How Far Will Wineries Go In Their Thirst For a Gold Medal?

By Tom Wark

It’s the rare winery tasting room that doesn’t display the medals it has been awarded at the many wine “competitions” across the country. And why wouldn’t they? They are proud of them. Plus, the medals help sell wine, particularly to tasting room visitors.

Yet the world of wine competitions can be somewhat Byzantine, arbitrary, and often raises more questions than it answers.

First things first. While it’s very easy to mock the judges at wine competitions with the old, “Oh, such a tough job” comment, well, it really is a tough job. Over what is usually a two-day period, the judges taste and evaluate hundreds of wines. You want to give each wine in front of you its due, but that requires a great deal of mental and palate concentration. And after tasting 40 or 50 Cabernets and Merlots in a row — many of which are tannic and oakier than you prefer — your palate tends to wander.

Maintaining my concentration has been the most difficult part of judging at competitions. Because of this, it has always been easier for me to focus on the white wines simply because I have to put less effort into managing the palate fatigue.

Fredric Koeppel is a long-time wine writer who has judged at a number of competitions. His most recent entry at Koeppel on Wine offers not only an insider’s view of what it’s like to sit in front of hundreds of wines and offer judgment but also explores ways to make the wine competition fairer and more enjoyable.

If you look closely at the results of different wine competitions, you quickly notice that it’s often the lower-priced, simpler wines that seem to get an inordinate number of silver and gold medals. Some have claimed this damages the credibility of wine competitions. But Koeppel has what I think is a thoroughly reasonable explanation for why this happens:

“Tasting dozens of tightly structured, deeply tannic, oak-laden merlots, cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels in quick succession leaves the mouth feeling as though coal-miners and lumberjacks have been tromping across the tongue. I think thats why fairly simple, forward and flavorful red wines tend to get noticed and pull in a remarkable number of gold medals; the tasters can actually taste them.”

Marketers of wine enter their wines into these competitions not out of curiosity about their wines’ relative quality. They do so in order to sell more wines. Gold Medals and “Best of Class” awards can reward wineries with significantly increased sales not only of the award-winning wine but of their other wines as well.

Does this mean that some wineries send off “special bottles” to wine competitions that differ in character than the identically labeled wine that is actually on the store shelf? I’ve never heard of this occurring at wine competitions, though it is something that many believe happens when it comes to sending wines to individual reviewers or wine publications.

That said, I found it very interesting that England’s largest wine competition — the International Wine Challenge — recently announced it would be testing twice yearly the trophy-winning wines from the competition. The IWC will apparently purchase the trophy-winning wines off the shelf and test them to make sure they are the same wines that were entered into the competition and given awards.

This new procedure suggests that there have been past claims of wineries submitting “better bottlings” to the competitions.

So should you look at awards and medals hanging in tasting rooms and touted in grocery stores as having little meaning? No. They do mean something. They indicate that on a particular day, with a particular group of tasters, the wine in question rose to the top. What you really want to look for are individual wines that consistently win gold and silver medals at a number of contests.

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