“Paul, I have been trying some of the ‘gold medal’ wines my local wine shop has been featuring. I am impressed with some, but disappointed with a larger number. Should they not all be good? What has been your experience?”
– J.Y.; San Diego
Yes, they should all be good. But, there are some circumstances to consider.
Let me lay some groundwork first:
Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded at wine competitions throughout the world.
Who conducts these competitions? Wine societies; trade expositions; national, state, and county fairs; famous restaurants; publications; special interest groups; fund raising charities; etc.
How do they get the wine? Usually these entities announce the competition and send out notices to the wineries and the trade. An entry fee is usually charged. In these cases, participation is naturally voluntary, and many wineries choose not to enter for one reason or another. I have even heard the reason, “We are above it all!”. Some organizations that conduct certain competitions will purchase some wines off the store shelf and force-enter them, for completeness’ sake or other! Special wine interest groups will collate groups of wines and judge them for personal interest reasons.
Who are the judges? In the large formal events, a variety of wine oriented people from the trade, the industry, academia, and lay wine enthusiasts are selected, split into groups of 3 or 4, and assigned a category of wines in the competition. In the smaller events, judging can be by the attendees of a particular informal tasting.
How are the wines categorized? From a very broad level of all of the same color, or variety, or type, to a very detailed breakdown of individual types and varieties, which can then be broken down to narrow price ranges. Other categories often considered are also: quantity of wine produced, sweetness level of the wine determined by sugar %, region of origin of grapes, age of wine, etc.
How do they judge them? Quite universally, they are done blind, by brownbagging the bottles. Some fastidious organizers will even transfer to new or different bottles to avoid possible identification of the specific wine from its bottle. A numerical system is usually used there: 5, 10, 20, and 100 point total scores, and maybe others, with some judges becoming picky enough to use 1/4 and 1/2 fractions! All these numerical systems relate to the three organoleptic attributes of wine: appearance, smell, and taste.
Are the results consistent? No. It is not really fair to say that, since sometimes they are! It depends on the event, and the judges, and the particular condition of the wine, and many other factors. A really superb wine will shine through most if not all of the time. Many wines that are only fair will score erratically and garner positions that are not duplicable. The company they keep each time is critical and the whole thing is so subjective, you see!
Are the wines available? Yes, usually. The process sometimes ends up as a marketing tool. (A hint: the state and larger county fairs in California who hold wine judgings feature tasting bars for the competition winners, and sometimes even the entry wines. For a nominal charge they will pour 1 oz or so, from a wine list. A very good way to do some interesting judging of your own. Call the fair in your area to see if they do this. Be sure and ask in what kind of a container they serve the wine. If it is a plastic cup (sacrilege!), take along a proper wine glass! Some sell souvenir wine glasses and a booklet of the results.)
My answer. Yes. I find many that I do not like, and sometimes wonder whether the judges had had too much wine! ( I am sure an occasional member has thought that about me too!) Medal winners have merit. It is a partial weeding process. You must give your own medals! As I have always said, “It is what you like that counts”. Do not allow “The high priests have proclaimed it!” syndrome to enter your wine life.
Excuse me, I have to go and put on my Bacchanal vestments to attend the next tasting!