|"Pigmeat" Markham--Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's.|
There are many things to complain about when it comes to wine competitions. Results aren’t one of them. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve been a wine judge, but it’s somewhere around twenty-five to thirty times (could be more) among a dozen or so competitions. Every competition is different. Different standards, different judges, different sorts of judging conditions. And each competition has a different approach to awarding medals as well. Therein lies the main problem. The average person seeing a “Gold Medal” medallion on a bottle of wine hasn’t the vaguest idea what it actually represents. I suspect competitions like it that way. Mystery adds weight to the significance. And “Gold,” well, it conjures up Walter Huston dancing in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” “Silver” conjures up the Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp as Tonto? Really? Wait, was Lou Ferrigno already booked?). And “Bronze,” that lowliest of medals, reminds us of the lowliest of actors, George Hamilton. Though putting a “Bronze Medal” sticker on your bottle of wine is like advertising that 1 out of 5 dentists recommends your toothpaste.
There are many ways to evaluate and “score” wine. Every one of them is flawed. This is the single fact you need to remember. If you are a person who buys wine based on numbers, or based on Gold Medals, or based on “blind” tastings done in a newspaper office, you cannot get around the fact that there is no foolproof way to evaluate wine. Period. But we like rankings and we like numbers, and we award them great significance and power. This is our fault as humans, not the fault of those who conjure up magical numbers in their heads after smelling and tasting a wine for a few minutes, or of those panels of judges who quietly taste, then compare their notes to all the other judges and decide, somehow, it’s Silver. Why is it Silver? Well, because three out of four of us say so. Wine competitions are the Supreme Court of wine—heavily male, pretty damned old, and utterly convinced of the righteousness of their decisions. And, truly, most of us die in office.
A critic with many years of experience, the rare one that hasn’t made himself into a buffoon, provides enormous insight. There are critics I trust. I often don’t agree with them, I often think they are wrong about specific wines, but I trust them and I read them. Who? Well, Charlie Olken and Stephen Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide for their perspective on California wines, Robert Parker for Rhône wines (though he has passed that region on to his new reviewer Jeb Clampett), Paul Gregutt for Washington wines, Tim Atkin MW has great insight, a formidable palate and is a talented and engaging writer, Steve Heimoff is always solidly informed, Nick Ponomareff and his California Grapevine crew do consistent and learned tasting notes, and there's always the iconoclastic, informative and idiosyncratic Dan Berger. There are others. But, for the most part, I rely on friends, people I’ve tasted with for many years, people whose palates I understand, for new wines to try. But I’m blessed with some friends who are among the best wine buyers around—Samantha Dugan of Wine Country in Signal Hill, CA, Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wine and Spirits in Burlingame, CA, Ben Pearson of Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, CA. These folks know wine better than any M.S. I’ve ever met, and are far more engaging. If you’re not in the wine biz, chances are you don’t have friends like mine to advise you on wine.
But think of a wine competition (and, frankly, the word “competition” is wrong—each wine is judged individually, not competitively, which is why there can be many medals in each category) as a conversation. Among wine lovers, isn’t that how we “rate” wines? We don’t give them goddam numbers, except as a joke. (“I’m 97 on that.” “Yeah, what about my wife?” “I’m 69 on that.”) We open a bottle, share it with four or five or six people, talk about it, argue about it, agree and disagree about it, and, finally, just drink it. But we usually come to a kind of unspoken consensus as to its quality, usually demonstrated by how fast we drink it. It’s the conversation, the input of other humans who love wine, that makes it fun and educational. That’s all a wine judging is.
At wine competitions, we usually judge with other people we know, admire, and like (panels can be three, four or five judges, sometimes more). Or we come to like them by the end of the judging if we hadn’t met them before. With the occasional arrogant and petulant butthole thrown in. Anyone who has been a wine judge for any length of time can tell you stories. I’ve seen an MS and an MW thrown out mid-competition for aggressive and insulting behavior to other judges. Judging wine! We’re not arguing abortion rights or invoking the death penalty, we’re talking about fucking Merlot. Almost every judging I’ve participated in has had one moron judge who thinks he knows far more than the other people on that panel. The arrogance is astounding. It’s not standing up for principles to refuse to budge on your evaluations, it’s the most immature form of one-upmanship. The only consolation is knowing that the egocentric judge lives in a private hell of his own making. Yet one person like that on your panel can sour you on wine judging for a long time. Come to think of it, invoking the death penalty just might work.
When you are part of an interesting panel, it’s great fun. Every wine gets discussed, and the discussions are often extremely educational. Winemakers and Enology Professors make for really challenging days. They are trained to hunt faults, and the smallest thing might make them want to give a low, or no, medal. In a very recent competition, our panel consisted of me and another wine buyer/sommelier type, and two winemakers. There were several wines that the two of us felt were Gold Medal wines while the two winemakers found them unworthy of any medal. I learned a lot about faults that competition, mostly of the teeny kind. But faults, in my opinion, don’t disqualify beauty. A large, obvious and regrettable fault—sure, disqualify it. But something minor (“The yeast were probably a little nutrient starved” is not something I have ever read in Wine Spectator), well, that might even define the wine a bit. Lots of gorgeous people have little flaws—Cindy Crawford’s mole jumps to mind, and Marilyn Monroe's, and Marty Feldman’s eyes. Can’t a lovely wine? It’s an interesting discussion, and out of it comes a medal that makes some sense. Not definitive, not written in Gold, definitely debatable, but, yet, sensible.
So how do stupid wines get Gold Medals? Charles Shaw most recently. There have always been rumors that there are “special” bottles of Charles Shaw that are sent to wine competitions, bottles with wine better than and not representative of the brand.. This is mindless crap. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. How could I be? I’m a wine judge, dammit. Would Fred Franzia cheat? Sure. He’s been busted lots of times. For a wine competition? No. It wouldn’t be worth it. He’d be guaranteed to be caught eventually, outed by a wine whistleblower, and looking that foolish for a three dollar bottle of wine that’s already sold fifty million (!) cases would be stupid. He ain’t stupid.
Let’s understand that for the most part, the majority of the wines entered into a competition are not the great wines of the world. The finest wines don’t need to enter a wine judging any more than George Clooney needs to audition. Gold Medals do nothing for them. Yes, there are a few very prestigious competitions that have many famously great wines entered—but those competitions do not have entries like Charles Shaw. Also, varieties that have hundreds of entries (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zin, Merlot…) are often segregated by price. In many competitions you’re judging “Chardonnays under $15,” for example. And you taste, and you discuss with your panel friends, and you might say, “Hey, for 10 bucks, this is damned tasty, why not Gold?” That bottle is never compared in any way with a $50 Chardonnay. Consumers like to see “Gold Medal” on eight dollar bottles too. I’m sure that the Charles Shaw wines that won in Orange County were in low price categories. The folks at Charles Shaw know that, and just like in horse racing, you only enter a race you think your horse fits. And they won. But that doesn’t make Charles Shaw Chardonnay a Grand Cru Chablis. It makes it a three dollar wine that’s worth three dollars.
And, finally, it’s the stupid wines that create the most controversy. The best wines usually win a Gold or a Double Gold easily. (Double Gold is a wine that received a vote of Gold from every judge on the panel—very tough to do. If you buy wine by medals, buy Double Golds and not necessarily Golds. Words of advice which won’t endear me to wine competitions.) Horrible wines, and they are legion (and their names are never revealed to the public, though judges know), are the subject of derision and occasional wit. (An old chestnut, “What I liked about this Chardonnay was the fruit didn’t get in the way of the oak.”) But it’s the stupid wines, the wines that stun your palate with mediocrity, that can sometimes sneak by and get a Gold Medal. Sometimes the least objectionable wine rises to the top, the "American Idol" Law. Every panel member, when seeing the results of his judging, alone in front of his computer, will spot a few wines that received Gold Medals that he wishes hadn’t. But if you judge 200 wines in two days, and only see two or three in the results that you feel are undeserving, that’s fine, that’s just how it goes. However, it explains why a single wine entered in many different competitions will often get completely different medals. Those, almost without fail, are stupid wines. Even the least talented nag may eventually win a race if you keep entering; champions win consistently.
There’s a lot more to say, but I’m done here. Don’t take any wine ratings seriously. Trust your friends, trust a few critics who seem to enlighten you, trust a decent wine shop… There are no guarantees. Get over it. But thinking that wine competitions are useless or invalid or unreliable isn’t insight. Insight is knowing that wine always has, and always will, get the better of us. All of us.