It was 3:30 p.m. on the second day of judging for the 2013 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, and the hour-plus stalemate over best sparkling wine showed no signs of breaking. The field had been whittled down to two contenders—one the color of light straw and the other pale salmon—but the two panels of judges tasked with selecting Best of California had each chosen different winners.
The four judges from each panel were among 72 professionals selected to sip and score 2,625 wines from 709 winery brands for the annual event held in Sacramento, Calif. The State Fair competition is one of the best known in the United States, which is home to more than 30 such contests, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Each competition has its own rules, and terms can vary greatly, with entry fees ranging from free (Orange County Fair Commercial Competition) to $95 (Ultimate Wine Challenge). According to numbers compiled by Wines & Vines, wineries spend nearly $3 million per year on the entry fees alone.
Likewise, competition organizers can require anywhere from two to six bottles per wine entered in the competition. Given the cost of entry and the multitude of contests, how do wineries decide whether they should enter? And if so, which contests are best suited to them?
The winner’s circle
Len Wiltberger, owner of 9,000-case Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan, N.Y., said he enters several competitions per year as a way to have his wines benchmarked against others. This year Keuka Spring’s 2011 Riesling was named the best white wine at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and recently the winery’s 2012 Riesling was chosen from a field of more than 800 entries to win the Governor’s Cup trophy during the New York Wine & Food Classic.
Contacted a few days after the Governor’s Cup win, Wiltberger said customers had been flooding the tasting room since the announcement, and wine retailers had been calling to place orders. “We generally are fortunate and successful with these wine competitions, and it gives us stuff to work with for promotion and in terms of point-of-sale material in retail stores, so it’s a good investment for us,” Wiltberger said.
The fee to enter the New York Wine & Food Classic is $60 per wine entered or $40 for limited-production wines (less than 100 cases produced per year).
“The governor doesn’t come up to this part of the state much (New York’s Finger Lakes), so when we won this competition, every newspaper within 100 miles jumped on the story.” In the days following the award, Wiltberger said traffic to the tasting room increased by about 50%. “They’re buying it like crazy. They’re walking out with cases of it right now,” he told Wines & Vines. And while the press about the 2012 Riesling was driving traffic, Wiltberger said tasting room customers left carrying other varieties and vintages, as well.
The regional angle
For wineries located in the Napa Valley, which sees an estimated 3 million tourists per year, raising regional awareness is not as pressing. According to Kevin O’Brien, general manager at Tetra, a 5,600-case winery located in Napa, wine competitions fill a need in regions that aren’t known for grapegrowing and winemaking. “I tend to think that the further away you get from wine country, the more competitions serve those consumers,” O’Brien said. “They’re bombarded less, so the information seems more meaningful.”
Tetra pointed to the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition as one that is meaningful to consumers in the area that publication serves. Fees for the competition range from $75 to $95 per wine entered, depending on whether entrants apply online or by mail and whether their application is received by the deadline (30 days prior to judging). Wineries must provide four bottles of each wine entered into the contest.
With a population of 26 million and a per-capita wine-consumption rate of 2.4 gallons, Texas remains a sweet spot or many wineries. Rebecca Murphy, founder and chairman of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, agreed that one of the major benefits to wineries that win is “more attention in the state of Texas for their wines.” The sponsoring newspaper’s readership has a weekday circulation of 400,000, with nearly 700,000 readers for its Sunday edition.
In 2013 the competition attracted entries for 2,780 wines, raising a total of $206,000 in fees. Still, Murphy told Wines & Vines, “I always have to smile when I see bloggers talking about competitions as money machines.” Expenditures for the competition include printing and postage, glassware, a warehouse to store the wines, movers for delivering wines from warehouse to judging venue, venue rental fee and staff for the competition, equipment rental, judging supplies, medals, credit card fees, security for the event, marketing and public relations. The competition also pays for judges’ fees (an honorarium of $100 per judging day), plus airfare, ground transportation, accommodations and all meals during the competition.
The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition bills itself as the largest wine contest in the United States, and with good reason: The annual judging draws 5,000 entries each year at a cost of $20 per brand and $65 per wine entered. Winners are invited to pour at a public tasting held in San Francisco, tickets for which sell for between $50 and $80. Wineries choosing to participate in the event must reserve a table for $100, plus the cost of wine, transportation and staffing.
Based on data collected by Wines & Vines, North American wine competitions receive more than 43,800 combined entries each year, with participation fees totaling more than $2.9 million. The business is big overseas, too: In 2012 the Decanter World Wine Awards judged more than 14,000 wines with entry fees starting at $206 (USD), for a total of at least $2.9 million (though the actual total is much more because entry fees are higher for samples sent from outside the U.K. and wineries that don’t register online).
It takes a village
Judging for the California State Fair Wine Competition takes place in early June, but behind the scenes staff and volunteers begin working months earlier. “We don’t start the day before,” said wine competition coordinator Kem Pence. “It’s the beginning of the year when we gear up and start soliciting wineries, and then we have our entries open in April and start receiving bottles in April and May.”
This year 2,625 wines entered the competition, which charges a $60 entry fee per wine, for a total of $157,500. Pence said 120 volunteers aid the staff of five and 72 judges during the three-day competition and the days (and in some cases months) leading up to it.
According to Murphy of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, the lion’s share of the work goes on behind the scenes. When wines are received at the warehouse, staff checks each label to make sure all four bottles are the same and that they match the entry information submitted by the winery. “If they enter one vintage and send us another, we make sure they intended to do that,” Murphy said. “We work very hard to make sure our information is accurate.”
In fact, Murphy has worked with Will and Calvin Goldring of Portland, Ore.-based web and database development firm State33 to develop a web-based competition management system that includes online entry for wineries and a system for judging panels to input their scores.
Once a wine wins gold, staffers check their database to make sure that the record matches the information on the wine label and that the photo on file is the correct one.
Which contests to enter
With the variety of wine competitions out there, it can be difficult to know which ones are worth the cost of admission—both in terms of entry fees and shipping bottles. According to Murphy, who also serves as manager of operations and logistics for the Sunset International Wine Competition, transparency is one of the most important elements in judging.
“A winery should always try to find out whether the competition shares the code sheets with their judges,” she said. Murphy explained that code sheets allow judges, once the judging stage is complete and the scores are locked in, to cross-reference their votes and notes with the list of wines once they are revealed. “I’ve judged at some competitions where they did not share that data. It shows the transparency of what’s happening.”
Murphy added that it’s important for wineries to know how much attention competitions pay to the details, from intake of wines to cataloging them to judge selection and disseminating information about the winners. “It’s harder these days to get the attention because there is so much information out there, but that is one thing to try to work on: To make sure that wines that win awards get some sort of support for their results.”
Judgment of judges
The topic of judging reliability gained traction in fall 2008, when the results of retired professor and winery owner Robert T. Hodgson’s study of judge consistency at the California State Fair was released in the Journal of Wine Economics. By placing triplicates of the same wine sample within flights of about 30 wines, Hodgson revealed that only about 10% of judges were able to consistently replicate their scores when the same wine was placed within a single medal group. Another 10% scored the same wine awards ranging from bronze to gold.
Staying close to home
When it comes to choosing competitions to enter, Keuka Springs’ Wiltberger said he enters several contests in California but also has a fondness for those closer to his home vineyard in New York’s Finger Lakes region. “We’re working against wineries that have vineyards with the same soils and the same climatic conditions,” he said. “It’s a good way to see how you stack up against your competition, and that’s important to us.”
The California State Fair Wine Competition is multi-layered to the same effect: The state is divided into 11 growing regions, and for regions submitting more than 30 of the same varietal, a winner is chosen as best varietal representation of the region. Judges also select Best in California for each varietal or wine category and Best of Show red, white, dessert and value wine (bottles that sell for less than $10).
Wine competition standoff
As for the stalemate over best sparkling at the California State Fair, after several rounds of blind tasting and voting, judges selected a wine that also earned a gold medal at the Los Angeles Wine & Spirits Competition and took home the Best of Class award for semi-dry sparkling wines in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The winner? An $11 non-vintage Blanc de Noirs from Korbel, which narrowly beat out Bryte r Estates’ $38 ‘Le Stelle’ from the North Coast to take the best-of California title. (The Bryter wine, a non-vintage sparkling Brut, was named best white wine from California’s North Coast region by the fair.)
When Korbel’s wines win big awards like the California State Fair honor, the winery tries to mobilize trade and press by distributing news releases, its sales force by circulating point-of-sale information and consumers by publicizing awards on social media and displaying honors in the winery tasting room in Guerneville, Calif.
“There are so many wine competitions now that wineries are forced to make choices as to which to enter,” Korbel vice president of communications Margie Healy told Wines & Vines. “We look for well-known competitions that have a history, include judges that are primarily wine writers and/or buyers and have affordable entry fees.”
But the méthode champenoise sparkler wasn’t finished yet. The following day the bubbly selection claimed the title Best of Show among all white wines. “It took lots of awards,” Pence, the competition coordinator, said of the wine, “and it really is delicious.”
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