Massive wine competitions are O.K., but there are problems
I have many friends who are among the 55 judges at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, whose results were published over the weekend, and among those I do not personally know are people whose professional reputations I admire. So I am not being disrespectful of these men and women when I say that the nature of a competition so heavily larded with judges is one reason to question its results. But there are others, as well.
Making decisions by committee may sound democratic, may appeal to our national spirit of teamwork, and may even present the illusion of balance. After all, it eliminates the extremes of “love” and “hate” in favor of a broad consensus right down the middle. But this median-izing of the wine review process is exactly what weakens it. Too often, the wines that make it through this gauntlet are those that are clean, properly varietal, and don’t turn anyone off. Wines with a little eccentricity, that reach beyond the ordinary in order to achieve extraordinary distinction, need not apply.
How could it be otherwise when so many people are being asked to agree about something? Anyone who’s ever participated in a group tasting with other professionals (critics, winemakers, sommeliers) knows that dissension is bound to occur. If critic “X” is dazzled by a wine but critics “Y” and “Z” aren’t, then that wine suffers in the results, robbing consumers of a potentially exciting experience. And the more people who are asked to make a decision, the more mediocre — in the literal sense — their choices will be.
That’s one reason to doubt the outcome of such a large group tasting. Another is the fact, widely reported last month, that critical inconsistency is endemic to these sorts of things, and such inconsistency can seriously undermine the validity of the results. As I wrote here on Jan. 30, a study “found that over a three-year period, 90% of the [California State Fair’s] judges…basically blew it in blind tastings when presented with the same wine.” Clearly, if that could happen at the California State Fair, it can, and is likely, to happen at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
There’s another reason to wonder about the results. Nearly everything wins something, so everyone has something to brag about. For example, 81 Pinot Noirs, by my count, won awards. Since these were divided into 4 tiers by price, this enables 8 of them to claim they won a coveted “Best of Class” award. Is there a difference between “Best of Class” under $14.99 and “Best of Class” above $35? Probably. But the consumer wouldn’t have any way of knowing that, since most wineries tout only their “Best of Class” medal. Ditto for the 139 Cabernet Sauvignons that won. It’s a little like the children of Lake Woebegon: they’re all above average.
And don’t even get me started on the palate exhaustion problem that plagues these marathon tastings. Believe me, fatigue sets in and makes it nearly impossible to render a fair opinion.
Look, wine competitions have become big business for struggling print periodicals. They have their place. Awards make wineries happy, because they can use them in their P.R. The Chronicle’s Wine Competition is no worse than any of them. But it would be interesting to take the results and match them against the reviews that some of the individual judges gave the same wines in other venues. (Some of the judges review and score wines for their employers, be they wine stores or newspapers.)
I just happen to be among those who believe that, when it comes to wine criticism, it’s better to go with a single, trusted taster, whose palate you understand, than with a huge, largely anonymous panel, about which you know little or nothing, except that they’re in the wine trade.