What Does a Medal Mean?

With the recent completion of the Olympics, we are reminded of the incredible skill, precision and commitment it takes to win a medal, competing against the best in the world. An Olympic bronze medal–recognizing one the third best in the world at one’s sport–is high praise indeed. Why, then, are bronze medals from wine competitions shunned by some as though they’d been damned with faint praise?

In the Olympics, the judges award only three medals in each category. In wine competitions, up to 30 percent–and sometimes more–of the entries receive awards. Twenty percent of an individual category might receive bronze medals. This may dilute the significance of a bronze medal from a winery’s point of view, but I believe that the consumer should still see it as a solid recommendation for the wine.

How Medals Are Awarded

Unlike the Olympics, the judging system at wine competitions varies enormously. At some competitions, such as the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, panels of four or five judges evaluate 150 to 200 wines–usually in flights of 10 or 12–over the course of the day. The judges know the category (Pinot Noir priced above $30, for example) that they are tasting, but not any of the individual wines, which remain blinded until the end of the competition. After each flight, the judges cast their votes–gold, silver, bronze or no medal–and since there are often divergent opinions, they discuss the wines, twist arms, and negotiate. The Gold Medal wines from each flight are tasted the next day to award ‘Best of Class.’ (A wine that receives a gold medal vote from every judge is awarded a ‘Double Gold’).

The discussion among a panel of judges is extremely useful because each taster has different perspectives–some being winemakers, while others are retailers, sommeliers or writers. Missing something is easy when tasting so many wines, so if three of the four panel members award gold or silver medals, it allows the fourth judge to taste again and reevaluate.

The downsides of course are heated disagreements about style and ‘horse trading.’ Judges may describe a wine in an identical fashion but award different scores. A Pinot Noir might receive two ‘golds’ from judges who relish the very ripe, intense style California can produce and two ‘no medals’ from judges who fault it for failing to have Burgundian-like delicacy and subtlety. Hence, as a compromise, it winds up with a bronze medal.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. A dozen experienced judges–all wine writers–assess the wines and award medals individually, without discussion or compromises with fellow judges. They must write a short note that accompanies the award explaining the wine’s character or attribute. As a check, all the wines are tasted by two different judges, but they do not discuss their opinions or awards. All 12 judges taste the best wines the following day in a sweepstakes round–and vote without discussion–to select the ‘Best of Class’ and ‘Best of Show.’ The advantage to this system is that the consumer gets a single opinion–not a committee vote–and the reason for it.

Food and Wine

The International Wines for Oysters Competition held annually at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington takes a different approach because the judges are charged with finding the best match between wines and oysters. The awards go to the wines that harmonize and enhance the oysters, not the ones that are necessarily ‘the best’ on their own. WRO colleagues Michael Franz and Paul Lukacs pare down the hundreds of entries to 20 finalists, so the final group is always high quality. The difficulty involved in judging this competition, as the late Johnny Apple, columnist for the New York Times, put it, ‘is remembering to spit the wine, not the oyster.’

Wine Competitions Down Under

George Fistonich, Managing Director of Villa Maria Wines, one of New Zealand’s leading producers, told me that the wine competitions in New Zealand and Australia (The West Island, as the Kiwi’s refer to their larger neighbor) have enormous importance. ‘They trophies (wine competitions) have had a huge influence on raising the standard of New Zealand wines.’ According to Fistonich, the competitions stimulated innovations and gave the New Zealand winemakers expert advice from judges, who were world-renowned experts, such as Jancis Robinson. The judges from outside New Zealand were the ones counseling on the use of stainless steel and the judicious use of oak barrels in the 1970s. Today, the competitions have gained enough fame to serve as marketing tools, but winemakers also use them to keep their palates fresh by buying all the gold medal wines and tasting them blind. He says that this is a technique to avoid getting a ‘cellar palate’ as a result of losing diverse tasting experiences and just tasting one’s own wines. According to Fistonich, the competitions are even more important in Australia than in New Zealand.

Simon Blacket, an extraordinarily knowledgeable representative of Wolf Blass, the excellent Australian producer, agrees that results of wine competitions carry great weight in Australia.

But ironically, the Jimmy Watson trophy, awarded annually at the Melbourne Wine Show and perhaps Australia’s most important wine award, may have the greatest potential for error, not because of the judges, but because of the stage at which the wines are evaluated.

Jimmy Watson had the only successful wine bar in Melbourne in the mid-20th century. Each year, he selected his choice for the best young easy drinking red wine for his bar. After he died, the press created the Jimmy Watson Trophy for the best one year-old red wine. Since the best one year old red wines are invariably still in barrel, it means that the award goes to an unfinished wine. Moreover, the sample comes from one barrel, so it doesn’t even represent the final blend. Even though the Jimmy Watson Trophy has strayed far from its original function of finding an easy drinking red wine for a bar, and even though there’s the risk that the final wine will turn out very differently from a sample from a single barrel, every winner I’ve tasted has been an exceptional wine.

The Bottom Line

I think that’s the bottom line. Despite the varying formats of competitions, if a wine wins an award, you should be encouraged to try it, as any award is a solid recommendation. And who knows, you may wind up preferring a bronze medal winner to someone else’s gold medal wine.

Finally, if your favorite wine doesn’t happen to have one of those little medal stickers affixed to its bottle, don’t question its quality on that account. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘professional’ judges didn’t like it, since it might not have been entered into a competition. Trust your palate regarding your favorite, but, as Fistonich advises, taste it next to an award winner just for fun.

September 23, 2008