A fellow winemaker told me why he entered competitions. “It is pretty much a lottery. You pay your money, send your wine in and if you win an award, great. If not, you just move on to the next one. Unless your wine is truly awful eventually you will win a gold medal.”

The truth about wine competitions is that they may be one of the biggest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the wine consuming public. But, as many winemakers believe, “they are useful hoaxes.” For some scientific evidence see Robert Hodgson’s report.

In August of last year, the New York Cork Report provided a thoughtful and well reasoned explanation for announcing they would no longer participate as judges in wine competitions. The highlights of their rationale follow:

  • Medals only confuse consumers instead of educating them.
  • The very act of blind judging a wide range of wines should be viewed as a parlor game and not some official declaration of merit.
  • Blind judging robs the evaluators of the most significant parts of the wine — its context. Medals are awarded in a fashion that almost appears to be random. ” There is ample evidence that judging is like throwing darts. “
  • Judging in mass competitions is putting wine into just about the least most suitable place for good evaluation and enjoyment.

They conclude that “consumers don’t know which wineries entered a particular competition and which didn’t, they don’t know the judges and what the judges are looking for, they don’t know how many medals were awarded, and they don’t know what a medal is supposed to signify.” They close by asking industry colleagues to join them in declining invitations to judge these events.

Frankly, we agree with the New York Cork Report.  But, absent an industry epiphany, event promoters will continue to organize competitions for profit and wine makers will continue to rely on them for visibility.  And, of course, consumers will continue to gravitate to medals for emotional reasons and store keepers will continue to rely on medals for business reasons.

A cursory review of research in consumer psychology reveals that as the number of product choices increases, consumers become more confused, anxious and less likely to purchase anything or try something new.  By posting signs for medal winners, the supermarket or wine shop narrows the range of choices, reduces consumer anxiety and facilitates a purchase.  However, the lack of transparency regarding what other wines entered the competition, the circumstances of the judging, who the judges were, how many wines they tasted and so on, eliminates a truly informed consumer decision and undermines the industry by failing to build an informed consumer base.

If you are like us, you have probably tried a number of disappointing gold and silver medal wines, chosen, perhaps, because they were “value-priced.” We’ve learned our lesson.  Medals can be deceptive.