The Anatomy of a Wine Competition
Contests as Industry and Consumer Guides
Competition is seasonal. Football fans can’t wait for the fall, and hockey and basketball buffs look forward to the winter months. For winemakers, spring is wine-the-competition season. These usually don’t involve much strenuous physical activity, other than a little wrist action; however, as a wine judge, one’s nose and palate definitely get a workout because many times judges are tasting and rating more than 100 wines in a day.
The purpose of a wine competition is twofold. One is to let the producing winery see how its product stacks up against its peers, and two is to help consumers identify quality wines without having to struggle through trying 2,500 to 3,000 wines themselves.
There are wine competitions in nearly every wine-producing country that naturally focus on wines produced in that respective country. For example, France, Germany, Austria and Australia all have their own wine competitions. There are a number of international competitions in which entries from all over the world are accepted. In the United States, there are maybe 30 major wine competitions a year, with many of these associated with county or state fairs in places such as Florida and Indiana. However, the vast majority of important competitions occur in California. The largest judging of only-California wines is held by the Orange County Wine Society in conjunction with the Orange County Fair. The Los Angeles and Riverside county fairs allow entries from all over the United States, and the San Francisco International fair has entries from all over the world. The San Francisco Chronicle–sponsored tasting at the Cloverdale Citrus fairgrounds has become the largest competition in the world with around 4,700 entries coming from all over the United States.
I judge in a number of these events, but probably my two favorites are the Orange County event in which all the judges are winemakers and it’s only California wines; and the Chronicle tasting, which has a huge diversity of wines and judges from all walks of life. That means they include retailers, writers, radio folks, restaurateurs and, of course, a few winemakers.
Let’s take a little more in-depth look at the inner workings of the Chronicle tasting, which usually occurs in early January of each year. This is probably the earliest competition of the year, which means that it won’t receive all the wines to be released in that given year; however, it is the first to judge the late-released wines from the previous year. The competition director is Bob Frazier. He and a small staff, along with wine educator Ray Johnson, work full time, all year long on this event. It is basically a four-day event with judging on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and the sweepstakes judging on Friday morning.
Judges are divided into panels of five each. You are given a lab coat to wear, so in some respects, it looks like a mad scientist convention. Each panel is assigned a moderator and a serving team. The panel is given a list of the wines that it will judge blind (which does not mean that seeing-eye dogs are serving). Basically, an identical flight of wine in glasses with numbers are presented to the judges, usually about eight per go-round. Each judge will sniff and taste each wine and make an assessment with a rating of bronze, silver, gold or no medal. Then the moderator, who usually reminds us of our third-grade teachers, puts the numbers on a blackboard and asks each judge his or her rating. Once that is all compiled, the judges discuss each wine and its merits or flaws. There’s a little jockeying here, as you’re allowed to change your score if you can be convinced by another judge that the wine merits something better or worse. This is quite different than the Orange County fair, where each judge individually rates each wine on a number and medal with little discussion.
This whole thing continues with about 30 panels participating and favorite wines receiving two-star, golds and a few the prestigious judges’ choice award.
By Friday morning, with many wines and good meals and entertainment provided by the Chronicle under our collective belts,
we assemble at the sweepstakes round, which is probably the most impressive pouring of wines in the world. Each judge sits down with more than 100 glasses of beautiful award-winning wines in front of him or her. The quest here is to pick the
four best wines: the best sparkling wine,
the best white wine, the best red wine and the best dessert wine. I know of no other major competition that puts on this kind of show, and it’s amazing that none of the 1,500 glasses of wine get spilled or broken.
By the time we leave at 11 a.m. on Friday, each judge has a copy of all the results, and they are posted on the Chronicle website.
Wine awards by themselves don’t always create a demand or make wine sell better, unless the winery takes the bull by the horns and does some promotion with it. That means having a website, using a mailing list or tweeting on Twitter or the like. I remember back in the old days, circa 1987, when our Rosenblum Cellars 1984 Reserve Zinfandel from the George Hendry vineyard in Napa won the sweepstakes award at the San Francisco international competition. Orders came flying in the door, and our gross income increased by 10 times that year. Those were the old days.
The bottom line here is that the best wine is the one that you like, but let the winners offer some guidance in your selection.