Tag Archives: Wine competitions

Naked and Foolish

Photo By Randy OHC - originally posted to Flickr as After the Tasting, CC BY 2.0It’s been a busy couple weeks for travel so I missed the latest brew-ha on the Wine Twitterati over online UK wine retailer Naked Wines with their ad campaign on the “5 golden rules to choosing a good bottle of wine”.

The original post has since been made private but Oliver Styles at WineSearcher.com and Joe Roberts at 1WineDude have good write-ups with details about the post and the fall-out.

The brunt of the dust-up was over the insinuation that trusting “real customer reviews” (like those of CellarTracker, Vivino and, of course, featured on Naked Wines) is better than relying on medals awarded by wine competition or those of professional wine critics who “…need to seem useful, or they’ll be out of a job! So they invent trends and get paid to push you toward certain wines.”.

I’ve made my feelings about wine competitions known in my post Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?.  I think Styles and Roberts more than ably dispel the notions that wine critics “create trends” to seem useful. Frankly, that idea is ludicrous.

Some of the biggest trends in wine today are the use of virtual/augmented reality labels like those pioneered by Treasury Wine Estates for their 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead and Beringer wines as well as can packaging for wine, bourbon barrel ageing and wine-hybrid infusions like Apothic Brew. None of these are trends that professional wine critics would touch with a 10 foot poll–much less invent and “push”.

However, I do want to talk about the trusting “real customer reviews” part.  Is this is really a great idea?

Maybe? Because “wine people” aren’t normal.

I say that with the upmost affection as a self-proclaimed “wine geek” but it’s true. We’re not normal. Around 95%+ of wine drinkers just want to open up something tasty to drink or have with dinner. Yet, we “wine folks” obsess over the minutiae of minerality, typicity and terroir. We seek stories when regular wine drinkers just seek satisfaction. We desire depth and complexity when the average consumer wants value and consistency.

Photo by Petrovsky. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Some of us even taste with puppets. (Austrian performer Karin Schäfer)

We’re two different beasts. Considering that professional wine critics and writers literally surround themselves with wine for a living, it’s almost like we’re living on two different planets when you listen to “wine people” versus “wine drinkers” talk about wine.

Then you add in the inherent air of snobbery that permeates throughout the wine industry. It’s not hard to see how “regular people” can be incline to ignore the critics in-favor of the opinions of regular Joes and Janes like themselves.

I can sympathize with this view and touched on the value (or lack of value) of expert opinions in wine in my post Jamie Goode is a tool so I’m not really going to get into a debate here about “Real People” vs “Real Experts”.

Instead, I’m just going to lay naked my skepticism and cynicism about “crowd-base reviews” because of how easy it is for wineries and mega-corps to game and manipulate them–and, in general, how useless ratings tend to be.

Have Internet, Will Troll

There are litany of online resources and stories about how businesses can game Yelp’s review system to improve their ratings and rankings.

The most common method is creating “fake reviews” which Yelp, being a multi-billion dollar company, dedicates millions of dollars in labor and technology resources to combat. But it still happens. Oh and never mind the potential ethical quandary with advertisers.

And it’s not just Yelp, but virtually every user-based review platform is susceptible to people playing games like TripAdvisor for restaurants and hotels or any online poll ever created.

Now ask yourself, do you think wine user-based review platforms like CellarTracker or Vivino have even a fraction of Yelp or TripAdvisor’s resources to combat gaming, rating manipulation or fake reviews?

Of course, they’re going to try their best but the Internet will always be better. Any winery or mega-corporation with a little time/marketing budget/interns/desire can draft a plan to create enough accounts and reviews to drive the narrative they want told.

It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either

Confession time–I regularly use CellarTracker. I don’t post reviews there but I’ll read the reviews of friends I know and sometimes use their feedback to make purchasing decisions. I’ll also use it gauge drinking windows of wines that I already own since the likelihood of a fake winery review saying “Yeah, you better wait 2-3 years before opening this up. It was super tight”–is pretty low.

I downloaded and played with Vivino a few times (and still have the app on my phone) but the amount of eye-rollingly bad 3.5-4.0 rated wines has dismayed me of its usefulness. I do agree with The Wine Daily though that most of the wines with very low ratings (like 2.5 or less) tend to bear out.

But I’ve had tons of truly stellar wines in that “no-man’s land” rating of 2.6 to 3.4. Yet these wines are often overlooked because 3.5 is the “new 90 points”. This is one of the many reasons why I personally eschew the use of numerical ratings and instead evaluate wines on value.

And then there are 29,000+ people with different tastes in wine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way (that I know of) on apps like Vivino to personalize ratings and filter out people who give high scores to wines you don’t enjoy.

Even when we let the masses of “regular wine drinkers” indulge in their inner Robert Parkers, we still end up with the same pratfalls that we get with professional critics. Good wine still gets overlooked if it doesn’t achieve some magical number.

That’s not democracy, that’s duplicity.

Moral of the Story — Trust yourself

The only fail-safe method of buying wine is to accept that there isn’t a fail-safe. A highly rated wine (regardless of who or what is giving the rating) is not a guarantee of anything. It’s kind of like finding out Santa isn’t real, I know, but instead of despairing, this instead should be freeing. Life is about trying new things and if you’re not beholden to rankings or ratings then you literally have a whole world of wine in front you to explore.

Sure, a review or word of mouth recommendation may have steered you towards that path. That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But ultimately in deciding that this new thing was now a personal favorite you didn’t default back to their judgement. Instead, you made up your mind that this was something wonderful that you wanted to experience again.

The One Universal Truth

Here’s one universal truth to cling to–everything, and I mean everything, that you ever fell in love with started out at one point as something you hadn’t tried yet.

Your favorite experience, food, musician, movie and, yes, wine began at some point as something new to try. The only way you ever discovered these joys and pleasures was by putting a foot forward and taking a chance.

That is why you shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and try something that hasn’t been reviewed or doesn’t have the magical 90+ points/3.5 ratings. Whether the wine is reviewed by 1 critic or a 1000 internet strangers, none of them are going to have the exact same palate as you. And not a single one is going to be giving you their wallet to make the purchase.

Everything always fall back to you and that is why you, and only you, are the best judge of what you should be drinking.

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Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?

While the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang have wrapped up, the medals will be flowing all year long in the wine world.

So far this year we’ve had the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition give out over 4000 gold, silver and bronzes while the American Fine Wine Competition announced 14 pages worth of winners. Oh and the Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition also gave out a hefty haul of hardware.

Still to come:
Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (March)
Sommelier Wine Awards (March)
California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition (March)
Seattle Wine Awards (April)
International Wine Challenge (April)
International Rose Championship (April)
Decanter World Wine Awards (May)
Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May)
Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition (May)
Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (May)
International Women’s Wine Competition (July)

And oodles and oodles and oodles more.

There are so many competitions out there giving wineries boatloads of awards that I’m honestly surprised that Oprah has not gotten in on the action with her own wine competition.

YOU get a medal! YOU get a medal! Everybody’s getting a MEDAAAAAAAAL!!!

God knows how many medals the the Tasters Guild International Wine Judging gives out.


Unlike the Olympics where there is a finite amount of medals awarded for each event, wine competitions can give out virtually a limitless number–which really stack the odds in a winery’s favor.

In 2015, Victoria Moore of The Telegraph noted that of the nearly 16,000 wines that were entered in the Decanter World Wine Awards, around 70% won some kind of award. At the International Wine Competition (IWC) they gave out 490 golds, 2,110 silvers, 3,426 bronzes and 3,668 commended awards.

For their 2012 event, W. Blake Gray of Palate Press highlighted that the San Francisco Chronicle Competition (one of the largest and most recognized wine competitions in the US) gave medals to more than 80% of the wines that were entered.

Who benefits from all these competitions?

I don’t think you can be more blunt than Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans in her article “So you want to be a wine judge?”

Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner. They want to enter or remain in your market, and the medals and scores enable them to do so. Like a good parent or teacher, try to find the good points in any wine. — Sarah Jane Evans 2/20/2018 WSET Blog

Wine competitions are all about marketing for wineries. Paying a $55-175 entry fee per wine and sending in 4 to 6 bottles is actually pretty darn cheap economics if you happen to strike gold (pun intended). Even a lowly bronze medal has benefit for wineries, mostly by playing off the ignorance of wine consumers who assume that winning a bronze medal meant that the wine was the 3rd best out of thousands rather than just being a wine that was “not mortally flawed”–as Lenn Thompson of The Cork Report describes in his post on why he and his team no longer participate as judges for wine competitions.

Plus, you can take that obscure award you won 7 years ago and use that sticker for everything.


Think of how much mileage that Gallo has gotten off of touting the 2000 medals that their Barefoot brand has won from entering practically every wine competition in existence? It doesn’t matter if they were gold, silver, bronze or whatever. Likewise Constellation Brands widely advertises their 50+ gold medals (from whom?) for their Black Box wines.

Gallo and Constellation didn’t become multi-billion dollar companies by throwing away money. They know there is benefit in flooding wine competitions with their wines.

There is also a strong argument that the competitions themselves are the biggest beneficiaries–generating revenue from not only entry fees but also sponsorship & naming rights (for instance, the San Francisco Chronicle Competition is not ran by the newspaper, they’re merely a sponsor), tickets to tastings featuring award winners and selling medal stickers to wineries.

Is there any value for consumers?

A little…

The shiny stickers are very pretty though.


You have to start with acknowledging that, as Ronald Jackson notes in Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, the purpose of wine competition is to increase market awareness for wineries–to get your attention. They don’t exist for the benefit of giving you an unbiased and objective recommendation of what to drink.

It’s fine to give them that attention and maybe even buy their wines to try. Just like with everything in life, you will never know how much you like something until you try it. If being curious about a medal winner is a reason for you to trade out your same ole, same ole for something new then go for it.

But you should keep a few considerations in mind.

1.) Know that it’s okay to disagree with the results — because most likely the judges themselves disagreed after 30 minutes

Any post about wine competitions would be remiss without acknowledging the studies by Robert Hodgson into how inconsistent judging is at competitions and how seemingly random the results are. Wines that were gold medal winners in one flight of tasting were just as likely to be scored as bronze winners in the next flight by the same judges.

Tasting wine is highly personal and extremely subjective. There are so many things that influence how we perceive a wine and whether or not it gives us pleasure from the ambiance of the room, the glassware, our mood that day, the wine we just had before, etc. Wine itself is also a moving target that not only changes in the bottle but changes in our glasses as well. Plus, just as some of us weren’t great “test takers” at school, some wines simply don’t show well being “tested” on their own and often need the context of food and social occasion to give pleasure.

That is why you really have to view wine awards (as well as critic scores) as only a single snapshot of how that wine tasted at that moment to that particular judge. Just like if your friend had this one really great bottle of wine at dinner that you have to try, take a wine competition result with the same “your mileage may vary” caveat. While that wine may have been great for them at that one moment, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great for you and your moment.

2.) Pay attention to who gave out the medals

A Platinum winner that was likely judged by at least 2-3 MWs and Master Sommeliers might be worth taking a look at.


With no offense to Podunk State Fair, there is a bit more cache to having your wines judged by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers that competitions like the IWC, Decanter World Wine Awards, TexSomm and a few others regularly have.

Even if the juries aren’t stacked with MW & MS credentials, there is still something noteworthy when you look at the lists of judges for competitions like San Francisco Chronicle Competition and Seattle Wine Awards and see acclaimed writers, sommeliers, educators and winemakers.

Yes, these events still give out way too many medals and the judging of even highly trained professionals is subject to vagaries, but if you are going to pay attention to the results of any competition, it’s worth having an idea of who was doing the judging. Be extremely skeptical of any competition that doesn’t have a published (and updated) list of who their judges were and their credentials.

In the Seattle market, the high esteem of the judges and caliber of wines that are entered into the Seattle Wine Awards gives their Double Gold and Best of Class winners a fair amount of cache.

3.) Give Double Golds a double look

While all the caveats above about wine competitions being just a single snapshot of a wine hold true, there is something to be said when that snapshot involves all the judges of a panel unanimously thinking that a wine is worth a gold medal–making it a Double Gold.

Some competitions do allow the judges to have discussions and “sway” the other judges to give more points but a single judge can still hold their ground and keep a wine as just a gold medal winner. At the very least with Double Golds, you know that the wine had some level of quality to be able to impress 4 to 5 different people.

Then you have “Sweepstakes Winners” and “Best in Show/Best of Class” that often require the wines going through another round of judging with different tasting panels. This is like a second snapshot being taken and if a wine does well there, you know that it had to have impressed around a dozen or so people.

The wine still might not be your personal style but the odds of a Double Gold/Sweepstakes winner from a reputable wine competition being “junk” is fairly low.

So have fun exploring. Don’t be afraid to try the highly touted “Award Winners” but still keep a healthy amount of skepticism–especially if someone is trying to give you a hard sell on their bronze medal winning wine from the Podunk State Fair.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/28/18 — Interesting Tweets & Burg Vintages

Photo by William Lawrence. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here’s what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine.

Odds & Ends from Twitter

Some interesting weblinks from Twitter that are worth the read.

Smelling Terroir: A New Study Suggests People Can Smell the Difference Between Wines Solely Based on Terroir (but can we, really?) from the Academic Wino (@TheAcademicWino)
Very cool read about a 2016 study that showed that both experts and non-experts were able to smell the difference between wines grown in two different terroirs. Becca looks a little more in-depth at the study to question if it’s really the terroir differences they are smelling or something else.

new maps & saturday afternoon in the meursault sunshine from Bill Nanson (@billnanson) at the Burgundy Report with the tweet coming across my dash via @RealWineGuru
I’m a bit of a map geek (as evidence by my geek out over this Clos Vougeout map) so I absolutely squealed at the discovery of these incredibly detailed Beaujolais cru maps. Also some lovely pictures of Meursault that had me daydreaming about sipping on a Les Charmes.

So you want to be a wine judge by Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans (@SJEvansMW) courtesy of @WSETglobal
As noted in yesterday’s Wine Geek Notes, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Wine Competitions and this article from Sarah Jane Evans added another perspective. One of the questions that I’ve been debating in my head is “Who benefits from Wine Competitions–the winery or the consumer?” which Evans answers rather bluntly “Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner.”

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Plant more Chenin!!!! The author screams into the void.


Wine of the Week: Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc from Peg Melnik (@pegmelnik) at The Press Democrat with the tweet coming across my dash via @jncorcoran1
The subheader is what hooked me: “What happened to chenin blanc in California?” I have a soft spot for Chenin and have bemoaned the lack of interest of it in Washington State so I was similarly disheartened to read the staggering stat of how 3000 acres of Chenin blanc in Napa in 1980 has shrank down to just 14 acres today.

Burg’in Around

For my 60 Second Review of the 2013 Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny I did some background research on the estate and 2013 vintage that had me stumbling across a few nifty links.

Pearl of Burgundy YouTube Channel
Features well produced short 2-4 minute videos from several Burgundian producers. While the Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot vid is what initially caught me, I also enjoyed the videos from Domaine Henri Gouges, Domaine Lamarche and Domaine Grivot. By this point I was hitting the subscribe button for the channel.

2013 burgundy – the fairy-tale vintage? from Master of Wine Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)
Always some of my favorite vintage write-ups. Great summary at the bottom of the article about the big issues facing 2013 but I also like how she explores the potential similarities (and differences) between 2013 and 1996 that also segue into comparing 2012 to 1998/1988.

The 2013 Red Burgundies: Fascinating and Challenging (Paywall) by Stephen Tanzer (@StephenTanzer1) on Vinous.
Tanzer takes a slightly more pessimistic outlook on 2013 and goes into more details about the challenges that the Côte de Beaune, in particular, had.

A Vintage Viewpoint…(2013, 2012, 2011…) from Bill Nanson at the Burgundy Report.
A nice little one page summary of the 2013 vintage in comparison to the 2012 and 2011 vintages.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/27/18 — Wine Competitions

Photo by Javaongsan. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0I’m doing research on how effective wine competitions are for wineries and how much they may benefit consumers. This is what I’ve been reading today.

Interesting Weblinks

Understanding Wine Competitions (Nov. 2006) by Lisa Shara Hall at Wine Business Monthly.
Great PDF file at the end with listings of several major American Wine Competitions.

The truth about wine awards: why medals don’t mean great bottles (May 2015) by Victoria Moore at The Telegraph.
Interesting stats about the medal award rates at the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge (IWC)

Marketing Matters: Wine Competitions That Help You Sell (October 2007) by Tina Caputo at Wines & Vines.
A pro-wine competition slant, especially in the case of regional wine competitions.

We Won’t Participate as Judges in Wine Competitions: Here’s Why (August 2010) by Lenn Thompson at New York Cork Report.
Talks about some of the behind the scenes vagaries with judging. The story about different judges responding to Brett in wine had resonance for me.

How American Consumers Select Wine (June 2008) by Liz Thach at Wine Business Monthly.
Downplays the role of medals in influencing American consumers’ decision to buy wine. The fact that the #1 influencer for both retail and restaurant consumers is previous tasting experience with a wine is something worth exploring more. Bookmarking this link because this has a lot of good info.

Photo by Concoursmondial © Concours Mondial de Bruxelles - Giuseppe Napoli. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Tasting at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles competition in 2010.


Wine Competition: For Whom the Medals Toll? by W. Blake Gray at Palate Press.
More behind the scenes judging insight and differences in American vs European competitions. Also pointing me in the direction to read more about Robert Hodgson’s studies.

An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition by Robert T. Hodgson on wineeconomics.org.
The aforementioned study with interesting charts.

Good Ole Fashion Books

Wine Tasting, Third Edition: A Professional Handbook by Ronald S. Jackson.
Chapter 6: Qualitative Wine Assessment goes into the value of wine competitions for wineries and the importance in having judges who are trained in sensory evaluation and experienced in the wine styles they are judging.

The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia by Geralyn and Jack Brostrom.
Section F: Festivals, Trade Shows and Competition goes into the usefulness of wine competitions for marketers and retailers. Also emphasizes the importance and qualification of the judges.

Wine Marketing & Sales, Second edition by Janeen Olsen, Liz Thach and Paul Wagner.
Chapter 8: Wine Budgets and Pricing goes into the cost associated in entering competitions and their potential impact on wine pricing. Also makes the interesting point that for supermarket wines, having a floor stack is far more valuable than a gold medal.

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