What Goes on in a Wine Competition?

Each year, vintners and winery personnel eagerly await the results of annual wine competitions, where their wines will be sniffed, swirled, tasted and hopefully given top awards and a shiny new medal.   These competitions range from regional wine and food festivals with few entrants to international competitions with thousands of competitors.  To better understand what goes on during a wine competition and what the results mean, I’ve answered a few important questions regarding these events.

The What – What is a wine competition? Wine competitions are “blind” tasting of wines by wine experts to determine their relative quality on that day.  A blind tasting simply means the judges have no idea what specific wines they are tasting during the evaluation.  The varietal (type of wine) and the vintage (year the grapes were harvested) are usually shared with the judges but the brand and producer are always unknown.  Wines are poured in a separate room into identical glasses and then coded with numbers or letters before they are brought to the judges.

The Which – Which wines are judged? Only wines entered into the event are judged.  It really depends on the scope of the competition, and on which wineries choose to enter.  International wine competitions attract thousands of entries while a local competition may have fewer than 100 wines competing.  Within the parameters of each competition, it is really the wineries themselves that determine the wines that are tasted.  Some wineries submit many wines in many competitions; others just a few wines in a few competitions; and still others none at all.  The decision may depend on the winery’s size, marketing strategy, or opinion about the value of the particular wine competition’s results.

The Who – Who are the judges?  They are a diverse group of “wine experts” from many different professional areas—wine makers, wine educators, wine writers, sommeliers, wine retailers, and more—who all have two things in common: a passion for wine, and daily exposure to it.

The How – How are the wines judged?  To receive a medal, each wine is judged on its own merits—color, clarity, aroma, bouquet, taste, aftertaste, and overall quality—rather than as part of a ranking.  In other words, 10 wines will not be ranked 1 to 10, but rather recommended for specific medals.  In a particular flight, there might be 1 Gold, 3 Silver, and 2 Bronze medals, for example, and 4 receiving no award; but there are no predetermined numbers or percentages of medals.

The back room staff brings out “flights” of about 10 wines of the same type (like Merlot) in coded glasses which each judge separately tastes in silence and decides on the appropriate medal for each wine on its own merits—Gold, Silver, Bronze, or No Award.  If the majority of panelists agree on a particular medal for a wine it receives the award. Some competitions also have a “Double Gold” category, which requires unanimity among panelists that the wine deserves a Gold medal, whereas a Gold medal just requires a majority.