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Monday, 30 August 2010 20:00

So now it's come to this.

Last week, New York wine writers Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson announced that they would no longer judge at large, medal-awarding wine competitions. They urged fellow journalists to follow suit.

Thompson and Dawson aren't just a couple of basement bloggers grabbing for a headline. Their consumer-oriented wine site, the New York Cork Report, is considered the gold standard by many of us who toil in the backroad vineyards of regional wine journalism. They've got the American Wine Blog Award to prove it.

Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson
Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson


So when they speak, a lot of industry and media players pay attention. When they dropped their Shermanesque manifesto just a few days after New York's annual Gotham-sized self-congratulatory wine bash -- and its controversial pick of a sweet, sparkling Riesling as top wine -- the timing seemed more than coincidental.

The rationale for their stance is a compendium of complaints against competitions made by many, including this writer, in recent years. Distilled to their essence, these encompass two categories:

  • Competitions have multiplied like tribbles and now hand out gazillions of medals annually. No one, least of all the average consumer, can possibly track the quality of each competition, who judges at them, or how many medals they award. Their primary function seems to be minting medals in numbers sufficient for wineries to tout their wares as medal winners -- as often as not, dishing inaccurate or misleading information to consumers in the process. The money quote: "Ultimately these medals and discussions of them have become nothing more than white noise, like static on your television."

  • The judging behind all those medals is seriously suspect, since competition judges don't apply objective, consistent standards. Thompson and Dawson draw heavily on the much-cited studies by academic (and winemaker) Robert Hodgson, claiming to show that competition judges can't reliably replicate their blind-tasted evaluations, and the medals they award regress toward the random. The result? As Thompson and Dawson put it, "If you make a competent wine, you can enter enough competitions and that wine will almost certainly win gold eventually."

It didn't take long for the Empire State to strike back. Last Saturday, Jim Trezise, head of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, used his weekly email to mount a defense. Without mentioning Thompson and Dawson, he wrote:

Wine competitions like the Classic are a valuable way to give wineries, the trade and consumers information about the relative quality of different wines at a particular time.  The 24 judges at this year’s Classic are all seasoned wine experts who tasted all the wines “blind” (without knowing the brand or even region of origin) and gave their collective opinions on what medal, if any, each wine deserved.  The results were largely consistent with the showing of the same wines in other competitions.


Jim Trezise
Jim Trezise
Since the "information about the relative quality" available to consumers fails to include the name of any wine that didn't win a medal, Trezise treads on thin ice with this argument. He might have chosen to cut his losses by stopping there. But he soldiered on, proving Thompson and Dawson's point by citing Gary Eberle, of the eponymous California winery, who spends $8000 annually to enter ten wine competitions:


Why?  Because it pays. An astute businessman, Gary has done a cost-benefit analysis of their wine competition strategy and says that winning just three Gold medals more than pays for all those costs due to increased wine sales of those wines at the tasting room.  Since Eberle wins lots of Gold medals every year, all the rest is gravy—a great return on investment.

Of course, no one's ever denied that competitions can be highly remunerative for medal-winning wineries.  But just how does that make them valuable to consumers? Or worth supporting by journalists who presume to write (and judge) on their behalf?

So should we heed Thompson and Dawson's call for potential judges to avoid judging at competitions? Or, in their words, "Pledge to join us in this decision, or provide a suitable answer for the problems we've outlined above."

From here in Michigan, that's an illegitimate choice, one that resembles nothing so much as a proposal that rich and poor alike can "choose" whether to sleep on the street.

Those words are carefully considered. Like most wine geeks, I'm regularly pelted by emails and newsletters from wineries in other states. Nearly all of them cite the latest point score or favorable review by prominent critics or publications.

Just a few days ago, for example, New York's Standing Stone Vineyards sent an email that reprinted a 92 point Wine Spectator review of its 2008 Vidal Ice Wine. It's fair to assume that this widely-circulated review, combined with the email touting it, sold a fair amount of Ice Wine.

No offense to Standing Stone, but I'd suggest that Michigan's double gold and trophy-winning 2008 Fenn Valley "42" Vidal Ice Wine is as good as anything of theirs I've tasted. It also sells for $10 less.

But the Wine Spectator hasn't reviewed Fenn Valley's Ice Wine, and probably won't. So absent whatever boost Fenn Valley gets from its well-deserved medals and trophies, its ice wine would remain under the radar to anyone beyond the winery's existing customer base.

And that's the problem. In media-poor states like Michigan, whose wines receive scant press coverage, medal-awarding competitions -- with all their acknowledged warts -- provide one of the few ways to recognize and publicize our top wines.

So here's the gauntlet back atcha, Lenn and Evan: Pledge to join us to assure that top regional wines from Michigan and elsewhere receive the same level of media attention and promotional advantages enjoyed by media-rich states like California, Washington, Oregon -- and New York -- or provide a suitable answer why we shouldn't continue to support competitions as the next-best alternative to publicize our states' best wines and wineries.

For starters, why couldn't a group of regional wine journalists try to acquire and relaunch the well-respected but currently moribund Appellation America website? I know a couple of nationally-known fellows from New York who mgiht take the lead in such a project.

Meanwhile, I have no single "answer" to the problems of competitions, and agree with most of them. But to those of us in Michigan and elsewhere between the coasts, a call to abandon competitions seems like nothing so much as a suggestion that the ideal take up arms against the good or -- in this case -- the mediocre.

Unfortunately, sometimes mediocre is all you've got to hang onto.

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Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.