How many Gold Medals are there?

On my first wine tour in the Okanagan, the very first winery offered us a tasting of their gold medal-winning Gewurztraminer. We loved it and bought a bottle. Then, at the next winery, we were offered a tasting of their gold medal-winning Gewurztraminer. It was good too and we bought that as well. Driving away, we were a bit confused about the gold medal. How could they have won it when the first winery’s Gewurztraminer had also won it? We figured that it must have been from a different competition.

When the third winery offered us a tasting of their gold medal-winning Gewurztraminer, we said, “Ok, hold on. We just tasted two others. How many gold medals are there? In the Olympics, there’s only one for each event. Why are we seeing the same kind of wine winning the same medal? What the hell?”

It’s a good thing that we were at a winery wine shop in April because there was no other customers there and the wine shop person had all the time in the world to explain stuff like this to neophtye wine tasters like us. While I won’t often name names about things like this, in this case I can’t actually remember her name. I do remember that she was a blonde Irish lady that was working at Hawthorn Mountain Vineyards – now See Ya Later Ranch – and she was wonderfully patient. She took the time to explain it all and it was quickly apparent that a) she was educated and knew she was talking about, b) she knew what we were asking, and c) she knew how to take the time to help us understand something that we clearly did not understand.

Since that time in my years in wine sales, I have had to do this similar explanation a number of times. I have also had the chance to see how wine awards function from the perspective of a judge, from the perspective of the people who organize them, and from the perpective of the wineries that rely on them for marketing.

From the organizer’s point of view:

Whoever is organizing the competition has a reason for going to the trouble of hosting the awards. Many are done by magazines or publications of some kind. The All-Canadian Wine Championships was done by Vines Magazine and the National Wine Awards of Canada was first done by Wine Access magazine but taken over by a website called Wine Align when the magazine folded.

Non-profit organizations like the Okanagan Wine Festial Society runs the Best of Varietal wine awards in the spring and the BC Lt. Governors Wine Awards in the fall. This organization has a history going back to the early 1980s and were set up by people in the wine industry. (Full disclosure – I was on the board of directors for this society on two occasions in the past 5 years.)

Organizers of all kinds have a vested interest in keeping their awards legitimate. So they try to attract the best judges that they can get. Rather than have a small number of awards (as in the Olympics), most wine competitions opt to have lots of different awards, which gets the name of the organization out and brings them marketing value. If it is run by a magazine, then they get to publish the results in special issues. The goal for them is to run a good competition and make as many people (customers and advertisers) as happy as possible. Magazines need to fill pages and if there was only 1 gold, silver, and bronze for every wine category, it would not fill a lot of pages. More is better.

From the wine judge’s point of view:

Wine judges love to taste wine and they love to communicate their experiences with it. They do this kind of thing for living and love the opportunity to challenge themselves with tastings. In that way, they have no real vested interest in any particular style of wine. They are there to look for the best wines.

Competitions are generally blind tastings, so the judges know very little about the wines that they are tasting. Generally, they know the grape variety or style (Meritage, Icewine, etc) and may sometimes know the price range (under $25, etc) but otherwise, they know very little else other than what their noses tell them. Their noses can tell them a lot and they will base their judgements mostly around what they smell. If they know that they are given a Pinot Noir and a wine doesn’t smell like a Pinot Noir, it will probably not make it into the medal round. To novice wine tasters, this might sound a bit weird. How can a wine taste like Pinot Noir?? Judges can tell what varietal it is because they know what it should taste like. If you bit into a Snickers bar and it tasted like a Crunchy, you would probably think that it was not a good Snickers bar because that’s not the flavour combination that you were expecting. Wine judges can do that with different grape varieties. A Pinot Noir that tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon is not a good Pinot Noir.

Some judges come with years of experience which can be both valuable and debilitating at the same time. It is valuable in that they have a lot of experience to be able to recognize what a good wine should be. It can be debilitating if they value the wines from a particular region (Burgundy, for example) and then try to base their judgements on all Pinot Noir as it compares to Burgundy (which it will never be because it may not have been produced in Burgundy). This makes juding competitions using wines from new regions like B.C. very dificult to manage and understand.

Wine judges (and wine criticism as well) has evolved to where many wine judges are now more familiar with the potential of B.C. wine and can get a better sense of the spectrum of quality.

From the winery’s point of view:

Many people in the industry roll their eyes at wine awards but they also know that they work to sell wine. I have had customers come in and ask for the gold medal winning wines. I showed one customer six different wines and he asked for a half case of each of them, which I gladly rolled out on a dolly to his vehicle 5 minutes later. Medals sell wine.

Wineries also need to sell wine and those medals will be draped over the bottles in the wine shop but also in graphics overlayed onto their marketing print material. The awards become easy talking points for wine shop staff who start off talking about a wine by saying something like, “This is our gold medal-winning Gewurztraminer…” Sales reps can also use it to drive sales to restaurants and wine retailers, where they can display shalf-talkers that show the award to customers to drive sales. Wine retailers who are caught without a gold medal winning wine in stock will probably not be able to restock it after it wins. Suddenly everyone wants this gold medal-winning wine (sometimes after it has been ignored on the shelf for months prior – I’ve seen that many times too).

Some wineries choose not to enter their wines into any competitions. Some competitions are expensive to enter and require the winery to submit multiple bottles of wine (sometimes 6 bottles). For a winery that sells $80 bottles of Merlot, that’s a lot of lost revenue to gamble on the possibility of winning an award. Some wineries enter their whole portfolio of wines, which is risky because there is a chance that the value-priced $20 Merlot might win a gold while the $50 Merlot comes in with a Bronze. I have seen this kind of thing happen more than once and is a tough one for a winery to explain to their customers.

From the consumer’s point of view:

Wine awards give consumers what they are seeking, which is reassurance. They want to know that a wine is good. To them, a wine with an award means that someone with more knowledge about wine thought that it was a good enough wine to earn a prize. It is really that simple. Just like point scores, these are a great short-hand for finding wines that they are going to feel good and more secure about purchasing. Unconsciously, It may positively alter how they perceive the quality of the wine as well. Is that a bad thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Customers can usually spot the medal winners if they have shelf talkers or some kind of display to indicate their award. They may already be armed with a list of medal winners or come looking for a particular wine that they know has won an award already. Wine awards add a competitive element to finding wines. It is almost the thrill of the hunt, which can sometimes be more rewarding than the wine itself.

The Importance of Competition

The trick with wine awards is not to get caught up in their importance. Yes, it’s interesting to see which wine wins and everyone loves to watch a good competition. Yes, the wineries that do win will get a big marketing push out of it. Yes, the organization that runs it will get to revel in the glow of it for a while. And yes, consumers may get to try wines that they may not have otherwise considered purchasing.

But is the big winner really the absolute best wine out there? This is what most consumers, like I was and still am, expecting when we see medals hanging off bottles in the wine shop. When not every winery enters, it can not really be considered a complete competition. Wines are also moving targets, as anyone who has worked in a wine shop can tell you. The same wine will taste slightly different from day to day or month to month, as they should since wines evolve over time. If the judging for a competition takes place at a time when a  wine is showing at its best, it will probably do very well.

In wine competitions, timing is everything and nobody has any control over it.