Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Needed: Transparency In Wine Competitions

If you must, read every last word in Alder Yarrow's exhaustive report of a panel discussion at last week's Vino2011 in New York City. Believe me, however, the best parts are up high and down low. Panelists were asked whether wine competitions still matter. "Yes" and "no" seemed to be the answer. But rather than broad conclusion, I was intrigued by a few specific comments in Alder's report.

Early on, for one, panelist Anthony Dias Blue said his San Francisco International Wine Competition sells "more than half a million stickers to wineries every year." What! Is he saying that wineries that already pay an entry fee and provide his judging with presumably free wine also must buy and apply the bottle stickers that alert consumers that this or that wine won a medal? What's next, an additional levy on wineries to mention their winning wines in any press release the competition sends out?
Yarrow didn't report whether the audience let out a collective gasp when Blue boasted of this apparently lucrative revenue stream. In fact, it generated no followup debate, though Dan Berger, another competition director on the panel, said his Riverside International Wine Competition not only doesn't charge for stickers, it follows up its judging with several promotional efforts on behalf of winning wines at no additional charge to wineries. "We haven't made a nickel," Berger is quoted as saying of his involvement in directing the Riverside competition. (Footnote: Dan, consider hiring Anthony Dias Blue as your manager.)

Blue's and Berger's remarks raise a question not tackled by the panel: Just where does the money go in wine competitions? Yes, wine competitions are costly to execute. Even if judges aren't paid an honorarium, they do have to be transported, lodged and fed. The assembling and pouring of wines, the tracking of results, the washing of glasses and so on is expensive. But volunteers do much of that work at just about every wine competition. Wineries customarily pay around $50 per wine to enter a judging, for which they also might ship half a dozen bottles per entry. Where's all that money and all that wine go? Several competitions are set up with noble intents in mind, from funding scholarships to underwriting legal aid for the impoverished. Just how much money do those worthwhile programs and services realize?

Is it important to know this? Only if you think wine competitions are important. The answers go to their credibility. Are they set up to do the wine trade any good, consumers any good, a worthwhile service or program any good, or just to enrich the people who run them? Most competitions, I'm convinced, are set up to be philanthropic, but some seem intent on generating profits for their own good. As both a frequent judge and as a wine consumer, I'd like to see wine competitions be more transparent about their business model. If they were, perhaps those competitions that aim to be benevolent could be tweaked to be even more effective. Last fall, I asked officials of the California State Fair for a breakdown on income and expenses affiliated with the exposition's commercial wine competition. I was told it could be provided. I'm still waiting, but I also appreciate how slowly things develop in Sacramento.

But I digress. Back to Alder's report. Near the end, panel moderator W. R. Tish seems to suggest that wine competitions start thinking smaller rather than larger, that maybe the old "regional county-fair model" might be worth emulating. He could be on to something. By organizing wine competitions according to a shared terroir, such as the El Dorado, Calaveras, Amador and Humboldt county-fair competitions, wines would be judged within a common and potentially more meaningful frame of reference. The regional county-fair model also would almost certainly reduce the number of wines judges are expected to evaluate, enhancing the reliability of the results. Some wine-competition directors seem to get downright depressed if their entries don't increase from one year to the next. At the Vino2011 panel, Blue crowed that his competition was the largest last year with 4,000 entires. (But not this year; the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition had 5,050 entries, so we are told.) Is bigger better? Put it this way: Which is likely to be more reliable, the judge who evaluates 30 to 50 wines a day or the judge who evaluates 100 to 150?

And finally, Alder's report concludes with this mightily curious comment of his own, based on his experiences not at wine competitions but at open tastings: "The more medals a winery displays or brags about, the worse the wine tastes. Yes, this is what I have learned. A surefire way for me to get a really lousy mouthful of wine is to walk up to whatever table at a big public tasting is draped with medals and try something they're offering. I've never found an exception to this rule, though I keep trying to prove it wrong."

I have mixed feelings of my own about wine competitions, but over the years I've become convinced that if a wine wins gold or silver medals at a series of judgings over a year, it's passed the test of consistency. That wine has been tasted by a wide range of palates in an array of formats and been found exceptional. Given that authority, it's a wine virtually guaranteed to delight a wide spectrum of people for several aesthetic reasons, except, apparently, Alder Yarrow.

But maybe he's pulling our chain. Maybe he's saying that the blind-tasting method of wine competitions is really the only fair way to evaluate wines. Just as you don't want to judge critically a wine whose identity you know, why would you want to be influenced either positively or negatively by knowing that it's won a bunch of medals and ribbons?

I do see an opportunity here, however, for another wine competition. We'll name it after Alder Yarrow. We'll roll out mostly but not exclusively wines that have won gold medals over the past year or two. We'll include some wines he's given 90 or 95 points or more. To keep down costs, we'll have just one judge, Alder Yarrow. Per the usual methodology, he won't know the identity of any of the wines, or how many medals they may or may not have won, or how many points he's given them.  Wineries can be assured that the results would be widely disseminated. I'm still working out a few of the details, including the entry fee. In the meantime, have your checkbooks ready.


  1. Mike,

    The entry fee will be $100,000. If we can find one winery stupid enough to enter, then we're set!

    On a more serious note, I'm quite certain about the quality of wine being inverse to the number of medals displayed on a table at a big public tasting. I'm NOT saying that if a wine won a gold medal at some competition it's bad, but I am saying that wines which win a lot of medals and use them as their primary marketing vehicle are generally awful.

    Have you seen how many wines Barefoot Wines have won lately?


  2. The irony here is that the only wineries with pockets deep enough to pop for that kind of brilliant entry fee are the very wineries that accumulate so many of those medals you disdain. Be careful what you wish for. Giant corporate wineries can afford to enter virtually every competition. They win a lot of medals in part because their wines generally are technically flawless and have just enough varietal character to warrant at least a bronze. On top of that, competitions tend to give far too many medals, which explains why a couple of them are encouraging judges to cut down on the percentage of bronze medals they award. In time, perhaps that thinking will be extended to include similar restraints on gold and silver medals. That said, just because a winery wins a lot of medals and tries to capitalize on them doesn't mean that somewhere in all that dross isn't a wine genuinely worthy of its gold or silver.

  3. live by awards, die by awards

  4. Mike: Good article. I too have tried to get info from the State Fair on where the Grapes and Gourmet money goes. In 2009 it raised all of $3500 from 60K in ticket sales. We don't pour at the event, although we do still enter (over my objections) despite the lack of transparency.