Dunne on Wine

Wine competitions need reforms to avoid leaving bitter aftertaste

Wine Judge Michael Taylor, of Davis, writes down some comments about some of the white wines he as sampled checks the during the final day of the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in June.
Wine Judge Michael Taylor, of Davis, writes down some comments about some of the white wines he as sampled checks the during the final day of the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in June. AP

With December upon us, it’s time to get a jump on the next New Year’s resolutions. At the top of my list: Start a wine competition. Why not? They’re popping up all over the place. I just scanned the results for the International Wine Channel TV Awards, a competition for wines, not shows. Who knew?

More to the point, why not grab some of what might seem easy money? I just finished a two-year stint as a chief judge for the California State Fair’s commercial and home wine competitions. I know the money isn’t easy. Nevertheless, it’s there.

Competitions typically charge wineries at least $50 per entry. Wineries also customarily submit three to six bottles of each wine they enter. Larger competitions generally draw 1,000 to 2,000 entries, a couple 4,000 to nearly 6,000.

There’s money to be made there, all right, even aside from expenses such as judges’ travel, dining and lodging. Then there’s the cost of medals, and the investment in publishing results and staging follow-up tastings. Wait a minute, wineries often pay a premium to take advantage of all that, too.

What would I do to distinguish my wine competition? For starters:

▪  Provide a full accounting of revenues and expenditures. Both are huge, at least for larger competitions, but I can’t think of a one that provides an audit to disclose how much money comes in and where it goes. With some competitions, revenues ostensibly go for student scholarships and various philanthropic programs. Great, but let’s see how much. And the bottles of wine, where do they end up? Granted, many are given to volunteers, who earn every one, and some go to nonprofits to help in fundraising, but how about some verification for each bottle that isn’t opened and used during the competition itself?

▪  Several wine competitions are earnest about recruiting new judges, but more can be done. What’s needed is a demanding mentor/protégé program to bring promising recruits onto the circuit, hopefully with the guidance of sensory scientists at UC Davis, perhaps modeled on standards used to train judges in Australia, where competitions and their conclusions seem to be more respected than they are in the United States.

▪  If there’s significance of place in determining a wine’s character, and I believe there is, entries should be organized by regions in addition to the standard practice of arranging classes by varietal, style and price. To avoid the risk of bias, don’t tell judges the regional source of the class until after their deliberations.

▪  Judges routinely consider 100 or so wines a day at larger competitions. That’s too many. Fifty or 60 may be too many, but that range strikes me as a more realistic target to avoid palate fatigue and thereby help assure the credibility of results. It’s done in other countries; it can be done here.

▪  And those 50 or 60 wines wouldn’t be all of a kind, a fairly common occurrence on the competition circuit. Instead, a panel would have, say, a 10-glass flight of pinot noir, followed by a flight of riesling, followed by a flight of merlot and so forth, with the spacing leisurely, providing ample opportunity for discussion among judges as well as recalibration of their palates.

▪  I’d do away with double-gold medals, or at least make them as significant as they originally were intended. That is, a double-gold medal ostensibly is awarded when all three to five judges of a panel spontaneously agree as soon as they taste a wine that it deserves a gold medal. There’s no question, no debate, no twisting the arm of a judge who thinks initially that a wine warrants only a bronze medal while all his fellow panelists concur that it should win gold.

▪  For wines that win high awards, my competition would have a verification procedure. That is, wines that wine top honors would be analyzed alongside samples of the same wines pulled from store shelves, verifying that consumers would be buying the same wines. The process would be difficult and costly, but I’m sure it could be done.

▪  My sweepstakes rounds would be more realistic. As it is, judges at the end of a competition sit down to maybe 100 or so best-of-class wines, then are expected to decide within an hour or two which is the single best red wine, best white wine and so on. What a lark! I’d create a process to whittle down the total number of wines judges face in the sweepstakes rounds. They’d face one zinfandel, for example, rather than seven. Truth be told, some competitions already are heading in this direction, understanding that if wines up for top honors are to be given a fair shake, judges need fewer glasses and more time for their deliberations.

▪  Despite the proliferation of wine competitions, no season-ending series of playoff tastings is in place to determine an overall champion. One competition alone can’t do it, but as I get mine under way I’d also set up a Wine Competition Guild that other competitions could join. In addition to tracking results with an eye on a playoff series that would lead to the ultimate title, competitions that sign on as members of the guild also would subscribe to a set of standards aimed at improving their credibility and reliability. These standards would have to do with training of judges, testing of judges, uniform stemware, uniform lighting, uniform reporting of results, transparency and so forth.

▪  Much to my amazement, vintners don’t seem particularly interested in pressuring competitions to do a better job of publicizing results. A couple of competitions do an exceptional job of posting quickly online their results, and making them searchable by winery, award, class and so forth, but most don’t. Why winemakers aren’t outraged by this puzzles me; maybe because they aren’t crazy to let people know they only won bronze medals. Nonetheless, the results of my competition would be posted promptly and comprehensively, and wine enthusiasts could comb through them easily.

▪  Not sure how this could be enforced, but I’d like to impose a curfew on judges. I’m confident a volunteer could be found to do bed checks. Judges would be expected to turn in by 10 p.m. in hopes they would be fully refreshed for the next day’s flights. The only exception would be judges still in the hotel gym.

There you have it, some of the particulars of my ideal wine competition. All I need now is a catchy name. “California Gold Rush” would work, no?

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at