Reflections from the Wine Pond

By: David Rhodes
More thoughts about wine competitions.
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?By: David Rhodes

The 2012 Eshchol HaZahav or the Golden Cluster Awards were just held in Tel Aviv at the Dan Panorama Hotel. ?It?s the only wine competition that judges only Israeli wines and wines from all price categories. ?Yet, wine competitions are a curious phenomenon in the wine industry. ?For the public, it?s an opportunity to learn about wines they may not yet have had the opportunity to taste. For wineries large and small it?s an opportunity to get recognition. Yet, they?re not what they may appear to be to someone outside of the industry.

Most reputable competitions will have blind tastings of wines (where the winery and possibly the vintage are unknown to the taster) according to established categories so that for instance Syrahs from a certain price are matched up with other wines from the same price category and the same grape or a similar style. Generally, there?s no point matching an expensive wine against an inexpensive wine. That can be like comparing hamburger to steak. Sure the best hamburger is better than the worse steak but most would choose a steak over a burger if price wasn?t an object so this allows good value wines to gain recognition as well as the best of the best. Additionally, the more specific the categories the more revealing it can be since comparing a heavier Cabernet Sauvignon to a lighter more nuanced Pinot Noir would be akin to comparing apples to oranges.

One of the biggest limitations as far as the value of wine competitions is that they typically only judge wines that are submitted by the wineries and many of the best or at least the most established wineries tend to stay out of these competitions. To quote several winemakers, ?it can only hurt me?. If you already have a reputation for one of the best wines in your region then any result other than first place will likely harm your wine?s reputation. If you?re an established expensive wine and a lesser expensive wine beats your wine, it?ll be great for them but horrible for you. It?s not an athletic competition where you have to compete to keep your title and reputation as the greatest or one of the best. ?If you?re an unknown winery, a winery that made some major changes or a known winery seeking to remake its image then competitions are a great way to get a lot of press for your accomplishments in the vineyard and your cellar. One of the best things about competitions is no one talks about the wines they enter that didn?t win only those that did win and there?s typically dozens of winners at any competition so it?s hard enough to remember all the winners without trying to remember which wine didn?t win which medal.

Many established wineries will still submit their wines to critics and writers because they trust their scoring over what may occur at a competition. Wines reviewed by writers may be given a lot more time (depending on the writer) by a taster than when dozens if not hundreds of wines that may be tasted to score for a competition. Additionally, the wineries may be familiar with a writer?s criteria and might have built up trust over time more so than a panel of judges who they may or may not know. ?That being said not all competitions or writers are created equal and there is an audience for both by the wineries who submit their wines and the public who want to hear someone else?s opinion about those wines.

Another factor to consider is certain wines are also considered ?competition wines? which means that the wine is prone to do better in a competition setting. For instance, wines that are more easily accessible right after opening or are bolder and more assertive are thought to do better than more nuanced wines that might do better if paired with food or need decanting not typically done for the assembly line of tasting that?s needed to evaluate all of a competition?s entries. Also wines meant to age for a long time will not necessarily impress as well as a wine that?s meant to be served younger if both are served by the same vintage at about the same time. Different wines evolve and age at different rates and the winery needs to gauge when its best to submit a wine. Depending on the event, a wine can do well because it just needs to be better than what was submitted for that event and some categories might have less entrants than others or just less interesting competition that particular year at that event. I believe an honest organizer would admit if asked that some years, the wines in some categories had lots of competition from an array of good scoring wines and others less so. The scores are not typically published so its anyone?s guess how close the scores were of 1st, 2nd or 3rd place wines or Gold, Silver or Bronze depending on what awards are called by the organizers.

So in Israel, don?t expect to see reputable boutiques like Castel, Clos de Gat, Flam, Margalit, Pelter, ?Saslove or Yatir wines at any competitions. They?re established already and there?s already a consensus by many that they?re consistently the best of the best so not seeing a winery on a list of competition winners can be just as illuminating as who didn?t enter if you know enough to be able to read between the lines. Larger commercial wineries have a lot more wine to sell so they enter events more liberally.

It?s not to say that award winners are better or lesser than those who didn?t even enter it?s just means that they?re on the road to get to that place where they too can sit comfortably on their laurels instead of seeking out Golden Clusters. With some of these wineries, their production each is year is so limited that just means there?s at least one more bottle of their treasured wine left for us to enjoy.

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