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The Gold Medal Standard : Winning a wine contest may mean a lot to a vintner but less to the consumer.

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

That special someone is cooking you dinner in two hours and you’ve got to get the perfect bottle of wine for the occasion. So you wander into the neighborhood wine shop and . . . choke. Sauvignon blanc, fume blanc, blanc de blancs, your mind’s a blanc.

Then you notice the coin-sized sticker on one particular bottle that says: Gold Medal Winner, Orange County Fair. You grab it. You’re saved.

But does a gold medal ensure you the best bottle of wine? Well, maybe. A medal from Orange County may be a better bet than most because the competition is considered by wine watchers to be one of most prestigious in the nation. And if a wine is a repeat winner, chances are that it is a high-quality product.

In addition to consumer guidance, judgings and medals offer wineries--especially the less established ones--a marketing tool to make their products stand out in a flat, glutted industry.

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But competitions are cropping up in nearly every state--and, in California, nearly every county. Some critics feel that the medals are devalued and the consumer is given precious little help when faced with the thousands of wines released and hundreds of medals awarded each year. Not only are there countless competitions, but many competitions also give out hundreds of medals.

“A lot of gold-medal wines sell out immediately, because a lot of consumers don’t know any better and buy medals,” said Phyllis van Kriedt, editor and publisher of the California Wineletter and a former wine competition judge. “Anyone can win a gold medal, and there is so little difference between gold, silver and bronze that it’s just a shame.”

California is home to nearly half of the major wine competitions in the nation, said Suzanne de Silva, a partner in Wine & Food Associates, a New York firm that serves as a marketing consultant to wine regions from Spain to Sonoma County.

That should come as no surprise, for the state’s 772 licensed wineries make it the top wine producing and consuming state in the nation, said Sam Folsom, spokesman for the Wine Institute.

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About $5.5 billion worth of California wines are sold each year--a figure that has seen little change in the past five years. And in 1988, 118.1 million gallons of wine were sold in California, Folsom said, just about double its closest contender.

Most of California’s judgings are held at county fairs between April and September. And competitions at the Los Angeles County Fair and the Farmers Fair in Riverside join Orange County at the top of the list in prestige.

Which could give a consumer pause. For of the 2,385 wines judged in the Orange County competition, medals were awarded to 36% of the wines entered. More than 150 of those were gold. In fact, between 30% and 35% of the wines judged at all competitions win something, said Joshua Greene, publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine.

A Matter of Taste

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“You could call it inflationary, but there is, to a certain degree, a lot less bad wine on the market than there was a few years ago,” Greene said. “One of the problems is that it’s all a matter of taste. It’s really hard to dismiss well-made, interesting wines from medal consideration for subjective reasons.”

The Orange County competition was held June 10-12 in advance of the fair, which closes Sunday. The wines were rated by 70 winery owners and wine makers on a 20-point system that evaluated such attributes as appearance, color, aroma, sweetness, body, flavor and general quality, said Barbara A. Perez, who supervised the 1989 rating.

Wines are bagged so that labels remain a mystery. They are poured into glasses, swirled and sniffed to check scent, sipped and swished in the mouth to check flavor and spat out to keep judges sober.

According to Perez, the Orange County Wine Society, which co-sponsors the judging, prints and sells millions of stickers each year that proclaim a wine to be a medal winner. And a full 75% of the winning wineries buy and use such stickers to make their products stand out on the shelf.

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And even if they don’t, many of the wineries rapidly distribute news releases to wine critics and wine publications trumpeting their successes.

“There are so many judgings and medals,” said Folsom, of the Wine Institute. “They’re not the be-all and end-all of wine and wine marketing, but they certainly are a large part of the wine industry.”

Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, in Renaissance, Calif., is one small company that has taken advantage of its wine wins. But its success also shows the vagaries of judgings.

After selling its wines for only six months, Renaissance won three medals at Vinexpo in Blayais-Bordeaux, France, purported to be the largest wine and spirits fair. Renaissance was the only U.S. wine to win a gold at Vinexpo, for its 1985 Special Select Late Harvest White Riesling.

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“We are proud of our vineyard and winery,” boasted winery president James Bryant in a news release sent out soon after the awards were given. “And we are delighted that our wines have been singled out for international acclaim.”

International acclaim, yes. Local acclaim, no. Renaissance wines were entered in the Orange County judging and the winery came up empty-handed when awards were announced two weeks ago.

Pitfalls of Competition

Older, more established wineries know the pitfalls of competition and often choose not to enter their products in competition or broadcast awards they win, said G. M. (Pooch) Pucilowski, who runs the California State Fair competition and is principal consultant to the Assembly Select Committee on California Wine Production and Economy.

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“They might sell their wine and do a fine job, but it might go against them if they entered and were beaten in a blind tasting,” Pucilowski said.

Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma County is one such company. Although Iron Horse does not enter competitions, the Orange County judging rated its wines anyway and awarded the vineyard two silver and one bronze medal. Partner Joy Sterling was not impressed and said her company has no plans to place medal stickers on its bottles.

“The most important thing on our label are the words, ‘Iron Horse,’ ” Sterling said.

Still, the medals do give wineries a boost when it comes to retail competition. Al Flores spent a recent Friday trying Chardonnays at the Orange County Fair Wine Garden, where the curious can buy a one-ounce taste of award-winning wine for 50 cents.

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Flores was a manager at Trader Joe’s Market in Huntington Beach for seven years. He said a gold medal resulted in increased sales for the winning wines sold at his store.

“You put a gold medal on a wine,” he said, “and it kind of simplifies things for a consumer.”


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