Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Going for Gold at the Central Coast Wine Competition

Let the judging begin! Over a dozen judges from the wine industry assembled inside the Paso Robles Event Center on June 16th to swirl, smell, sip and spit nearly 600 wines in 37 divisions and classes from boutique wineries and major wine producers within the Central Coast AVA, including Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The Central Coast Wine Competition is the largest wine evaluation event that recognizes wines produced exclusively from the wine producing regions of California's Central Coast. Few get the opportunity to judge the dozens of regional, statewide, national and international wine competitions that take place annually. So it was with great surprise that I received an email a couple months ago from Chief Judge Bob Foster inviting me to participate in the Central Coast Wine Competition as a guest judge.

Wine competitions enable wineries to submit their wines to a reputable competition where a panel judges score the wines blindly and award various medals (i.e. Sweepstakes Winner, Best of Class, Gold, Silver and Bronze). Wineries pin their hopes of winning gold on the palates of a small panel of judges. On the upside, wineries can benefit from the marketing potential of winning a Gold Medal or Best of Class for their wines from a notable wine competition. These wines are marketed to consumers as "award winning wines" through various marketing materials, tasting notes and social media. On the downside, a winery may submit all of their wines and receive no medals. Yet, small wineries have an incentive to submit their wines in the competition in order to create buzz among consumers and critics if their wines are selected as premier wines in their class.

At the Central Coast Wine Competition, judges were divided into five panels of 3-4 panelists plus a guest judge. Our panel featured three judges with years of experience judging many prestigious wine competitions. The panel was responsible for judging 120 wines in the following wine classes: Zinfandel, Syrah Based Blends, Grenache Based Blends, Sangiovese Based Blends, Pink, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, No Oak Chardonnay, Vioginer and Gewurztraminer. Each wine was identified by an entry number to reference on the final judging sheet. Before the judges started with their flight, one judge on our panel swirled and smelled each pour to determine if any wines were corked and required a re-pour. Our panel encountered one or more corked/flawed wines in almost each flight.

When the judging commenced, each judge completed their flight at a moderate pace with few revisits unless there was a disagreement within the panel about whether a particular wine exhibited certain qualities so as to shift one judge's individual award to the consensus position among the other members of the panel. When the judges are finished judging each wine, they will call out the wine number to tally the votes. Judges offered votes ranging from gold to no medal. So let's say one judge awarded a wine with a bronze medal, while the other two awarded the wine with silver medals. The group would award the wine a silver medal.

When all three judges awarded different medals (i.e. gold, silver and bronze), the group would revisit the wine to determine if a judge would score the wine higher for the purposes of coming to consensus on a single medal. The judges would tradeoff on medals based on another judge's inclination to move from Bronze+ to Silver or Silver+ to Gold. Ultimately, the panel of judges focused not only on a criteria based on the positive varietal characteristics, but also on the interests of the consumer. While the judges were tallying their scores, I was keeping my own tally and comments on each wine to compare notes with each judge. Even though my recommendations did not factor into the group award, I found myself disagreeing with the individual and group awards in every class. In some cases, however, one judge would award one wine a gold medal while another would award the same wine no medal. This is the best example of how our individual palates and personal preferences play into the competition. When all is said and done, three to four judges decide which wines make the cut for the prestigious medals from the Central Coast Wine Competition - but they judge these wines blindly as opposed to other critical reviews. Still, judges can be influenced by one another based on their feedback during the flight tally.

On the day after the competition, wineries were invited to attend the Industry Tasting at the Paso Robles Event Center to find out who won gold and to taste the broad selection of wines that were entered into the competition. The wines were divided into their classes on rows of tables, while all the gold medal winners were assembled on a separate table. With my list in hand, I tasted a few of the wines in the classes that our group was responsible for judging. In some instances, it was surprising to see what was or wasn't awarded a medal simply by label.  It is quite remarkable how much of a difference it makes when you taste blind and have few if any details about the wine other than an entry number, vintage, varietal and blend. It would be far more interesting if some of the most notable wineries in the region entered their wines into these competitions or if someone threw in a few ringers. Would the judges award these 90+ point wines gold medals?

One final note: After perusing through recent scores for two wine competitions from this past week, it was intriguing to see that one particular wine received a gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition and no medal in the Central Coast Wine Competition. What was so different about this wine for the panel of judges in each competition? It just goes to show that even the most refined palates can be the most discriminate. To find out the how your favorite wineries performed, go to the Central Coast Wine Competition for the full results.

So what do you think?
  1. Do wine competitions provide any meaningful benefit to wineries in marketing their wines to consumers? 
  2. Although these competitions are judged blindly by a diverse panel of judges, how are the judges influenced by factors other than the label when awarding medals?
  3. Is there more prestige or merit to judging a competition blindly versus a critical review from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, The Wine Advocate or International Wine Cellars?
  4. What factors contribute to two panels of judges in two separate competitions awarding no medal and a gold medal for the same wine?
I would like to thank Chief Judge, Bob Foster, Robin Nagele and all the other organizers and volunteers for giving me a unique opportunity to experience and participate in the Central Coast Wine Competition 2011. I would also like to thank my panel of judges - Robert Whitley, William Bloxsom-Carter and Ann Littlefield - for their insight and commentary on judging a wine competition. Check out some clips of the judging from this year's competition in the video below.


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