Thursday, November 2, 2023

Reflections of a Former Wine Judge (My California Wine Adventures 7)


Had you asked me, five or six years ago, if there was a future for wine competitions, my answer would have been that it doesn't look good. Criticism has been on and off about the value of wine competitions and the expertise of those people selected to judge the wines. 

In its original form, the idea of staging a competition where wines of like type are  pitted against each other in a controlled setting, by carefully vetted judges, would "improve the breed," was idealistic.  Also in question was rewarding winemakers who submitted a wine as an excellent example of its type, or informing a winery  that their wine didn't measure up, might help make wine better. 

The object of wine competitions is to bring together a group of people, with different backgrounds, knowledge of wine and tasting expertise, to decide if a wine merits a medal.  Wine competitions make money for the owners, but otherwise,  I suspect they are of questionable value.

So, the question is, do wine competitions still make sense, or are they an outdated exercise that pretends to suggest wine quality to both the wine industry and the wine consumer?

Becoming a Wine Judge

I first learned about the supposed major aim of wine competitions at the 1978 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition, then the largest and most important wine event of its kind in California. 

My career as a wine writer was just taking off and the invitation to join a panel of such known California wine experts and judges as Belle and Barney Rhodes, Narsai David, Bob Thompson, Darrell Corti, Steve Mirassou and Dimitri Tchelistcheff, was not to be missed.

Tasting hundreds of wines sounds like a sweet assignment, but I can honestly say that in time it became hard work.  As entries surged from hundreds to thousands, it became clear that it took a lot of ordinary wine to fill the classes.  

For the price of an entry fee and a few bottles of wine, a winery owner could put his or her wine(s) up against other wines of like type in hopes of winning a coveted gold metal, or maybe silver or bronze.  

The reality of that gambit is if you don't win a gold medal (or even silver), your lesser medal is mostly lost on the wine consumer. The hard reality is no one remembers (or cares) about a wine that won a bronze medal.  

That's cynical, I know. And a bronze medal winner might counter: "At least my Chardonnay won a medal in a class of 400 entries."  True that. But, beyond the personal satisfaction that your wine won recognition, if a bronze (or even silver) medal doesn't help sell more Chardonnay, then was it worth the entry fee and wine?


After a few years at the judging table, my personal opinion about the value of the L.A. wine competition won out over my desire to be there. But I continued to judge at various wine competitions throughout the country and the world, most notably in Washington state and D.C., New York, Texas, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, China and Italy. 

Finally,  politics, a lack of professionalism and the absence of high-end wines,  ended my time as a wine judge. Wineries that sell all of their wine have no economic reason to enter a wine competition. And, why would a winemaker risk getting a bronze or no medal for a top-selling wine the critics and wine consumers love?

Competition Faux Pas

Every wine judge I have known has had issues with fellow judges (probably, including me) or objected to the administration of one competition or another.  These are but a few of the odd things that irked me during my years as a judge. 

* At a European competition, the organizers arranged for each panel to have a majority of local judges, resulting in more higher medals for the wines of the host country.

* At a California competition, the director assigned a noted, and perplexed French sommelier to a panel judging flavored wines and unfamiliar, to him, varietal wines.

* At a U.S. competition, the organizer, hoping to stage a wine competition with a different focus, required the judges identify and describe wines by detectable terroir, when it was clear that any terroir was masked by wine making. 

* At various Australian competitions, judges were tasked with tasting and evaluating as many as 80 young highly  tannic red wines and to be as accurate with their assessments of the eightieth wine as the first. 

* At a California competition, a judge from the restaurant wine trade refused to award a gold medal to any wine assigned to the panel, claiming no wine ever reached that quality level.

Closing Thoughts

If you've read this far, you're probably asking if I had developed such a negative opinion of wine competitions, why did I hang in there for so long?  Fair question.  

As a wine writer, I have worked for years to increase my knowledge of all wine and to improve my ability as a wine taster and judge. I believe in "improving the breed," and hold out hope that wine competitions will accomplish that goal.  Finally, I enjoyed the fraternal opportunity, provided by wine competitions, to gather with fellow judges, to taste and discuss wine. 


It has been more than five years since my participation in a wine competition and it looks like my earlier prediction that wine competitions were becoming irrelevant has apparently not proven out.  If anything, the number of wine competitions has increased.  Which leaves me puzzled and asking, why?

Next blog: The Other Red Cabernet

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