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THURSDAY THORNS
02/03/2011
Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
Medals? You Want Them? We Found Them!

By Stephen Eliot

For a long time, a very long time, in fact, I have regarded wine competitions and the seemingly limitless numbers of medals they award with a like-minded measure of practiced skepticism. Actually, if truth be told, I have not really “regarded” them at all other than when inevitably asked about them by my students at the California Culinary Academy. Thus when I read Alder Yarrow’s report on a recent Vino 2011 panel discussion on the relevancy of competitions and medals introduced by the question of “Where have all the medals gone?,” I was frankly unaware that they had gone anywhere.

To me, the business of medals has been just that, business. A broad-based, mass-market means by which the wine industry could sell wine. Win a medal and the next day, wholesalers would be dropping colorful cardboard neck-rings on every inexpensive Merlot and Chardonnay stacked at the end of the aisle in large chain grocery stores. Fine. Advertising and marketing are in the lifeblood of a free-market economy. But, as markers of real quality, well, I have never been able to see any relationship between quality and medals, and I advise my students to simply ignore them. They are not bad, they are not good, they are best considered as useless, if sometimes attractive, decoration.

Now, I may not go as far as Alder as he concludes by his own experience that there is a direct and inverse relationship between quality and the number of medals that a wine has won, but I am far closer to his thinking than to that of those who defend the worth of wine competitions. And, I tend to agree that these competitions and medals “as a whole do a disservice to consumers by failing to be reliable guides to quality”.

The Vino 2011 panelists included a number of industry stalwarts and several seemed fairly defensive when facing the usual criticisms of large-scale competitions: grade inflation, too many wines, palate fatigue, qualifications of the judges, inconsistent methodology, etc. Accordingly, the usual rebuttals followed, but some, such as Dan Berger’s proud claim that at the Riverside County Fair judging over which he presides limits their tasters to only 120 wines per day rang a bit hollow to me. 120 wines a day? I’m sorry, that works out to three minutes per wine over six non-stop hours of tasting, and, I for one question just how much room that kind of schedule leaves for real comprehension. At Connoisseurs’ Guide, I taste and write for a living, have been for over thirty years, and trust me, palate fatigue is quite real.

Our typical tasting day will consist of no more than twenty wines, and we will allocate three to four hours for the task. Now, I am not claiming that our methodology is best, but it is rigorous and it is what works for us. True, the aim at CGCW is to describe the wine more than to simply find some hierarchical ranking and assign a score, the latter of which we at times view as a necessary evil of the business we are in. Medals come without commentary and simply say that this or that panel of “experts” liked one wine more than another. Nothing wrong with that if it is treated for what it is—a limited commentary with no context.

I do not expect the culture of large wine competitions to disappear any time soon, nor do I feel that they in any way threaten the future of fine wine in California. But neither do I see them furthering consumer education, and applaud Mr. Yarrow for questioning the emperor’s clothes. His report earns a solid “A” for its candor. Check out his thoughtful comments at http://www.vinography.com/.

Comments

competitions
by Jim Caudill
Posted on:2/3/2011 3:29:20 PM

You're right in many ways, of course, but I've always been fascinated to see which wines consistently win top medals across a broad array of competitions (which happens far less frequently than you would think) and the up and down scores that are more common, as when wines win Double Golds & Best of Class and then don't medal at all.  Judges get better at this with experience.  Having judged now in a variety of competitions multiple times, I know my own skills are measurably improved -- not to mention the added benefit that I qualified for the Wine Century Club almost instantly. 

Medals and Such
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/3/2011 8:28:19 PM

Hi Jim--

Thanks for the note.

I miss the old judging circuit because it was always a way to spend time with other wine professionals from all over the place. But I don't miss judging 50 sparkling Shiraz at nine in the morning or 160 wines a day for three or four days.

More power to those who feel comfortable doing that kind of evaluation.

 

Competitions
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:2/4/2011 6:11:56 AM

I grew tired of the competitions when organizers began to complain that we weren't producing enough Gold Medals!

Mo Medals
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/4/2011 8:29:08 AM

The last of those tasting I attended saw me assigned, among other things, to the Cabernet Sauvignon under $15 category. Cab is an expensive grape and it is a challenge to find ways to make a good inexpensive Cab. It can be done, but more often closer to $20.

We were insturcted to award a percentage of medals in every category, and while this is only personal opiniion, it seemed to me that not one of those wines in front of us deserved more than a Bronze--with few of those. Yet, there we were, being told that every category had to have an array of medals.

Obviously, these competitions cannot exist if they do not give enough medals because the participants are not going to come back. But, from my viewpoint, a Bronze Medal for a $15 Cabernet ought to considered a major accomplishment. Giving gold in that category, and not having any way for the ordinary punters to understand the categories after the fact, makes the quality seem as high for that wine as for any Gold anywhere.

I'm with you, Tom. We may be curmudgeons, my friend, but we are right. :-}

 

Medals
by Pamela
Posted on:2/4/2011 8:43:37 PM

Charlie and Thomas,

Thanks for bringing up this topic. Many years ago, I really enjoyed judging because of the networking aspect and having the privilege to taste through a plethora of wine. I looked at it as a way to get a feel for what was out there and to find the diamonds in the rough. However, as both of you have stated, the pressure of giving awards is tiring. On the upside, some competitions are better than others—I don’t return to those that place high pressure on their judges. But it seems as though competitions that allow the panel to fairly evaluate entries is far and few. I understand it’s a business but do I dare bring ethics into the conversation? I think awards would have more meaning, influence and value if we didn’t hand them out like candy.

Charlie, I’ll up your 50 sparkling Shiraz with 50 home winemaker Fruit & Berry wines :)

50 Shiraz
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/4/2011 10:12:26 PM

Pam--

Not sure. But, on the whole, at 900 AM, I might prefer fruits and berries to high acid, tannic wine with bubbles.

blame
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:2/5/2011 5:50:39 AM

Blame it on commercialsim.

 

The wine competition concept was based on the counyt fair competitions, you know, the prettiest pig, etc.

The idea was to reward achievement, not to market the product.

These days, MARKETING is the be all!

I hear yeah
by Pamela
Posted on:2/5/2011 9:49:38 AM

Thomas, I hear yeah. Makes sense.

I'm wonderng - who was the first competition not associated with a county fair?

Peddle to the Medal
by Anonymous I
Posted on:2/5/2011 3:18:29 PM

Another factor, apart from the expertise and capabilities of the judges, is some wineries send in samples which are not representative of the wine they actually sell.
*****
And running a wine judging is quite an industry, it seems:  Women's Wine Competition...Pro Wine Buyer's Judging...Left Handed Wine Judge's Fair...Sagittarius Enologist's Wine Competition...Temecula Valley Wine Society Competition...Hosemaster of Wine Judging...
*****

ANONYMOUS I

Hosemaster of Wine Judging
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/5/2011 4:01:46 PM

Is that the competition where they don't award Gold Medals and send the winners a pet poodle instead?

No, wait. That was the Bloggists Wine Judging.

Hosemaster Judging
by ANONYMOUS I
Posted on:2/5/2011 6:53:25 PM

The Hosemaster judging prizes witty wines with an acidic bite.  Few gold medals are awarded, however. 
Bloggers are ridiculed during the judging and they are univited, but they show up anyway having misunderstood the judging is "Hose Master," not "Pose Master."

Mr. Hosemaster takes the results of the judges under advisement, but he usually reserves the right to change the awarding of medals to suit his own taste.  Hence, a Double Gold wine from the judges might only receive a Bronze, while favorite producers might be upgraded to Double Gold or Platinum medal status.

Wineries whose wines do not merit an award are given a poodle, as a derisive notation that their wine "is a dog."  Bloggers are given some sort of neckware, which the Hosemaster explained is a "flee collar.," as he was hoping they would go away.  

Unfortunately the manufacturer took the order for these over the phone and provided "flea collars," thinking the bloggers are pretty much "wingless, bloodsucking parasites." 
How i-Ron-ic!

The Blogger's Wine Judging takes place in dozens of dimly lit rooms (the lighting, typically being that of a computer monitor), where a single wine is evaluated and scrutinized excessively and then written about ad naseum.  Each individual tries to out do the other bloggers in describing the attributes or flaws of a particular wine.    Nobody pays any  attention to the results, except some misguided wine marketing and public relations people.

ANONYMOUS I

 

 

Here Come Da Judge, Here Come Da Judge
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:2/5/2011 9:11:05 PM

Has anyone yet pointed out the irony of a bozo like Alder, who routinely goes to a tasting, rates a couple of hundred wines in a few hours, and then posts his scores on his blog, criticizing the results of wine competitions? Yeah, wine competition medals are incredibly useless results compared to Vornography's. He certainly gets the Sweepstakes Award in the Hubris Competition. Dimwit.

As to the HoseMaster International Wine Competition and Wet T-Shirt Contest, well, I think it stands alone in the legitimacy of the results. We don't taste blind; in fact, we don't taste at all. We just randomly award the medals and sell the wine on WineCommune. Every wine entered wins a medal. We like to think of ourselves as the Special Olympics of wine competitions--and we've got the judges to prove it. Charlie and Anonymous 1, can we count on you again next year?

I always wonder why folks care about whether the results of wine competitions are legitimate. They are as legitimate as almost every other sort of wine rating system, and better than many. I love bloggers, er, Poodles, criticizing wine judges then posting their non-blind, uninformed, untrained opinions about samples they've been sent by the same marketing departments that tout wine competitions. Marketing people get paid to use ALL of us, if they can. The beauty of wine judgings is that we use them! You'd think wine folks would be more sympathetic.

The best wines in the world never enter wine judgings. That simple fact takes the air out of Double Golds. But, then, the vast majority of Poodles have never had the great wines of the world either--which makes their 96 points and A equally stupid. It's always about perspective, and, in the wine biz, perspective takes decades, not a few years in front of a computer.

Purple Poodles for Everyone
by Pamela
Posted on:2/5/2011 9:52:22 PM

Wow, I’m impressed by the rigorous bloggers wine judging guidelines!! But there is a flaw in the process. Most bloggers can’t call out wine faults and how can one scrutinize and bite the hand that gives them free wine? Everything tastes great! Poodle awards for everyone! I found this cute little purple poodle plastered on a local tasting room wall. http://tinyurl.com/4rg7b52

I'll Be The Judge Of That
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/5/2011 9:55:47 PM

If I said it once, I said it once. At least, I think I said it once. That Hosemaster is a real bundle of laughs. Thanks for coming by and lightening the mood.

I used to worry about Alder posting hundreds of scores and making what we do here at CGCW look easy. But then I realized that no one is going to confuse the three hours we take to taste sixteen wines per day or the amount of time it takes to write detailed tasting notes with what Alder is doing. I know it. The readers know it. Alder knows it. He does what he does and CGCW does what we do. He is not trying to replace us, and frankly, if scores without explanation can replace the kind of critical wine review that we do, then so be it.

And while there are mass judgings that some would argue make sense, Alder can't be wrong for pointing out the inherent weaknesses in the system.

The Results Are In
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:2/6/2011 8:10:02 AM

I didn't say Alder was wrong, Charlie. I essentially said that Alder condemning wine competitions is like a Mormon badmouthing adultery. And in a style that has all the writing charm of IBM's Watson.

Everyone in the biz who judges knows that wine judgings are a boondoggle for the judges, a chance to hang out with wine peers from all over the country, have a lot of laughs, and, on the side, use our expertise to pass judgment on a bunch of wines we don't care much about. We only rarely get paid for our time or expertise. But it's an adventure every time. Yes, I've been on panels that were relatively unqualified (we were judging Italian white varieties and not one of the other four judges on my panel had even heard of Arneis or Fiano!), but I've also met some of my favorite people in the business that way.

Do the results mislead consumers? OF COURSE THEY DO. Isn't the same argument made about the 100 point scale, and blogs, and everything Lettie Teague ever said? That's why they're consumers. They have to decide what to have lead them around by their inexperienced noses. Competitions just post results. Folks want to make something of them, that's their business. You'll never find a judge who swears wine competition results are the way to buy wine. Why, we don't even recommend what music complements the results! Or what movie! We're utterly useless. Hell, I only tasted 70 wines at ZAP last weekend, about 200 fewer than that Vornography guy. What do I know?

Give That Man A Silver Dollar
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/6/2011 2:19:02 PM

If you are old enough to know the title reference, you are too old to participate in giant wine judgings.

Ron, you have hit the nail on the head. These competitioins, for the most part, are not run to educate the consumers. They exist on the premise that getting a medal at one of them will help sell wine.

That is why Andy Blue can brag that he SELLS 500,000 stick-on medals to winners at the SF competition. It is why people have now started totally private, for profit "tastings" that focus on Pinot Noir or women drinkers or Poodles.

There are folks who run several competitions going from county to county like traveling minstrel shows.

I agree with you and Jim Caudill and Pamela that the camaraderie can be a good reason to go to these events, but it no longer is sufficiently compelling FOR me. I would rather go to a good restaurant with you and Wark and Sam and even Dan than to sit through three days of mind-numbing tastings.

 

Mind Numbing
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:2/6/2011 5:38:40 PM

Charlie, if you had a mind like mine, God forbid, you'd like having it numbed on a regular basis too.

 

Cheerleaders
by ANONYMOUS I
Posted on:2/7/2011 11:50:23 AM

I've often thought that the great reviews in various wine journals are simply cheerleaders for the wine industry. 

They allow companies to sell wine based upon the favorable reviews/medals/scores without having to know anything about the wine. 

What percentage of subscribers to various publications is paid for by "consumers" and what percentage by industry readership? 

I will confess to finding 95 point scores from Parker and The Wine Spectator to be very useful:  such a score often means it's a wine which I will probably not "appreciate." 

And I did learn something here today...I learned Alder Yarrow is a Mormon!
Thanks, Hosemaster, Sir!

ANONYMOUS I

Cheerleaders?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/7/2011 12:30:56 PM

There is a difference.

A cheerleader is someone who is committed to the product no matter what it is or what its quality may be.

None of the leading critics are cheerleaders. They are critics. One can agree or disagree with them. One can dislike the way that scores are used to sell wine, but the critics do not sell wine. They evaluate wine. They sell subscriptions.

They are like small wine retailers in that regard. The critics make a living only so long as what they offer to sell has value to their customers.

Cheerleaders
by ANONYMOUS I
Posted on:2/7/2011 5:39:28 PM

The Critics may not view themselves as "cheerleaders" and probably those who use their critiques don't view those scores and evaluations as cheerleading.  Yet the critics are largely employed by the industry to give encouragement to "the team" (those trying to sell wine).

Charlie, your point is well-taken.  Critics sell subscriptions, but their efforts are used for cheer-leading purposes. 

Sure, you don't give a particular winery glowing reviews for each bottling, each vintage.  Usually.  But your lovely journal and those of your competitors are used, for better or worse, as sales tools.  Cheerleading.

Mr. Hosemaster has pointed out that most of us do not want to see either CGCW critic in anything resembling the outfits worn by Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.  On the other hand, The Wine Country's Samantha has said she'd pay $50 for one such dressed Mr. Eliot and $100 for a Mr. Olken providing she has the photographic rights.

ANONYMOUS I

Cheerleaders???
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:2/7/2011 7:52:31 PM

Mr. Anon. Nope, cannot agree with you on several points...not the least of which is Samantha's willingness to part with the price of a good grower Champagne for the photos you propose. Don't know that Hosemaster suggested it either....even he has a few limits. In fact, I might propose doubling your sugggested prices NOT to see said photos. But the notion of "cheerleader" gets me a bit riled up, and, I doubt that the "industry" at large views us as such. What I regularly hear from winemakers is exactly the opposite; that we are too tough and stingy with points, yet they respect what we say. I am not and have never been a wine advocate in the simplest sense, but I do enjoy great wines and believe that after thirty-plus years in the business, I have some sense of what that means. I did what I think you do. I sold wines for a living for a very long time, and I still believe the most significant and useful connection a consumer can cultivate is with a thoughtful wine merchant who actually listens (do you hear me. Samantha, you are sooooo appreciated). Not everyone, however,  who is interested in wine has such as resource at hand, and just maybe I might be of some help. No, I do not cheerlead, I offer up informed opinon based on experience to be dismissed or accepted as folks see fit. As Charlie points out, this is not so different from what I once did as a retailer, it's just that my audience is a bit broader. If what we say makes no sense, then the value is nil, and we are out of business. If wineries find that what we say is to their liking, then they may employ those words as a sales picth...and, frankly, I wish that more did. But, at the end of the day, I confess to doing the same thing that I have for so many years. I am telling people what I like and why, and I assure you that there is no tie to the industry, no cheerleading other than when I find something that I really like, I will recommend it in my words and on my terms... with no thought to whether or not the "industry" powers may or may not like what I say. I mean really, do you worry about what the ignobel "industry" may think when you make recommendations on the floor of your store? Nope, me either. And, I am betting that the same is the case with most folks who do what I do.

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