Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Needed: A Reevaluation Of Wine Competitions

It's much too pretty a day in Sonoma County to stay inside, but inside I am as a judge at the 2011 West Coast Wine Competition. Despite the allure of balmy temperatures and largely sunny skies, I'm actually enjoying myself in a cubicle inside the old hillside retreat called Villa Chanticleer, once allegedly mob-linked but nowadays the stylish setting for weddings and other fashionable soirees, at least when wine judges don't gather on the site.

The three-person panel on which I sit has gone through 39 chardonnays priced more than $20 (we gave seven gold medals), 13 sangioveses (no gold medals, which pretty much sums up the struggles that this noble Italian grape faces in California), 10 barberas (half the class got no medal whatever, perhaps further testimony to the challenge faced by Italian grape varieties in California, though perhaps none of the entries was from the Sierra foothills, where barbera is showing so much promise), 27 pinot noirs priced $10 to $20 (wow, what a delightful class), and 46 cabernet sauvignons priced $10 to $20 (another really strong class, showing why cabernet sauvignon is California's most highly regarded and most consistently rewarding wine).

We reconvene Thursday morning to decide the competition's sweepstakes winners, to be drawn from the best-of-class nominees. Because the judging is blind, we have no idea of the identity of the entries.

At this point, it's fun to pause and mull over what has been experienced so far and what the results might mean. Chardonnay, for example, is a varietal I don't often drink. When I want a white wine, it's usually going to be a riesling, sauvignon blanc or blend based on grape varieties cultivated historically in France's Rhone Valley. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed our class of chardonnays. In contrast to my past experience, they were fresher, fruitier, crisper and more lively, with their oak influence managed more astutely than customarily has been the case.

Throughout this competition, as well as during last week's Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, my consideration of the entries would be disrupted occasionally by intruding thoughts about the status and value of such judgings. This is a topic I will explore in more depth at a later time, but for right now I'm starting to question their relevance for today's wine enthusiasts. For years, organizers of wine competitions have measured their success in large part by the increase in entries from one edition to the next. This year, however, the total number of entries at virtually every competition is down. The unsettled state of the economy has something to do with that, I'm sure. But I also sense that more wineries are questioning the value that competitions provide both themselves and the audience they hope to reach.

At the end of a competition, I like to drift into the "back room," the staging area where wines are organized, opened and poured. Until the end of a competition, this area is strictly off limits to judges. Nowadays, as I walk down aisle after aisle of bottles after a competition, I'm seeing more brands from corporate wineries with the deep pockets to enter judgings and fewer wines from small independent producers. If this is a trend, I don't like to see it, since I consider a principel benefit of competitions the exposure it gives a start-up winery that wins a gold medal or other high award.

I'm also developing a hunch that the more influential wine competitions of the near future won't be the largest and most embracing judgings, but the ones that focus on region. The day of the wine competition that tries to attract wines from throughout the world, or from throughout the United States, or from some other massive area, may be drawing to a close. The world of wine is just too large and too diverse for wine competitions to attempt to be all things to all people. The smaller the competition, such as the Central Coast Wine Competition or the Amador County Fair Wine Competition, ultimately may pack more influence because they are regionally based and because judges won't be expected to weigh the merits of so many wines representing so many grape varieties and styles.

While I need to give more thought to this matter, it's still a beautiful day in Sonoma County, and I'm going out for a walk,


  1. Mike;

    I couldn't agree with you more on regional competitions (disclosure: I run the Amador County Fair Commercial Wine Competition). A focus on the Sierra Foothill AVA provides a smaller venue where boutique wineries can really standout. I also think that regional emphasis contributes in some small way towards planting varietals in the proper locale.... Barbera and the Sierra Foothills being a case in point.

    Dick Minnis

  2. In the age of Yelp, Chowhound, Trip Advisor, and other populist rating sites, plus social media like Facedbook, I hope the competitions with small panels of "experts" (=people who don't have to purchase their wines) evaluating a parade of wines will die out. We are in an era of crowdsourcing, which makes the Lodi and Lake County People's Choice competitions the most appropriate.

  3. Regional competitions have an advantage over "cattle call" competitions when 100% of the wines accepted for judging consist entirely of grapes grown within the appurtenant region. Some of the county fair competitions used to tow that mark, and the restriction regarding local grapes was justified by explaining that all of the agricultural products judged at the fair (produce, livestock, flowers, etc.) have to be grown/raised within the county. Rather than viewing such a restriction as exclusionary, the wine industry ought to view locally focused competitions as a celebration of terroir and local agriculture.