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Do Wine Medals Matter?

In May, I was a judge at two international wine competitions in California that taught me plenty about the current state of California wine. But they also illustrated a new trend in U.S. competitions: targeting particular audiences and offering specific judging perspectives, a big change from the traditional state fair model.

Does that make the results more relevant? Well, maybe.

Grouped tastings are growing in popularity

The first tasting was the tiny International Organic and Biodynamic Wine Competition held in mid-May at the Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa. Started three years ago, it was originally called the Green Wine Competition and included “natural” wines from vintners whose vineyards aren’t certified, leading some top vintners whose wines are certified to boycott in protest. Having been a judge in 2008, I was happy that this year organizers restricted entries to wines made from certified organic or biodynamic grapes.

Two weeks later I headed to San Diego for the Critics Challenge, where all judges, unlike most international competitions, are well-known wine critics. I’ve been a regular since its second year, 2005. This year, there were 1,312 entries.

Wineries enter any competition, of course, hoping to bring home some sales-enhancing bronze, silver, gold and platinum medals they can brag about.

New style wine competitions offer other reasons to enter. The Organic Competition, for example, is a limited universe with wines judged only against other organic and biodynamic wines. The year-old Sommelier Challenge, judged by sommeliers at top restaurants, is a way for winery owners who want to increase restaurant sales to get their wines in front of the people who are looking at them from the perspective of how well they’d go with restaurant food.

Targeted tastings can make judging easier

For critics like me, judging large numbers of wines at one go is a chance to make discoveries, especially from places and wineries I don’t know, under the best conditions: tasting blind at a table in a quiet room with glasses of wines in the same category lined up in front of me. That’s still the best way to assess wines sans preconceptions about producer, region or price.

At huge packed events put on by importers and winery associations, blind tasting is impossible, finding a spit bucket and scribbling notes is a challenge and inevitably someone spills red wine on my jacket (which is why I always, always wear black).

Frankly, competitions are also a way for me to spot trends and get a sense of the general quality in various wine categories. Many wines at the Organic and Biodynamic Competition didn’t shine with pure, planet-positive flavors, but unlike two years ago, I found very few truly funky bottlings with serious flaws. One surprise when the labels were revealed: how highly I’d rated the certified biodynamic Quivira Winery bottlings. (I just learned they’ve just hired a new winemaker as of July 1.)

At the Critics Challenge, the large group of Pinot Grigios I tasted were quickly dismissed. Two smelled like bathroom cleaner, for others I simply wrote “ugh!” The dark, intense Petite Sirahs, though, showed what a comeback the grape has made and many received medals. A number of dry Rieslings stood out, especially the deliciously fruity 2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle, at $9 (!) the competition’s wine of year and an ideal summer sipper.

Fewer California Chardonnays tasted as overwhelmingly oaky as those in past years, yet far too many showed zero personality. One notable exception: the balanced, elegant 2008 Jordan from Russian River Valley ($29), which won best Chardonnay, evidence that the most powerful, obvious wines don’t always win in a blind tasting.

But do wine medals mean anything?

So I find myself puzzling over recent claims that medals given out at wine competitions are essentially meaningless.

Last spring, the Journal of Wine Economics published a paper by Richard T. Hodgson titled “An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions.” In analyzing results of 13 of the largest and oldest U.S. wine competitions, the former statistics professor turned vintner found that many wines which had received gold medals at one competition received no award at another. He  concluded that “the likelihood of receiving a gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone.”

Competitions apparently showed agreement only on the wines judges didnt like. But that’s pretty significant. In those I’ve judged, wines with flaws like volatile acidity haven’t normally been awarded gold (or any other) medals.

Hodgson and other critics miss the point. Competitions are not running some kind of exact science TV crime lab. Who can be surprised that results depend on factors like what wines are submitted in a particular category, how the competition is run, and the experience and palate preferences of the judges?

Yes, surprisingly ordinary wines do get medals and wine lovers and wineries should check out who’s doing the judging. But competitions are one way for unknown wineries and regions to break through the clutter of thousands on shelves and find an interested audience, which was recognized by a panel on the value of wine competitions at the fourth annual Conference of the American Association of Wine Economists held the last weekend in June.

Targeted competitions, such as those focused on wines from organically grown grapes or wines made by women or judged by sommeliers at least give consumers somewhere to start.

Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

Photo: Contenders at the Critics Challenge tasting.
Credit: Courtesy Critics Challenge.