Wine competition -- Two words that can draw both praise and criticism. Praise for competitions was common once, but today, the need for and value of wine competitions is drawing mounting criticism.
In recent weeks, there has been chatter in the blogosphere about the need for wine competitions, so I thought I would add my personal comments and observations. I started judging at organized wine competitions in 1978 and have since served as a wine judge at competitions in California, Texas, New York, Washington, Belgium, Italy, Chile, Australia and China.
What follows then are my personal observations, based on my experience as a judge, of the state and value of wine competitions to both the wine consumer and wine trade.
Wine Competitions: Then and Now
The history of wine competitions is hard to pin down. Some records show that the concept originated in Europe. Europeans vintners, however, did not see the need to pit one wine against another in an organized contest, and only started holding wine competitions after noticing the popularity of them in California and Australia.
|A flight of wines waiting to be tasted|
There are two exceptions that happened not far from each other. Billing itself as the "oldest international wine competition in the world," the Ljubljana International Wine Competition was first held in 1926 in Ljubljana, Slovenia; not exactly a major wine hub, then or now. The LIWC's reputation suffered when it was rumored that all entered wines won a medal. The best I can tell, the last LIWC was in 2018.
Banco di Assagio dei Vini d'Italia, founded by the Lungarotti wine family in Torgiano, Italy, opened in 1981, with Italian judges. Later, Banco di Assagio brought in international judges. I judged there for a few years and remember it being a good look for a writer at a lot of Italian wines in one place. Since Italian sommeliers and members of the Italian wine trade made up the bulk of the judges, there was the feeling among international judges (never verified) that the Italians were swaying voting in favor of certain Italian wines.
Wine competitions in the United States likely started long ago with the California State Fair wine competition in 1854, in Sacramento. The competition stopped for a few years but was resurrected as the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition (LACFWC), under the late Nathan Chroman, an LA attorney who also wrote about wine for the Los Angeles Times. The state fair organization restarted its wine competition and is now one of the largest in California. CHECK THIS
The popularity of California wine encouraged the organization of two other wine competitions, including one sponsored by the San Jose Mercury News and a select competition in Orange County. LACFWC operated as a standard wine competition judged by qualified judges from the wine industry, sommeliers, consumers and wine writers. Orange County used only wine makers and wine industry members as judges, while the Mercury News competition judged the same wines twice, once by "professional" judges and then by consumers.
At about the same time, a string of U.S. competitions were held, or started up, including San Francisco International, Northwest Enological Society Wine Competition (Seattle), Eastern Wine Competition (New York), San Diego Wine Competition and competitions that looked only at rose wines, were judged only by women, only by sommeliers and more.
In recent years, many new wine competitions popped up, most aiming to be different from the original reason for having a competition -- to "improve the breed," by looking at a group of like wines in a controlled "blind" setting.
Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?
Critics of wine competitions say that they are simply money makers, ways to make money from wine and to bring attention to the person or entity that runs the competition. Some U.S. competitions are owned and run by individuals, usually not directly connected to the wine industry.
Other competitions are properties of a government entity such as the Los Angeles County Fair or the State of California. The latest addition is the famous Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada has announced it is adding a wine competition to the events, to promote Canadian agribusiness.
That's the nuts and bolts of wine competitions. And that doesn't answer the question: Do wine competitions really improve the breed? That is, do winemakers look at the results of wine competitions and how well their Chardonnay did against hundreds of other Chardonnays, then have their own comparative tasting to see why the judges gave a gold medal to a competitor's Chardonnay while giving a bronze medal to their own Chardonnay? Probably not.
Successful marketing means successful sales. Being able to boast that your wine won an award often trumps the results of a practical tasting in the winery. Winemakers are fierce individuals who often work in isolation toward a personal idea of how a wine should taste.
|Quiet! Judge at work|
It is important to remember that a wine competition is a single test at one point in time, judged by a select group of people under unique circumstances, thus the same wine entered in different competitions, as is often done, will likely get different results.
Knowing such things as judge qualifications, their relationship with the wine industry and the percentage of wines awarded medals versus the number of wines entered, are all indications of how well the competition is organized and run. The awards from some competitions I observed in recent months in print and online, do not list the judges names, but simply show the top winners.
It's also helpful to know that some wine competitions are metal mills and do not take pains in recruiting qualified judges, while others are selective about judges and conduct the competition as a true consensus judging.
Still, if the competition is careful with its rules and procedures (as the Calgary Stampede claims its competition will), then wine competitions will continue to have value to both the wine industry and the wine consumer.
Next blog: California Wine Adventures 3
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