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Wine Competitions – Should You Believe the Results?

It’s Friday afternoon and you really want a bottle of wine to enjoy that night with dinner. You go into your local wine shop / supermarket / gun and wine shop (!) and peruse the shelves . . .but how to decide what to buy?

All of a sudden, you start noticing ‘beacons’ drawing you over to certain bottles – emblems noting that this specific wine won a gold medal at some wine competition; a shelf talker noting that this wine scored 92 points by Joe Bob Wine Reviewer. As you step back, you start to notice that a LOT of wines have some sort of rating or award noted . . .are they ALL that good?!?!?

The Wall Street Journal had an article last week about two ‘scientific studies’ conducted by Robert Hodgson, a retired statistic professor (Here is the link to the article – http://tinyurl.com/ykob5ye).

He analyzed awards given out at large wine competitions and noted the following – judges were very inconsistent; wines were scored erratically from competition to competition. And one of my favorite lines from the article, after Mr. Hodgson had set up a graph of wines entered in numerous competitions and noting how they scored among the different ones – The distribution of medals, he wrote, “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.”

Are you surprised? In all honesty, I am not, and here are a few reasons why:

Wine Competitions often times have hundreds of wines entered that are tasted over a very short period of time, making it difficult to truly ‘rate’ each one individually by the judges.

Wines are ‘reviewed’ at a specific place and time – and one’s taste buds and sense of smell will be altered throughout the day by what they come into contact with – scents, food consumed, etc.

Wine judges at these competitions are, above all, HUMAN, and we are far from perfect ‘machines’ that are capable of reproducible results again and again and again.

The concept of ‘objective’ wine reviews’ is an oxymoron – every judge therefore will see a wine quite differently, and the concept that the same wine will be perceived as ‘best’ from judge to judge and competition to competition is unrealistic.

What’s the take home message here? To me, it’s not that you should talk these ‘medals’ with a grain of salt, because they are somewhat indicative that a certain group of people, whom your palates may align with, felt that this particular wine was better than its competition that day.

It’s that you should feel empowered to ‘challenge’ these medals, just as you should ‘challenge’ wine ratings from even the most respected reviewers. Why? At the end of the day, no one shares your taste buds, your sense of smell – and therefore you will always perceive wine in an individualistic manner.

Just something to think about this morning. Let me know your thoughts as well.

Cheers!

2 responses to “Wine Competitions – Should You Believe the Results?”

  1. Larry says:

    Felicia,

    Thanks for the interesting and insightful comments!

    Here are a few from me:

    Just because a judging panel is made up of winemakers, I will not jump to the conclusion that ‘these people know good wine’ . . . In most likelihood they do, but because wine is so subjective, and because most winemakers develop somewhat of a ‘house’ pallate, they may or may not be the best people to judge others’ wines . . . Jusy my $.02.

    The fact that the author was a winemaker probably DID cause him to take on the study, and I’m sure that he most likely was ‘looking’ for the results to come out they way they did – as so often happens with ‘studies’ these days.

    This is NOT to say that what he ‘discovered’ is not true – it just may have more ‘meaning’ behind it should he have not potentially had an agenda.

    Take care and thanks again for sharing!

    Cheers!

  2. Felicia says:

    Nice commentary, thank you.

    I think reviews and competition results are TOOLS. They can be used by the consumer to help with wine buying decisions. If over time the consumer finds that he likes the same wines as a particular reviewer, he will follow the advice of that reviewer. Likewise if he finds he enjoys wines that won medals in a particular wine competition.

    I work for a professional wine writer/reviewer, and am involved with several international wine competitions. In the competitions we do our best to make sure the wines are judged fairly, using judges who are experienced and skilled. For instance, the next one is Winemaker Challenge, in which all the judges are winemakers. We believe these people know great wine when they taste it because the MAKE great wine. They include Ed Sbragia, Merry Edwards, Darice Spinelli and James Hall. (full list at http://www.WinemakerChallenge.com).

    When faced with that wall full of wine at the supermarket, the consumer can feel overwhelmed. He may have more confidence in his purchase if the wine won a Silver, Gold, Platinum or Best of Show. Helping someone buy and enjoy wine is always a good thing — good for the consumer, the winery, the retailer, etc.

    By the way, you didn’t mention that ‘Robert Hodgson, a retired statistic professor’ was also a winemaker. I’m not saying he pursued this study because of sour grapes (sorry), but I do believe his own inconsistent results in wine competitions is what spurred his interest in the subject.