THE July announcement set the wine blogs buzzing: Charles Shaw Chardonnay, the $2 wine sold at Trader Joe's discount markets, was awarded a double-gold medal at the 2007 California State Fair (ending Sept. 3). One of the most prestigious wine competitions in the country has canonized a wine whose name is synonymous with cheap -- bringing into question the validity of all wine competitions.
In Los Angeles, the gaffe comes just as Ralphs Grocery Co., in its first year as sponsor of the Los Angeles County Fair's wine competition, rolls out an aggressive campaign promoting the fair's medal-winning wines.
The Charles Shaw win may sound crazy, but wine industry insiders familiar with the organization and structure of competitions aren't surprised at the results. Dozens of wines at each competition win gold medals, double-gold medals, best-of-class awards and other hyperbolic distinctions. And there are dozens of competitions around the country, making it possible for any wine, even Two-Buck Chuck, to win prestigious-sounding awards.
"I can see how it happens, giving Charles Shaw a double-gold, particularly with Chardonnay," says Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. He judges at three competitions a year. "You are sitting there as a judge, you've tasted two flights of 10 Chardonnays that are very austere -- and I like those wines -- then a wine comes along with a touch more fruit, a little more rounded, and it stands out. And you hang your hat on it as a judge."
Mistakes happen all of the time, says Andy Perdue, editor in chief of Wine Press Northwest, a regional wine magazine. Perdue created the Platinum Competition, which tastes and reexamines the wines of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia that have won gold medals in any one of 30 competitions he tracks.
Last year, his panel tasted 250 gold-medal wines; 15% of the wines didn't measure up, he says.
But the competitions aren't meaningless. Wine competitions are blind tastings -- that is, wines are placed before a broad range of palates without the judges knowing the specific wines they are tasting.
The results can be informative for wine lovers looking for alternatives to the ratings bestowed by critic Robert M. Parker and his influential point system.
In fact, some new competitions have been launched with the specific goal of competing with the attention-getting power of the big-name critics.
Although the 40-some competitions nationwide are all blind, they vary in size and sponsorship. The Los Angeles County International Wine & Spirits Competition and the Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition, like most wine competitions, originated as part of a county fair.
Publications sponsor some of the best-known competitions, including the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition is a charity fund-raiser. And the Critics Challenge in San Diego is a business venture.
Not all wineries enter the contests. In fact, critically acclaimed wineries rarely bother with contests. But new wineries struggling to be noticed, the many medium-size wineries disregarded by the major critics, and big wine companies with long lists of releases that play the competition odds, all have reasons to enter.
And if a winery enters enough wines in enough competitions, it usually wins something somewhere. Entry fees range from $50 to $150, with a donation of four to six bottles per entry. Big competitions such as those put on by the L.A. County Fair and the California State Fair involve 60 to 70 judges who include winemakers, vintners, retailers, sommeliers, publicists and wine writers. The typical $100 a day they are paid is hardly the attraction. Judging in wine competitions is actually an efficient way to keep up with each vintage's offerings, to notice winemaking trends and simply stay abreast of industry gossip.
A grueling job
AFTER two stints at the L.A. County Fair, I know how grueling the competitions can be on judges. The first year, I was given 30 Zinfandels to critique after a similar round of Syrahs. So many of the wines were overblown, alcoholic fruit bombs that no amount of careful spitting could save me from a dawning sense that I was being poisoned. By the end of the eight-hour-long day, I had a blinding headache.
I gained a measure of respect for those judges who sort through the sensory overload. At the same time, I saw how conditions such as the ratio of judges to wines to be tasted and the relative quality of the wines in a flight can skew the results from any one competition.
The value of wine competitions, says Clarissa Elgarten, publisher of American Gold Medal Wines, an online service that compiles the results from 21 widely followed American wine competitions, is in the aggregate. Each year there are several wines that consistently impress a broad range of judges to earn top awards from several competitions.
This year, for example, the 2003 Wattle Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Select from Napa Valley (which retails for about $85 a bottle) has swept several competitions. It is one of only five wines so far this year to win gold medals from eight or more competitions. (A disproportionate number of the multiple-medal winners are dessert and fortified wines; judges say that's because it's relatively easy to make these wines, and there are several dessert-wine categories with fewer entrants.)
Entering wine competitions is a marketing strategy, says Wattle Creek winemaker Michael Scholz. He enters seven of his wines in 18 competitions each year. His goal is to produce wines that frequently win gold medals, he says. "That means a lot of people are tasting these wines, a lot of different palates, and they all give them gold medals. It's another avenue besides the critics to get your wines noticed."
At most competitions, you will find 10 to 15 tables with three to five judges sitting at each table. Each table assesses 80 to 100 wines a day for two or three days. There are crackers, olives, cheese squares and water available to alleviate palate fatigue. The judges know the varietal (Chardonnay) or style (red Rhône-style blend) and the vintage they are tasting.
Some competitions also categorize wines by price on the theory that it will give the less expensive wines the opportunity to win medals. Except during a break for lunch, the judges sit all day quietly scribbling notes as they swirl, sniff, sip and spit.
The California State Fair wine competition, where Charles Shaw Chardonnay won the top honors, is the oldest in the country (founded in 1854) and the only competition that requires judges take a "critical analysis of wine" course at UC Davis and pass a tasting test. Only California wines are considered.
Of the state's 2,500 wineries, 661 wineries submitted a total of 3,029 wines this year to the state fair. In June, 64 judges separated into panels of four to assess the wines. The state fair does ot categorize wines by price.
In addition to the Charles Shaw, the judges considered 68 of the wines to be so extraordinary that they were awarded double-gold medals, meaning a panel unanimously agreed that the wine was gold medal quality. An additional 230 wines were awarded gold medals; 823 wines received silver medals; and 407 wines won bronze medals. In all, 10% of the wines entered in the competition received gold or double-gold medals, and half walked away with some kind of medal.
That's typical. Among the competitions Elgarten tracks, the one sponsored by the Dallas Morning News is considered the toughest: Only 6% of the 2007 entrants received gold or double-gold medals. On the other hand, she says, the San Francisco Chronicle's wine competition awarded gold medals to 14% of the wines submitted this year.
At the California State Fair, the number of medal awards has been rising in the last decade, says Pouch Pouchilowski, a wine educator and chief judge at the fair for 21 years. He believes it reflects the rising quality of California wines. "You seldom find the flawed wines you used to find all the time," he says.
THE awards can pile up impressively for wineries that enter several competitions. In the last three years, five names have appeared each year among the top 10 wineries awarded the most gold medals: V. Sattui Winery in Napa Valley, Navarro winery in Mendocino, Kendall-Jackson in Sonoma, Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves in Carneros, and Rosenblum Cellars in Sonoma. All are well-known companies with marketing staffs trained to capitalize on the awards.
V. Sattui makes 40 wines and enters them all in 24 separate competitions, says Tom Davies, president of the winery. Most of the winery's 40,000 cases of wine are sold through its tasting room where the gold medals are on display. "We've always done pretty well at competitions, but the last few years have been off the chart," he says. He credits new winemaking and viticultural teams. After succeding at competitions, the winery has raised prices.
Wine producers aren't the only beneficiaries of the awards-generating world of wine competitions. The opportunity to create a competition that could evolve into a wine marketing machine inspired Evan Lambert, an owner of Savona, a Philadelphia-area restaurant, to launch the Starwine International Wine Competition three years ago. He gathers an international panel of Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers and veteran wine stewards for a three-day event in New York City where, this year, they tasted 1,200 wines from U.S. and international wineries. "It becomes a decent business as we get more sponsors," he says. No wineries sponsor the event, but companies such as Continental Airlines, distributor Southern Wine & Spirits of New York and glassware maker Riedel have signed on. Meanwhile, the entrance fee is a stiff $150 per wine. The wines that are awarded the top "best of class" award have been tasted by 15 judges and have included such well-known wines as Domaine Jacques Prieur Puligny-Montrachet and Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley.
And, still, there are surprises among the Starwine medal winners. Against wines from around the world, a Bucks County, Pa., wine won best-of-class Chardonnay last October. It's a wine made by former Los Angeles actor Tom Carroll, 31, who talked his parents into planting grapes on their dairy farm in the Delaware River Valley in 2002. Carroll has a publicist now to get the word out about his award-winning wine.
For a list of wines that won multiple medals, go to latimes.com/food.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times