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Thursday throwaway


I’ve said before that gigantic wine competitions are pretty worthless, and that’s my impression again after seeing the results of the latest West Coast Wine Competition, which have just been announced.

The first thing I’ve gotta get out of the way–full disclosure–is that I haven’t tasted each and every wine that won a medal. And so I’m not going to mention any particular wine. But looking at the California entries, I have a very strong hunch that these are not the best wines you can buy of their type and price.

There are problems aplenty in these competitions. For one, the entries tend to be supermarket brands, the kinds handled by large distributors and produced in sizable quantities. Most of the smaller boutique wineries would never consider entering, and so the list of possible winners is severely compromised. Another problem is that there are so many judges (23, some of whom are good friends of mine) that the final results are unlikely to represent the thoughtful conclusion of a seasoned taster, but an arbitrated consensus in which everybody gives a little to get a little. Believe me, I’ve participated in a few of these competitions, and I know. I have to believe also that, with so many wines tasted in so short a period, people’s capacity to handle alcohol was taxed.

It’s not that the results are completely useless. The recommended wines are fine, near as I can tell, particularly in the less expensive brackets. You probably won’t hate any of the winners. Most people in the industry understand the limits of a competition like this, but the average consumer would do well to take the results with a grain of salt.

* * *

I see my friend and colleague, Stacie Jacob, has stepped down from her job as executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, in order to start the next chapter in her life, as proprietor of a marketing company. I wish her well. She did a great job. Paso Robles, as we all know, has become an important wine region, something that wasn’t guaranteed ten years ago, and Stacie had a lot to do with that.

Running a regional winery association is a hard, thankless task. It’s like herding cats, and some of those cats can get real hissy. The big cats always want to dominate the smaller ones, which the smaller ones resent because they’re also paying dues. There are competing agendas. Different people have differing views on how to promote the region, there’s never quite enough money to get everything done, and over this quarrelsome republic the Executive Director must reign with dignity and quiet aplomb, her job always on the line if something misfires.

I’ve known quite a few winery association executives in my time and I’ve admired them all. Some have done a better job than others. I respect Rhonda Motil, at The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. She seems to wring a lot out of a buck. With a small staff, she’s really worked hard to make the wines and wineries of Monterey shine. The Napa Valley Vintners also does a great job, with the inimitable Terry Hall defining the “never let ‘em see you sweat” approach. (He’s communications director, not executive director; that’s Linda Reiff; but Terry’s the prime contact for ink-stained wretches like me.) I always imagine that working at Napa Valley Vintners must be the ultimate in pressure, with all those egos up there, but NVV pulls everything off with style.

That there are underperforming regional winery associations is an understatement, and they know who they are! A good association will help boost a region immeasurably, but in the event of a poor one, nature won’t tolerate a vacuum: if the association can’t get the job done, niche-savvy P.R. pros and wineries will do it for them.

  1. Steve,

    I used to be a judge at a rather large wine competition, did it for several years. I remember talking to another fellow judge about the merlot panel he was on. He did not give very high points and I asked why. (LOL) He said the wines were not up to standard. So I asked what standard of merlot he was using. ‘Chateau Petrus’ was the reply. The fun and benefit of this particular competition was spending time after work with other trades people and tasted lots of wine and meeting some wonderfull winery folks. BUT, some of the top winners really suprised me. The afore mentioned competition is now defunct.

  2. T Pershall says:

    I’m glad to see that Rhonda Motil is getting some recognition for the job she has done at The helm of the Monterey Vintners and Growers Assoc. there are great wines that come form Monterey Co as well as the Santa Cruz Mtns appellation however Monterey wines shine thanks to Rhonda.

  3. gdfo, it’s true that for the judges the competitions can be huge fun. But I don’t see how that translates into much that’s useful for consumers.

  4. Patrick says:

    Thanks Steve; This Thurs Throwaway is one reason why I read your blog. You cut through the ^&*)(^&%$ with a fair degree of regularity.

  5. Sherman says:

    I was at a sales & marketing conference here in southern OR on Tuesday when the announcement that the recently-hired Executive Director of the Oregon Wine Board was “stepping down” (no reason given) and that her place would be filled while OWB conducted another long search for the next Exec.Dir. Stacie Jacob and Steve Burns have been tapped to fill-in while the search takes place and I hope that all the good things that I’ve heard about them will happen here in OR. OR in general and southern OR in particular needs the direction of someone who can herd the cats and bring the region more towards fulfilling the promise that it holds.

  6. Steve, you crack me up…thanks for the nice shout out, but honestly when you live and work in paradise–it’s all good!

  7. Not sure about supermarket wines filling competitions. That’s certainly not the case with the ones I’ve entered. Having said that, they are tremendously flawed. And as far as I can tell .. an award (no matter how prestigious) has never helped sell my wins. A recommendation from a friend or somellier is worth a hundred gold medals.

  8. Thanks for telling the truth Steve, you are right on the mark – bravo for speaking the truth. Keep up the good work!

  9. Steve, straight-forward, candid assessments like your remarks about wine competitions are the reason I always read your blog posts. I appreciate your consistent honesty and directness, regardless of political correctness. We posted some detailed criticisms of wine competitions on our blog and were assailed by the promoters of these competitions. The debate got pretty hot. It’s still up on our blog at, if your interested in seeing how a few promoters responded.

  10. Tom Ferrell says:

    Much of what you say about running a regional association is spot on. Certainly herding winemakers is much like herding cats, but why try? A group of wineries do not always have to move in the same direction for their region to prosper.

    The best thing an association can do is to bring its members together to share insights in viticulture and winemaking to the purpose that everyone makes better wine. The second best thing is to create circumstances that allow its individual members; each with their own personality, ego, and quirks to fully express and be recognized for that individuality. In this regard, NVVA is the gold standard.

    One quibble, though. I can attest to the fact it is not a thankless task. It is rewarding in wonderful, life-long relationships, camaraderie, and generous sharing of wonderful wines.

  11. Tom, you’re right. It’s not a thankless task. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m sure the employees of winery associations get plenty of joy. I just meant that there can be huge hassles.

  12. Mike, Oh I agree with you on that one. Our new customers come to us via word of mouth. If I ensure that customers have a good time and leave happy and smiling, the wines will sell themselves. I sell out every year. What I don’t like about competitions is that alot of the time they are indeed worthless. I’ll explain. Some years ago say 1985 we took one of our wines and entered it into a competition. In our class/slot there was the exact same wine, that I had sold to another winery . Needless to say the other winery’s wine won the gold and mine didn’t win a darn thing. The process isn’t fool proof. Then, for the purpose of proving what I already thought I knew, another time we entered about three wines in a competition that I thought would be sure gold or dbbl. gold winners, (we poured someone elses gold medal wine from a previous year into our labeled bottle). We did not win a thing, yet the winery that we “stole” from won gold medals for the same wines but from the next year. We got ahold of those and they were actually not as good as theirs that we bottled up. This all left me shaking my head. What did I expect, fairness ?? Do we still enter ? You bet, it’s like a dice roll.

  13. “That there are underperforming regional winery associations is an understatement.”

    Considering the fact I would entertain the thought of getting STA. RITA tattooed across my knuckles (I am loyal to SB), I have to admit that Paso Robles has (sea)smoked Santa Barbara in marketing. I am in awe of all the hard work they have done as a group. The Paso winegrowers as a whole have grasped the concept of “the rising tide raises all ships.” Job well done for them, a benchmark for other regions!

  14. Wayne, you’re so right about Paso. They’ve had a little bit of competitiveness between their regions (esp. east-west), but not too much.

  15. Steve
    Yes, standards are sometimes too high and results variable. And probably not reproducible. But if you get a medal at Orange County, I guarantee you, even a bronze-that’s a nice wine. I judge there and I enter wines. The standard is high, but fair.I used to judge several others. My only criticism is that when people in the trade, in any way, are considered qualified to judge, they will reward sweet oaky wines over dry, complex, subtle wines carefully made. Oh, well. BFD. Bunt

  16. Castle Rock, 2006 Mendocino County, $9.99 suggested retail ($8.99 at Trader Joe’s), 110,000 cases produced.

    “95 points, Best of Show, Red Wine Gold Medal” 2008 California State Fair.

    “82 points – Tastes like an ordinary inexpensive Pinot Noir, namely a somewhat harsh, semisweet wine, with jellied raspberry and mint flavors. More than 100,000 cases produced.” — S.H. (11/15/2007)

    Hmmm …

    ’nuff said.

  17. Jon R Campbell says:

    when I go to the state fair tasting booth and taste the medal winners, I am usually disappointed. It seems that medals are getting awarded to things that are different rather than good…..I know tasting hundreds of zins in a sitting is boring, but should we really be giving medals to wines that taste like boards or fruit bombs because your palate is fried?

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