Monday, July 8, 2013

Here Come Da Wine Judge, Here Come Da Wine Judge...

At least once a year, the subject of countless wine bloggers (excuse me, Mr. Wark, I meant wine writers
—though the vast majority of wine blogs are not written, they’re hurled) becomes wine competitions. These are often hilariously misinformed or outright stupid. Which comes as no surprise. So I thought I’d provide my own misinformed and stupid views, as I am wont to do.
"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.


Steve Lay said...

I am shocked to learn... For sure, the HoseMaster is very succinct, alarmingly accurate and will probably be entering the witness protection program because the self-annointed wine writers and judges have been roundly exposed. Logic with such people is not their long-suit.
Wine drinkers/lovers are like lemmings. We mindlessly buy into dribblings of self-proclaimed experts, writing for magazines/newsletters/blogs, in a shallow attempt at masking their advertising sales effort supported by awarding point ratings. And, then there is going to a county fair for wine judging facts that come out following a greased pig catching contest--is that appropriate?
Do I understand that a wine judge can determine a TCA level in a wine that only a certified wine lab can find? Genius.
I got up this morning with no stress and opened my e-mail from HoseMaster and now I am Pee'd Off.

Hoke Harden said...

One of the best articles on judging/competitions I've read. Thank you (from one who has done numerous judgings).

One article I read was amusing: writer tore apart the whole idea of competitions and judging...while admitting he had voluntarily signed up for five judgings (to date) in 2013. Wait. What?

PaulG said...

Ron, First, thank you sincerely for the kind words. It's more than I got from the Seattle Times when they dumped me after 12 years of service. Much appreciated. As for your comments on wine judgings, I have to say that I think you are far, far too kind. I've done my share of them, and most are pathetic. It's a cattle call for wines. Who can taste 150+ wines in a day and make any sense out of them? Wine glasses are often sub-par. Panels may or may not include the designated a-hole, but are rarely compatible in terms of their experience, preferences and prejudices. As you say, wines are grouped by price, but even there the really good wines are almost never entered. The more important truth is that these are For Profit enterprises. Judges are instructed to award as many medals as possible. The wineries have paid good money dammit and they want their medals! If any wine evaluation method should be criticized, it's not the 100 point scoring from blind tastings. It's the gathering of meaningless medals, whether bronze, brass, platinum or real Corinthian leather, from cynical "competitions." Harrumph!

The Sommeliere said...

Aaah, good old Funk and Wagnal's. What about Strunk and White?

But I digress. Speaking of fucking Merlot, I had the bad luck to be assigned to the Merlot table (which is something like the kid's table at Thanksgiving?) at one THREE day judging. Three days of Merlot only punctuated by "palate cleansing" olives? and water crackers, made me unable to drink Merlot for over two years.

Bob Henry said...

With apologies to Mark Twain, who quipped . . .

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

. . . on judging winetasting competitions:

Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
(November 20, 2009, Page W6):

“A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion”


Essay by [Caltech professor] Leonard Mlodinow

. . . The medals won at the 29 major U.S. wine competitions medals are considered so influential that wineries spend well over $1 million each year in entry fees.

. . .

But what if the successive judgments of the same wine, by the same wine expert, vary so widely that the ratings and medals on which wines base their reputations are merely a powerful illusion? That is the conclusion reached in two recent papers in the Journal of Wine Economics.

Both articles were authored . . . Robert Hodgson, a retired professor who taught statistics at Humboldt State University . . . [and] the proprietor of Fieldbrook Winery, a small operation that puts out about 10 wines each year, selling 1,500 cases

A few years ago, Mr. Hodgson began wondering how wines, such as his own, can win a gold medal at one competition, and "end up in the pooper" at others. He decided to take a course in wine judging, and met G.M "Pooch" Pucilowski, chief judge at the California State Fair wine competition, North America's oldest and most prestigious. Mr. Hodgson joined the Wine Competition's advisory board, and eventually "begged" to run a controlled scientific study of the tastings, conducted in the same manner as the real-world tastings. The board agreed, but expected the results to be kept confidential.

. . .

In his first study, each year, for four years, Mr. Hodgson served actual panels of California State Fair Wine Competition judges -- some 70 judges each year -- about 100 wines over a two-day period. He employed the same blind tasting process as the actual competition. In Mr. Hodgson's study, however, every wine was presented to each judge three different times, each time drawn from the same bottle.

The results astonished Mr. Hodgson. The judges' wine ratings typically varied by ± 4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.

. . .

{Link to study:]

Bob Henry said...

Alternate link to Robert Hodgson's Journal of Wine Economics (Volume 3, Issue 2, Fall 2008) published study titled "An Examination of Judge Reliability at a Major U.S. Wine Competition":

Link to his follow-up Journal of Wine Economics (Volume 4, Issue 01, Spring 2009) published study titled "An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions":

Unknown said...

i loved the tidbit about the asshole wine tasters. would love to see some extended fiction on that topic.

as for winemakers making horrible tasters, i am starting to develop a winemaker palate, and i think you nailed it on the head. There are times I am actually mad at myself because I am drinking a wine that I know is good, but one little sniff of VA ruins it for me.

Well done article. Thanks, Jose!

Thomas said...

What Paul G. said.

Dean Tudor said...

Ron, loved your satire...wait...not satire...that other word...sarcasm...yes, loved your sarcasm...More please...(that's not true is it???)

Dean Tudor said...

or is it sardonic? ironic?

LeoFerrando said...

Thanks for your excellent article, a solid piece of advice to wine 'evaluators'. Last paragraph is of the essence : the wine point of view.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
Well I had both my Funk and Wagnall removed after a childhood roller skating accident, but I see you had yours removed from this post as well so I guess that can't be the reason I've never been a judge at a wine competition. Or I've said no the couple of times I was asked to do one. I just know myself too well and I doubt I would be able to hide my, "Um, are you aware you are a total self congratulatory douchenozzle?" and "You want to give this gold? You're fucking stoned" face. I know my short comings...or it has to do with my missing Funk. Plus I've always sort of thought of "Gold" sort of like "Medium", not good, not bad, just meh. That's what I would tell my customers anyway, if one of them, in 17 years, had ever asked about a wine that got a gold or silver medal, not one ever has.

I do thank you for including me and my little store in this fine list Love. Immensely flattering and pink-cheek inducing....even though I have to take a strong step away in praising Parker in the Rhone. Nothing like standing in a cellar in Chateauneuf-du-Pape with some farmer/winemaker beaming in your face, your palate on FIRE as he tells you, "This should get a good score, it is 16%!" blech. Thankfully however, things are swinging back as his, and his old publication have less and less influence in the marketplace, and in the vineyards.

Thanks again for the kind words My Love. There are very few things I like more than turning you wine that is. xoxoxoxox

PaulG said...

"I've never been a judge at a wine competition. I just know myself too well and I doubt I would be able to hide my, 'Um, are you aware you are a total self congratulatory douchenozzle?' and 'You want to give this gold? You're fucking stoned' face. I know my short comings...or it has to do with my missing Funk."

Sam - you have just added an immensely valuable word – douchenozzle – to my Funky Wagger! Thank you so much!!!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, man, this is gonna take awhile...

Steve Lay,
Nothing to be ticked off about. My general point is that every sort of wine rating system, every sort of evaluation, is flawed. Wine is a social event, for the most part, and therefore we seek the company of humans when we want advice or approval. Parker or Heimoff, State Fair or Riverside International. We get bad advice from friends and family in real life, we get a lot the same in our wine life. It's how we learn.

Thank you. It's a subject that pops up all the time on wine blogs. I've done satires about wine judges, but this time I just wanted to write about it from my own perspective. Glad you liked it.

Ah, yes, wine competitions are For Profit. So, not like Wine Enthusiast...

I would agree that many, if not most, are, in fact, pathetic. The pathetic ones I do once, and then not again. The ones where I continue to be a judge, I participate for the simple reason that I enjoy them, and I learn a lot from judging. I've learned an enormous amount about my own strengths and weaknesses judging wines, things I couldn't have learned as a sommelier. And it's also great networking, and I've met lots of great folks at wine competitions.

And, actually, I've been at many competitions where they were NOT worried about how many medals were awarded, though, to your point, those are the exceptions and not the rule. But, with experienced wine judges, we listen to those instructions and then ignore them.

As for 150+ wines in a day--yup, too many. But I can tell you that I certainly don't put the funky ones in my mouth, and that's probably 15% of them. Still too many, but many competitions have cut way back on those numbers, for which judges are very grateful. And how many wines did Parker used to taste in a day? How many did Alder Yarrow taste at ZAP every year and rate? And wine competitions are useless? My bigger point is to take all wine reviews with a gigantic grain of salt.

I tell people to think of a Gold Medal as an 89 point wine. This is total gibberish. Gold and 89 are utterly subjective, and it's a completely false analogy. But there you have it. (And that's not how I evaluate the wines at a judging, that's just a remark meant to stimulate their sense of being critical of all sorts of ratings.)

Marlene Darling,
Oh, been there, done that. I had the same thing happen to me with tequila, but not at a competition.

Bob, Bob, Bob,
This ain't stinkin' Wikipedia. If you want to contribute your thoughts and opinions, do so. We've had this discussion. You're becoming the boor at my dinner party. No more links. I have a delete button and I'm not afraid to use it.

Oh, the wine competition stories I could tell! Perhaps one day...

As for winemakers and wine tastings, I get it. You certainly do NOT want to watch TV sitcoms with me. I just get angry.

All these criticisms are slam dunks, inarguable and accurate. And yet, an awful lot of them apply to most wine reviews and critiques. Points, medals, badges, scales of all sorts. Wine bests us at every turn.

It's none of those. It's just my usual crapola.

Thank you.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Well, it's like anything else, easy to be critical when you've never done it. And, for all you know, you might be on a panel that agrees with you. Those people do exist. At most competitions you have a mix of damned accomplished tasters and damned idiots. But isn't that a reflection of the public in general?

Of course, no one goes into your shop and asks for a Gold Medal wine. They don't ask for a wine that got 96 in Wine and Spirits either. They ask You. And that's really smart. Part of my point. Gold Medals are for wineries to trumpet on their websites, in their tasting rooms, at public tastings... If someone assigns it value, they take that risk. Just as by accepting your recommendations they are taking a risk. Just under different circumstances.

Up here, after every Sonoma Harvest Fair judging, Ben Pearson loads his store with the Double Gold and Gold Medal wines. He sells an enormous volume of wine. Folks then get to think, wow, wine judges are smart, or they think, wow, what a bunch of douchenozzles. Either way, it's a discussion of wine, and that's all anyone ever wants.

As for Parker, distance yourself all you want. It's the only region where I like his taste, but primarily for the regular wines, not the high octane stuff that gets the big numbers. I wouldn't expect you to like those wines any more than you can expect me to like Pinot Noir Rose.

Marcia Macomber said...

I'm late. I know. Where did you put the Hosemaster?

No, seriously I loved this post, Ron. It may be a departure from the norm, but it was an oh-so-worthy read (especially when we all get new vocabulary like "douchenozzle" to play with now).

I was listening to some Sonoma visitors Saturday in Vine Alley commenting on all the gold medals touted at one tasting room's sign. "Gold medal for what? Gold Medal from Ace Hardware for 'best wine to have with a wrench'?" - or something to that effect. They weren't being sarcastic but merely felt it was overplayed and generally meaningless unless you actual taste it for yourself.

Somehow I think your version of wine competitions would end up a lot more like "Night Court." Loved that show. Give it a gold medal. :-P

Samantha Dugan said...

Paul G,
My dear man, I have so few gifts I am glad to share with you the one I do have, swear words! Go forth and spread that fine word sir.

Ron My Love,
Well I've never gotten a Brazilian either, although come to think of it I might just prefer having my pubes ripped out. If I were on a panel with the likes of you or Gerald then hell yes, just for that reason alone it would be worth it but just last week I had a woman working the Long Beach Grand Cru judging come in and ask for some extra boxes, I tried to give her the lay down flat case boxes she stopped me and said, "Oh no, this is for the leftovers, they will be open bottles and this competition is going to keep me in wine for months!"...I shit you not. Not sure I want that person giving any kind of medals or picking wines for me. Ick. You are in a whole other class babe and the events you do have to be a good time, otherwise why would you do them but so many of those people, ugh.

Unknown said...

I've got nothing funny or wise to say, but I wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on judging.

Thomas said...

Until a few years ago, every year for many years I judged at the NY State Fair.

We were always unpaid, but before the fair people changed their policy, we at least reimbursed for miles driven (about 200 round trip for me) two nights in a hotel, a lunch, and a dinner.

The part that made me crazy was that the dinner did not include wine.

For some reason, I was the only one who found that odd.

Eric V. Orange said...

Wow Hose, well done. Well done.

Favorite line, "-though the vast majority of wine blogs are not written, they're hurled)"

Having recently judged at the LA competition, you describe my experience to a tee (though, fortunately, we had no a-holes at my panel). We did have two winemakers who consistently pointed out the many faults (57 wines in category "oaked chard, under $15, gag me).

At first I thought two winemakers on a panel might prove to be a mistake, but now I realize how much I learned from listening to Brian Maloney the winemaker at DeLoach Vineyards and Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Winery. Like Gabriel mentioned in the comments, I can't happily and obliviously chug some of the stuff I was before, but I have a better appreciation for the good ones when I find them.

For me personally, it's about getting out and meeting folks in the industry. I'm grateful for the opportunity to judge (and welcome requests, especially the expenses paid kind). Many fellow judges, I've had correspondence with for years, but never meet as I sit here on my ass year after year running my site.

Speaking of which, we are on for lunch Friday next week. I very much look forward to meeting you in person to congratulate you for your poodle awards. Bring the trophy, or whatever, eh? Lunch is on me. Or maybe Michael Hientz. He may have something planned. Will email.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Oh, that HoseMaster guy is off somewhere with Lo Hai Qu. He'll be back later in the week, just as annoying and probably infected.

I think that all the attention being paid to wine competitions ignores the fact that their value is generally exaggerated. As is my opinion's.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
That woman collecting boxes was obviously a volunteer at the competition. Judges do not ever get to take home open bottles, or unopened bottles. So she had no say in awarding medals.

One of the weird things about judging is the esteem you are held in by the nice folks who volunteer to help at the competition. It's almost embarrassing. They do amazing and tireless work, and everyone involved with those judgings owes them enormous respect and gratitude. And they could also tell you stories about butthole judges who make their lives miserable.

I love you so.

You're welcome. I've also got nothing funny or wise to say, but that never stops me.

Yeah, but they would have been New York wines, so be careful what you wish for.

I judged at three competitions in six weeks. I judged with a vast array of knowledgeable folks, from wine writers to sommeliers to winemakers. And, though I've done this for years, I continue to learn at each event. It's enhanced my appreciation of wine, not spoiled it. It's made me realize my very real limitations, and also helped me appreciate even more how miraculous a great bottle of wine is.

Are the results more or less accurate than wine reviewers and numbers? Doesn't matter. If you're a consumer, pick your poison. Wine is about pleasure. Ratings and medals and numbers reduce wine ultimately, rob it of pleasure. As guidelines, they all have strengths and weaknesses. But they all force us to bring expectations to a bottle of wine that will often blind us to the real joy of drinking that wine--the joy of drinking it with a loved one or the joy of a memory it evokes.

So when I read some dimwit "exposing" wine competitions, it just makes me laugh. His big news? We're human and we all think we're right.

Friday it is! It will be nice to finally meet you, Eric. Looking forward to it. I'll bring the Bronze Medal wines.

Andy Perdue said...

Ron, as always, you nailed it. I enjoy wine competitions, and I think many superb wines get proper exposure as a result.

Perhaps the most frustrating time I had was several years ago at a Southern California competition during which I was on a panel with three winemakers. I don't recall that we gave much higher than a bronze medal that day. Of course, the category was "Central Coast Merlot," so I might have been optimistic that we'd find something better.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks. As you know, some competitions won't invite any winemakers to judge. The days can get long with some. Though many are very generous with medals and very easy to judge with--usually those who have been winemakers for a long time.

Maybe we'll be on a panel together one day. That would be very interesting. Of course, I make everyone sign a non-disclosure agreement. Which is sort of like a screwtop, I think.

Daniel said...

a gold medal wine is like a 3 star hotel. it's ok for tonight, but I hope I don't have to live there.

after reading your description of judging at a wine 'competition' (why don't they actually have them 'compete' with a NCAA type tournament and have a final winner?), it does make me ask. "Then why do you do it?"

I love it when winery people brag about their medals, scores etc. I always tell consumers to keep it in perspective. It might have 95 points, double gold, critics choice, etc., but what if you don't like a high-octaine/deeply extracted/bracingly acidic minerally/terrior heavy/delicate nuanced/tannic and earthy whatever it is? It's like music. sometimes you want Mozart, sometimes you want They Might Be Giants. such a fine line...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

There is sort of a final competition at the end of most competitions where all of the best whites (by variety) and reds (ditto) are judged by all of the judges and voted on for Sweepstakes White and Sweepstakes Red. In my experience, judges tend to vote heavily for Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling (Chardonnay almost never wins Sweepstakes any more), and for Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Sauvignon, occasionally something more interesting, but never Merlot. That said, Sweepstakes winners are crowd pleasers, to be sure.

Medals are for marketing departments. No sommelier will EVER buy a wine based on a Gold Medal, and only rarely will a quality wine shop. Medals are good press kit material. Wineries want them, even covet them. The vast majority of wines are not purchased by small wine shops and sommeliers, though sommeliers think they make or break wineries. They're bought at Costco and Trader Joe's and Safeway. A Gold Medal badge there, like it or not, has prestige and sells wine. 90% of the people buying them because of the Gold Medal (yes, I made up the 90% number, but it seems right) have no idea what it really means, or how it became a Gold Medal wine. If they did, would they still buy it? I suspect the answer is, Yup.

Thomas said...


What you say in that last paragraph is so accurate it leaves me to wonder why anyone would want to be a wine judge. Good times, good friends, and good wine certainly can be had at other venues, maybe even paid ones.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

At first, of course, you're flattered to have been asked. And then you make friends from all over the country, and beyond. Sommeliers, journalists, MW's, MS's, retailers, enology professors, and now, sadly, bloggers. Most competitions are more reunion than anything else. I take the job seriously (well, as seriously as I can), taste with as much concentration and experience as I can muster, and then laugh and have fun with the other judges. No one does it for the money; as you know, the pay is embarrassingly low. Most do it for the networking and the camaraderie and the simple joy of being around 30 or 40 other people who share a vast knowledge and love of wine. It's a Shriner's convention, only we drink even more than they do.

And when folks like Dan Berger and Mike Dunne and Bob Foster, all longtime wine writers with the best credentials who are also really nice people, ask you to judge, I find that I can't say no. There are far more reasons to judge than there are reasons not to. Simple math.

Thomas said...

I understand all that stuff, Ron; been there.

But, if it's all about marketing, doesn't that make judges a willing tool?

I also object to the notion that picking out flaws is a flaw in itself. If the idea is to reward achievement, then flaws should be penalized--like at a dog show!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Of course, it makes us a willing tool. But it's only wine. We're not judging cigarettes. Selling wine is what we do, in all kinds of ways, and it's all marketing, from being a sommelier to carrying a bag full of samples to writing a stupid blog. So what? Going on junkets and shilling is probably worse. But that's debatable.

Looking for only flawless wines? Man, that must get lonely, and you must be sober a LOT. One man's flaw is another man's beauty mark. Lovely to strive for perfection, but only accepting perfection is a loser's game.

Thomas said...


So what?

If I proceed, the conversation will devolve--not worth that--but you of all people must know that seeking perfection is not the same thing as "only accepting" it. That was a truly cheap shot.

Unknown said...


Wow...I've been busy working on a photo 'essay' of the SF Intl judging last month and haven't had time to peruse your latest musings...

I'm honored to be mentioned! Thanks!

Secondly, I believe these days the term fucking Merlot is redundant, isn't it?

Thirdly, I'd be willing to provide the $2.49 plus tax for someone to run to Trader Joe's and buy a bottle of Two Buck Chuck to compare to the Gold Medal bottling...

Anyway, I'm giving a Double Gold to your column.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Anonymous 1,
Wow, a Double Gold! Lucky for me I substituted this fake post for my regular posts, which are worth a Bronze at best.

Oh, man, can't wait to see the newest photo montage from SF. I'm sure it will be yet another triumph.