Tuesday, April 12, 2011

California State Fair Gets The Brush-Off

I just received an invitation to judge at the California State Fair Home Wine Competition in June. I checked the calendar, and found that I have the date open. I'll do it, but not without pause.

The invitation came from G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, who has been in charge of the judging for six years.

The pause came via a posting by W. Blake Gray on his wine blog "The Gray Market Report." Blake also was invited to judge, but he turned down the opportunity and explained why in a commentary under the provocative headline "California State Fair exploits wine judges." Basically, Blake complains that in contrast to most wine competitions the State Fair - we're talking here only of the State Fair's home winemaking competition, not the State Fair's commercial wine competition - doesn't reimburse judges for their transportation costs or provide lodging at the end of what generally is a long and trying day. (Actually, by my experience most competitions don't provide lodging once the last award is determined.) What's more, the State Fair Home Wine Competition expects of its judges more work than customarily is asked. In addition to deciding whether each wine is worthy of an award, judges are asked to write a helpful and readable analysis of each wine. This information is intended to guide home winemakers toward being even more adept at their craft. (Many already are as talented as commercial winemakers. Years ago, I sat on a panel at the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition. This was when white-zinfandel sales were booming, and several interpretations were entered. A couple of them were darn good. Afterwards, however, a few of us were recruited to judge the homemade wines. Hands down, we concurred that the best white zinfandel of the day was in the home-wine competition.) What's more, the judges get rated on the quality of their feedback, in hopes that they, too, will become more adept at their craft. You have to love that symmetry.

At any rate, Blake likens Pooch to a latter-day Tom Sawyer, inveigleing the innocent to pay to whitewash his fence. Blake doesn't think this is much of a deal. As an alternative, he suggests that home winemakers be asked to add another $1 or so to their entry fees ($12 to $18 per wine) to help pay judges for at least their gasoline, which today is no small issue.

Stung by Blake's remarks, Pooch dispatched an email to the California State Fair Wine Advisory Committee (of which I am a member).  Therein, he explained his dilemma: He strives to keep entry fees low to encourage home winemakers to enter the competition, even though that means that he can't afford to provide judges with anything more than "coffee, juice and rolls" when they arrive and an "elegant box lunch" during the mid-day break.

Here is his key point: Judges participate as a way to give back to the state's wine trade; they volunteer their time and share whatever expertise they can provide to help home winemakers become better at squeezing and fermenting grape juice. The competition does expect a lot of judges, but they know that going in, and, frankly, I think most of them appreciate being appreciated for their experience and their generosity. What's more, it's refreshing to judge a wine competition where nothing commercial is at stake. Sure, it would be nice to have at least travel costs reimbursed (the competition is in Lodi), but for most judges the distance there and back doesn't represent a substantial investment. I'm there because I like the feeling of maybe giving a little something to a culture that has provided me with so much, and because I have a weakness for breakfast rolls and coffee. But I also look upon the home winemaking competition as an opportunity to learn. During the judging, members of the competition's technical advisory committee circulate about the room, dashing from panel to panel to discuss with judges the peculiarities of this wine or that. This committee knows its stuff - Dr. Richard Peterson, Darrell Corti, Scott Harvey and Ed Moody, among others - so for me it's an opportunity to be exposed to a college-level tutorial without paying tuition. Call me exploited.

But Blake does bring up a point that is gnawing more and more at me: Where does the money raised by wine-competition entry fees go? No wine-competition director I know looks to be getting rich off running these judgings. Nonetheless, I'd like to see an accounting, especially for those competitions ostensibly set up to benefit this or that worthy service, program or institution. I like to think we are living in an era of spreading transparency, but so far no wine competition has stepped up to open its books. Maybe the California State Fair will be the first.


  1. In reading the post by Mr. Blake yesterday, it seems to me that consideration needs to be taken into account for the cost involved of putting on a judging competition.

    Rental of the venue, glasses, tables, forms, and the other necessary expenses associated with any competition. Then, of course, there is the cost of liability insurance for the event.

    I have always been extremely happy with the judging from the California State Fair when I entered as an amateur winemaker and then as a commercial winery.

    The judging sheets that were provided back to me were most helpful and encouraging.

    There are a lot of people who would find it a priviledge to serve as a judge, with or without recompense for doing so.

  2. I too would like to see better accounting for fees with the State Fair. However, my problem is more with the commercial competition. The commercial competition has a free venue and volunteer staff and no one has ever said what happens to the extra award winning wines. I know the volunteers can pick from the also rans, but I would like to know whose cellar the medal winners end up in. And don't even get me started on how little money the Grapes and Gourmet tasting raises for the State Fair Scholarship Fund.

  3. As a judge for both the commercial and home competitions, it is not an issue for me wondering where the money goes, although I can understand that for other folks, this is something to investigate. I do the home comp for much the same reasons that Mike D elucidates above. Also, I make wine at home and it just helps to see how well others do in their basements and garages. Sure, I'd like to get repaid for gas and lodging, but noone is making me do it. It's good experience to judge wines in any venue and you can network and make new friends. Learning from masters like Harvey, Moody, and Peterson is an added bonus. At the end of the daay, I'm being asked to use my palette to judge wines. Most times, you get paid, sometimes not, that's the way it goes. Sometimes it is the intangibles you need to focus on.

    1. but tell me how do you feel!!!!!

  4. Mike, I'm confused by a couple of paragraphs in your post. As a member of the California State Fair Wine Advisory Committee, how is it that you have no idea where the money raised by the entry fees goes? Don't you guys have a treasurer or something?

  5. The Wine Advisory Committee is just that, a group that advises but doesn't run the State Fair's wine events. From the meetings I've attended, no detailed accounting of the income and outgo for staging the commercial wine competition ever has been provided, though the State Fair, being a state institution, no doubt has a roomful of accountants punching numbers somewhere in Sacramento. At last year's meeting, I asked for the budget and was told it would be forthcoming. I'm still waiting.

  6. Wine judging is so inconsistant... I don't enter my wines... in one competition I'll get golds and in another I'll receive different marks.. it all rest on the judging and his/hers preferred taste! this is BS in it's finest forms.. I personally know some bay area judges who do it "for the free wine" all you Blow-hards don't know shit! my wines sell just fine without your stupid comments or awards.. and you want to be paid.. HAHAHA and WTF.. home winemakers.. do they really need to be reconized since they are not selling their product.. after all that's what this is really all about... selling wine! keep your inconsistant judging... there are many commercial winemakers who don't need your high and mighty accolades

  7. I have always looked at the home winemaking judging as a way to give back. I have benefited over the last four decades by selling grapes to home winemakers, them purchasing my wines and becoming shareholders in my company. They are a great group and deserve this well run competition that provides good feed back.

  8. The California State Fair operates under the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Division of Fairs and Expositions. Links to budgets and etc. may be found here: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Fairs_&_Expositions/

  9. Thank you, Tony. I have scanned that website, and other than a lot of nice photos and directions for the standardized signs that fairs are to use to remind visitors to wash their hands after touching an animal, I find little about budgets, and no detailed accounting. However, it also does provide contact information for people who should be familiar with the State Fair's accounting practices, so we'll see if that produces anything of value.

  10. Scott: I had been wondering what exactly the email meant by "give back," as the home winemaking community doesn't really have a special (ie, "giving") relationship with people who write about wine, or with people who ordinarily judge commercial wine. Thanks for explaining.

    I have donated hundreds of hours of my time to the Vintners Hall of Fame. That's my way of giving back to the larger world of wine. But I do fairly often get a nice lunch at the CIA, and it even comes on a plate.

  11. I'm a home winemaker, and I value the time & effort put in by the judges. I can appreciate the constructive criticizm, but there are so many venues for education, I think that I can do fine without the "extra" feedback from the judges. But perhaps that's not the sticking point; I'd gladly pay an extra dollar per wine to offset the judges travel expenses.