1WineDude in the L.A. Times (More on Wine Competition Controversy)

Vinted on September 7, 2009 binned in about 1winedude blog, wine publications

“One not only drinks wine, one smells it, observes it, tastes it, sips it, and—one talks about it.”
– King Edward VII of England

If the events of the past several days are any indication, one also enters it into wine competitions, and then one talks – and talks, and talks – about the results!

In case you’ve been living inside of a bottle lately, here’s a recap.:

Last week, the Journal of Wine Economics issued a report that included an article by Robert T. Hodgson titled An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions.  Hodgson’s report analyzed data garnered from 13 wine competitions and more-or-less concluded that the distribution of medals from those competitions showed no difference statistically then if the medals had been awarded by chance.

My personal take was that the report lacked sufficient analysis of the potential context impacting wine competitions for the data to support the conclusion drawn in the report – even if that conclusion might ultimately be true. Several people agreed and disagreed with me – which is one of the great things about blogging, after all!

The article was probably designed to kick-off discussion on the relative value of wine competitions in general, and no mater what your view of Hodgson’s analysis, it would be difficult to refute it’s success in doing just that.

The repercussions of the report were discussed on Dr. Vino, Vinography, and right here on 1wineDude.com – and judging by the excellent and myriad opinions on the topic that were voiced in the responses to those articles, the topic has more legs than half a glass of 16% abv Grenache.  The topic even found its way into the discussion forums on the mead website GotMead.com (seriously).

Topping it all off, on Friday the Business Section of the L.A. Times ran a story by Jerry Hirsch on the aftermath of the report, in which I was quoted.  What I liked about the L.A. times piece, aside from the fact that they spelled the name of my blog correctly (though they incorrectly stated that I am a Certified Wine Educator – I’m not, I’m a Certified Specialist of Wine, which is a different cert. but from the same organization), was that it had a slightly different take on the report  – namely, how the competition results are used after the competition is over…

What Jerry Hirsch’s short article suggests (and he has some experience here, as he has previously participated in wine competitions as a judge) is that the wine competitions are totally devalued because there’s no standard for consumers to reference.

Think of it this way:

Most people love a good competition, especially in the U.S.  We love them for a simple reason – they’re fun

Sometimes, the level of competition is so high and the level of talent required so substantial that as award from that competition – like the Vince Lombardi trophy – is rightly used as a source of pride (and marketing) for a winning team.  When you win the Superbowl, it’s a big deal.  When you win it six times, like the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s a really big deal.

Extending the analogy the other way, when you win a preseason game, it’s borderline meaningless. 

Yet, when some wineries haul off a gold medal in the wine equivalent of a preseason exhibition game, they laud the results as if it were the Superbowl.

Why do they do this?  Simple: greed. 

As my friend and PR guru Steve Raye told me (after he eloquently expounded on the same subject in his BATblog): “The key issue is medals are commercial tools that effectively sell wine, even if they don’t mean anything.

In other words, medals sell wines, especially in tasting rooms, despite the fact that they’re bordering on meaningless.  According to Steve, those medals function just as much (if not more so) in the trade, in helping to convince retailers to give a wine shelf-space.  Now… if medals didn’t sell wine, why would retailers give shelf-space preference to a wine that was a medal-winner.  Simple: they wouldn’t.

Consider this viewpoint, stated (rather eloquently) by Roger Stockton when he commented here on 1WineDude last week:

“Wine judges that I know take their responsibility very seriously. They want to find the best wines and award them accordingly. Wines are evaluated for faults, balance and varietal characteristics but again what makes a great zinfandel to one judge may not be the same thing to another regardless of both having identical training and tasting skills. This is where the study falls short. It only looks at the statistics from the side of numbers. I commend the work Prof. Hodgson put into the study and think it can be used as a starting point to go deeper into ways to make competitions better but that is all. It is nether damning or validating of the process. It confirms that wine judges are humans with varying tastes, not necessarily tasting ability.”

In some ways what Roger is saying is that the competition itself is neither good, nor bad, which suggests that it’s how the results are (mis)used that’s a substantial part of the problem. As wine consumers, we’ve been so inundated with what wineries, retail and PR folk have done with those results of those competitions that the situation has become a miasma of confusion. 

What’s needed is a clear ‘Superbowl of wine competitions’ to help us know how to factor the results of wine competitions into buying decisions – some way to know when a competition is a fun preseason romp, or a real shot at a substantive title.

Just don’t expect the wine industry to give you that guide anytime soon.


(images: latimes.com, .heinzhistorycenter.org)





  • joeshico

    Wish I had your talent for writing. Tried to say this the best I could on my blog. At least I now know that
    I wasn't off on some tangent to another universe and that many agree that it is not the judging or the awards
    that should be questioned, it's the marketing of the results.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks for that!

      When you combine the lack of any meaningful comparison or standard for understanding the quality of the competition, and the general misuse of the results to help consumers part with their wine money, you've got yet another confusing scenario for people who are just looking for a decent bottle of vino!

  • @dmhoro

    what we need is a socially networked wine tasting competition site–like cellarTracker but for wine competitions. So that every time somebody has a wine competition at home they can share the results online.

  • @dmhoro

    what we need is a socially networked wine tasting competition site–like cellarTracker but for wine competitions. So that every time somebody has a wine competition at home they can share the results online.

    I meant to say thanks for summarizing all that's happened too, and tweet out my comment. Let's see if it works this time.

    • 1WineDude

      Great idea.

    • tom merle

      CellarTracker can do this pretty easily.

  • Dennis Eagles Nest

    Wasn't surprised to see you in the LS Times article. Word's out on you in the wine world! Congrats.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks. Uhm, does this mean that everyone's onto me? Uh oh….

  • tom merle

    Each of the Big 13 competitions has merit. The organizers recruit top notch folks from the industry who have spent many years honing their skills at determining wines that meet their personal objectives whether increasing their gustatory pleasure or finding wines that come closest to the "perfect" Merlot or Mourvedre. A given wine, we all agree, can be chosen by one small group of panelists–as little as three, usually four–as deserving a gold while another group decides to pass. But as the wine advances to Best of Class and Best of Show more of the judges are brought to make the determination. This counts for something.

    If gold medals are held to 10-15% of the wines submitted, the winning winery can crow about the honor. No winery that I know shapes their marketing around competitions with the exception of the Cal State Fair "winery of the year" which is usually V Sattui since Daryl/Dario makes more varietals than most any other winery.

    • @suburbanwino

      Yeah, Sattui's terrible about that. They make some decent wines, though (if not a little too oaky).

  • Amy Corron Power

    We hit this debate too. I think competitions are a great marketing tool for the mid-majors (football is again creeping into my vernacular) but you have to look at the size and prestige of the competition, the number of winners per total entries (75% is a bit high) and compare the results of a wine's competition entry to other sources that evaluate wines. Here's our coverage: http://www.anotherwineblog.com/archives/6031

    And go Steelers, the defense that is — I have them starting on my Fantasy Team.

    • 1winedude5036

      Well, you had to go and get on my good side by cheering on the Steelers… :)

  • Dave Yuhas

    Why anyone pays attention to any wine competition is beyond me. All wine tasting is subjective and personal. I have tasted 90+ wines that I thought were swill. And not mentioned in the post above is the well-known practice by wineries of submitting "special" bottles for tasting/judging.

  • RobL

    I would never say that the results of a wine competition were useless, but would readily agree that such results have to be put into context. And that context seems to include the possibility that the results frequently are as random as that famous statistical study at the heart of this controversy. IIRC experienced wine drinkers frequently are not able to tell red from white wine in a number of circumstances when tested blind (does this require a totally dark room?) . My suspicion is that a truly good competition would involve only several wines, and that the same judges would retest new bottles of the same wine for the next day or two. They would be asked, based upon their notes (allowed), to identify on subsequent days the several wines, and to again rate them. This would be a severe test, and may have been done. I understand that Parker, who genetlically may be a super taster, might be able to do this. Most of us couldn't.

    • RobL

      ps – I think that I might be able to recognise my favorite Washington red blend, or at least wines which were quite similar.

  • 1winedude5036

    On rare occasions, I've been able to ID a wine, but I agree it's not something that most of us can do on a regular basis. I'm not sure that insane tests are needed so much as some – or *any* – sort of standard that helps consumers to know which competitions are really tough, and which are not. Oh, yeah – and the willingness of retail and wineries to stop pushing medal performance as a means to boost sales (don't hold your breath!).

  • Dylan

    I'll mention it again. You still run into the issue of needing every winery to enter before you could conceivably know it it's the best. Let's say Winery A has an amazing Merlot and Winery B is great, but not as good as Winery A. Here's where the problem occurs. Winery A may prefer to spend their entry money elsewhere, while Winery B likes to tout their awards won. The result? Winery B becomes ranked the best when Winery A actually is. Moreover, if a competition category is filled with plonk, it becomes a case of best of the worst, choosing the lesser evil for a gold. Then you might drink it wondering, "how did this win a gold medal?"

    • tom merle

      I think you're distorting how most of these competitions work, Dylan. They are not presuming to name the absolute best, but best of show on down to best red, best sangio, best of region AMONG THE WINES SUBMITTED. Plus their judges seek to award medals for the quality of each wine according to their standards, not based on any comparison to other wines. In some competitions in some categories of wine, gold medals are not awarded. The comparisons kick in as wines advance as noted. All the competitions mentioned in the article receive at least several thousand entries–a sufficient universe of possible winners to make judging a discriminating exercise. The plonk gets eliminated in the first round.

  • 1winedude5036

    "if a competition category is filled with plonk, it becomes a case of best of the worst" – GREAT way of summing up what is part of the issue (the other part is winery B lauds the gold medal that they won against the plonk entries).

  • @suburbanwino

    I don't think the "Super Bowl" concept can be done. Wine judging is really like judging gymnastics in the Olympics; it's completely subjective. Sure, there are guidelines that can be laid down, but in the end, personal-preference is the ultimate factor. And if we've learned anything from this renaissance of wine appreciation (through the blogs), it's that what Robert Parker likes is not necessarily what Joe Sixpack is going to like. However, the purchase is often made based on a score or medal given by someone who may have completely different tastebuds. I think this may be a contributing factor as to why many people don't like wine…they haven't found their personal taste because the marketing has led them astray.

    • 1WineDude

      I think it would be difficult, but would it be impossible to reach a consensus on what competitions might be the creme-de-la-creme of the wine world?

      • @suburbanwino

        I think the "aficionados, experts, and wine literati" would respect their choices, and you truly could find a wine with a deserved medal of real merit. However, when it comes down to selling that wine (which is essentially what the competition would devolve into), would it be an epiphany to most wine drinkers? I'd bet 90% of folks out there would choose a Yellow Tail Shiraz over Cote Rotie blind, so would the "legitimate best wine in the world" alienate fledgling wine lovers because their palates just aren't sophisticated enough…whether by lack of experience or choice? I may be zagging while you're zigging, but I'm seeing it all from the perspective of marketability for the sake of this argument. Hope I'm making sense…

        • 1WineDude

          You're making perfect sense. I think in a way you're exposing that we're just getting at the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dynamics of how these competitions effect wine sales. Which suggests a long road for any changes…

          • @suburbanwino

            ah, wine and the Middle East…are there no resolutions!

            Another great topic…I can't believe I didn't get this many comments on my "frying pork chops" post :)

  • @suburbanwino

    And shady marketing in the wine world is not a new concept (read: 1855 Medoc classification). The 61 chateaux were ranked based solely on price- this was the basis for quality. And yet, I still subconsciously get excited when I see a Ch. Latour or Cos D'Estournel…much more so than a (probably very good) bottle of Cru Bourgeois. That's the best, longest-lasting hype ever! Who was their marketing firm??

    • 1WineDude


  • 1WineDude

    Folks, I want to set the record straight on something as I'm now getting hit with attacks that my previous post on this subject amounted to some kind of a slur or defamation against Hodgson or his work.


    I consider that criticism to be, in a word, bullsh*t.

    I don't think that it's a stretch of the reasonable interpretation standard that *anything* presented on my blog is a matter of my own opinion – and that logically includes the posts on the topic of Hodgson's report. I still stand by my view and opinion that the report's conclusions are not supported directly by the data or its analysis – and that stands as my (unedited) opinion only.

  • @suburbanwino

    question mark intended after "resolutions"…what a dummy

  • Steve Raye

    Hey Joe, thanks for the shout out. I think the reference to defamation can't be that significant…if it's by people responding to a blog post , then by definition they understand that a blog is just one person's opinion…they just don't like yours!

    • 1WineDude

      Well, I can live with folks not liking my opinion :)

  • Ted

    Just got around to watching Gary V's interview with Heidi Barret (taped Aug.6th). I thought it was interesting that she mentioned in the 1980's gold medals had much more meaning then they do now. I wonder why? Were there fewer competitions or more highly trained judges?

    • 1WineDude

      Maybe the gold was higher quality metal back then? :)

  • Stevie

    I think that this study has generated some healthy discussion that's long overdue. But as I wrote on my blog, http://weirdcombinations.com/2009/09/taste-in-win… I think that the problem isn't that the gold medals are awarded "randomly" but that people want to believe that these contests and by extension wine ratings in general have any real meaning for individual tasters/consumers beyond being suggestions. There are no "universal" wines that appeal to everyone's taste!

    • 1winedude5036

      Agree entirely – though there are some that appeal to majority tastes, no doubt.

  • @Felicia_F

    When buying an unfamiliar wine, the consumer needs SOME help, whether a recommendation from a friend, a professional review, or a competition medal. SOMETHING to suggest that this may be a good wine. With wine competitions, their value greatly depends on who awarding those medals, which is why the upcoming Winemaker Challenge, in which all the judges are winemakers, should give wine lovers some confidence in the quality of winning wines. The judges include James Hall, Jac Cole, Gary Eberle and Merry Edwards — surely people who know great wine when they taste it, since they MAKE great wine. A full list of the judges is at http://www.WinemakerChallenge.com.

    • 1winedude5036

      Interesting point but I doubt that the average wine shopper knows anything about the competition or those judges…

      • @Felicia_F

        Winemaker Challenge hasn't taken place yet. It debuts January 2010. The director of the competition is Robert Whitley, who is a nationally sydicated wine writer and publisher of http://www.WineReviewOnline. News of the competition, and the results, will be posted on http://www.WineReviewOnline.com, on http://www.WhitleyOnWine, on the competition site, reported in his column and in various other online and print media. Robert is also director of other wine competitions: San Diego International, Monterey, Critics Challenge and Sommelier Challenge. Winemaker Challenge is the third in a series. While you may be right that the "average wine shopper" doesn't know Merry Edwards, James Hall, etc, I think people who are more serious about wine might. Oh, I don't know, like maybe people who read wine blogs?

        My point is that if one is going to be influenced by the result of a wine competition, knowing the judges are experts in their field should carry some weight.

        • 1winedude5036

          I agree with you, but part of the issue is that the winners are being peddled to consumers who don't know details about wine of the competitions. Of course, we could argue "buyer beware"…

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