Big wine competitions have lots of problems
If consumers didn’t value wine ratings and competitions, there wouldn’t be any. The market doesn’t reward things for which there is no demand, which is why nobody works hard at stuff that doesn’t pay. (Except for wine bloggers, and one of these days I’ll explore their peculiar psychology.)
There are as more ways to rate wine than you can shake a stick at (an archaic reference whose origin is in some doubt). The two extremes are individual rating and group ratings. I do the former; competitions such as the San Francisco International Wine Competition, run by my old buddy Andy Blue, are examples of the latter.
I used to participate as a judge in some of these competitions and have declined joining others for years. Another old buddy, Dan Berger, has invited me to judge in his Riverside International Wine Competition, but I’ve never done it–and not simply because Dan can’t afford to pay me what I think my services are worth. No, it’s because, based on my prior experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that these big competitions aren’t a very good way to evaluate wines, in a way that benefits the public.
For an instructive peek behind the scenes of how these marathon events work, read this article, from a Washington State publication that was published on Monday. A staff writer, Rick, went to a big competition called the North Central Wine Awards. He’s not a wine expert, but was invited to hang out with the judges as they did their thing and observe them, kind of like an anthropologist in the wild. Go ahead, read the article. It’s a valid portrayal of what a big tasting is like. Then come back and pick up here.
The main thing I took home from Rick’s article was: “The judges…appraised more than 220 wines from 40 wineries that day, and then several a second time for best of show honors. How they do it, I don’t know.” Well, I don’t know, either. I’m in pretty good physical condition, but even 60 wines is a chore for me. After that, your mouth just gets tired, unable to sense nuances, so you tend to gravitate to the strongest wines.
Another weakness of a gigantic tasting is that the results have to be voted on. Reviewing wines is not like electing a President. A President is elected by a majority of the voters (judges), according to a prescribed set of rules. That doesn’t mean that every elected President is a good one. We’ve had some very mediocre Presidents in our history (Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and the handsome but hapless Franklin Pierce). In an election, some good candidates are eliminated, usually on some pretty nonsensical basis. In a big tasting, some good wines are thrown under the bus, often because in the discussion (which can be an argument) that follows the tasting, the more persuasive (louder, stronger) of the judges may prevail over more timid, less assured ones (just as can happen in a jury deliberation).
You don’t run into these issues with an individual taster working his or her way through a moderate number of wines. No palate fatigue, no getting drunk. Subtle wines have as much of a chance to star as strong ones, especially in a variety like Pinot Noir, but also in many white wines we tend to take for granted, like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. I’ve recently reviewed Chardonnays from 2010 that were lean, modest in alcohol and lacking fruit, but I loved them for their minerality and acidity. I suspect that, in a mass tasting of 250 Chardonnays, such wines would find themselves out of the running, because most of the judges, already half in the bag, would prefer the big, bold, buttery, oaky Chards.
Wine reviewing should be an act of reverence, as steadfast as meditating or prayer. You shouldn’t do it wham-bang. It’s just plain wrong. A wine needs to be tasted several times as it changes in the glass. The more subtle the wine is, the closer you have to listen to what it has to say. This requires silence and contemplation, which are not the hallmarks of the atmosphere of a giant wine competition. I’m not saying these big events don’t have their value. I always read their results. But another difficulty with them is that the “important” wineries–the smaller, more prestigious ones–almost never enter them. As a result, the entrants are mainly what I call supermarket wines. That’s a huge weakness of the big competitions. They don’t rate “the good stuff.”