Tag Archives: wine competitions

What is it with these wine competitions anyway?

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In the wine business, we all talk about O-N-D (October-November-December). Success or failure, the fourth quarter is a deciding factor, as we move wine fast. Yet like grape growing, business begins at the start of the New Year. Last week I participated in one of the largest wine competitions in the world- the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. With over 6,300 wines entered and more than 50 judges, divided into 19 panels, this event officially rang the bell for the beginning of the wine judging season. In the United States there are around 30 significant competitions and internationally there are at least half as much. Yet there is much confusion about wine competitions and if they really have an effect on the fortunes of wineries.

Over the last two decades, publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the Wine Advocate and Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar (now Vinous), have become the gold standard. Consumers have become confident and accustomed to these publications, and rightly so; those magazines have done an excellent job in representing their genre. But what about wine competitions, do they offering anything to the consumer? Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals – what do those all mean?

Since the mid-1980’s I have judged in as many as 15 competitions in a year. I even ran one (Executive Director of the San Francisco Fair National Wine Competition 1987-1989). As a judge, we often taste as many as 200 wines in a given day and at the conclusion of all competitions, we anoint winners (typically with medals). In the marketplace, this sometimes plays very big and the winning wines see more sales.

This year, when I sat in my chair on panel #4 on the first work day of 2015, I was thinking, wow, we are already here judging wines. Welcome to 2015. I was joined by long time professionals Dr. Richard Peterson and John Schumacher. We had a blast judging together as we agreed to disagree. Our panel was nicely balanced with a wide variety of wine experiences between the three of us.

What is it with wine competitions anyway?
The industry recognizes the value of wine competitions on many fronts, the most important being that hundreds of thousands of wines get tasted blind by qualified wine professionals and that those awards get entered a the large pool called: Wine Marketing. For me, blind tastings keep my palate fresh and honest. Additionally, tasting with other professionals and networking with even more allows me to keep up to speed in the world of wine. Yes, wine competitions are important to all of us who love wine.  I’ll be sharing some of my favorite finds through our facebook and twitter pages, so stay tuned!

A day in the life of a wine judge

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What is a day like for me as a wine judge? Well, as fun as it sounds, a day of wine judging is a lot of work and responsibility.

As a wine judge and as a consumer, it’s good to know why wineries enter their wines into competitions. Wineries seek re-affirmation of the wines they have made, as well as awards to help market to consumers looking for a stamp of approval on quality. Wine judges have to be skilled and honest. All wines are tasted blind and judges have to be ready for a rigorous day of tasting. In most wine competitions, the day begins around 9:00 AM and often lasts until 4-5:00 PM. It is long and tiring, even for long-standing, experienced judges.

At the sound of my alarm clock, the judging day starts! I wonder who will be on my panel at this competition.  Will they be old friends or new ones?  Will they be experienced or newbies?  Of course all of this does not matter because I have a job to do. On most judging days, a panel will take on 125-175 wines. I look over the assignment list to see what our panel has drawn (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, etc.) Some competitions offer the judges a choice, but most assign you what they think you would like or can handle. In the end it does not matter, the job is to judge wines, and there are many.

The first flights arrive. We typically taste silently. The judges give their individual awards and the scores (Gold, Silver, Bronze and no medal) are recorded. We then break down the awards and arrive at a consensus for the panel’s group award. This goes on flight after flight until the day is done. All the while, I keep myself organized as I record my notes and scores for later use long after the competition has been completed. I drink lots of water, refresh my palate with crackers when needed and even roast beef to cut the tannins in red wines. You may be thinking: Does Wilfred ever gets tired? You bet I do, but the show goes on. Between flights, I will stretch my legs, take photos of the event and just take a breath.  It’s a long day, but I find it educational and enlightening.

I have been on the circuit for a long, long time. My wine judging career began in the mid 1980’s and has now spanned 30+ years, more than 200 competitions, 30,000+ wines and five countries (the United States, France, Spain, New Zealand and Australia). As an extreme wine researcher, covering all aspects of wine from vineyard to bottle, wine judging remains the finest equalizer. In a year’s time, blind tasting under these circumstances keeps my palate well grounded. If you give me a bottle of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon to evaluate, my brain is already making qualitative decisions on the wine’s quality. In a blind tasting, my palate has control and the brain cannot influence it by knowing the price or producer. Over time, a wine taster improves in the understanding of what is in the bottle by tasting in different situations. Days as a wine judge are not always the most pleasurable, but they serve a great purpose.