outcome is based on wines that score well enough in the categories to be awarded medals. That may include a lot of wines, and maybe too many, because the awards are not as much about impressions of typical consumers as a mechanical assessment of the facets of the wine.

    As an amateur winemaker I use competitions as a means to get feedback. In 2011 some of my best competition results where non-medals where the judging notes helped me understand what to tweak in the next vintage to improve the impressions of the wines. I do of course like winning medals, 34 in total from the last four years, and I can clearly say that the difference between some of mine that have won gold versus wines that haven’t been awarded anything is noticeable. I only enter competitions with published methodologies and experienced wine judges so I can be reasonably assured that someone will spend the time to evaluate my wines and give me qualified feedback.

    Jason

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Jason,
      It’s really not the methodology for judging at these competitions that I was questioning. I’m sure at most of the major competitions, the methodology is pretty good. It’s the quality of wines that generally submit themselves for judging at these things that I really questioned in my post. If one is up against a field of largely mediocre wines, what’s the meaning of a medal? I submit there are other, more practical ways to get useful input from good tasters on your wines. For example, there are regular blindtasting groups, like ours in Palo Alto, to which guest winemakers often come and taste us on their current lineup. Some of them, like Adam Lee, meet with us once or twice a year. It doesn’t cost him anything but the samples he’s providing (and his time), and he gets immediate feedback from a lot of knowledgeable consumers (a group that often includes other winemakers). We also get the benefit of hearing about his winemaking decisions and how he dealt with challenges from particular vineyards or weather conditions.

      warm regards,
      Richard

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