Four judges taste a wine. One thinks it’s gold-medal worthy. Two say silver. One says bronze. What medal does this wine get?

If you guessed “gold,” you have probably sat on a wine jury in the United States.

This nearly happened on my jury earlier this month — and I felt like Dr. Doom for refusing to bump up my rating for it to take that gold, after two other judges did.

Who is the true customer of a wine competition? Is it the winery that enters, or the consumer who sees the gold medal?

I have been struggling with that question all year. I’m scheduled to judge 5 competitions this year, three in Europe and two in the US.

Europe vs the US

at the concours mondial in bratislavaIn Europe, the answer is fairly clear: the medals are supposed to be reliable markers for consumers. The OIV has established rules for judges to try to make a subjective pursuit as objective as possible.

But in the US, most wine competitions are like the Special Olympics: wineries get medals for showing up. And the more medals a competition gives, the more successful it is.

The biggest competition in the US is the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, which received more than 5,500 entries in 2012 and awarded medals to more than 80% of them. Wineries pay for each entry, so 5500 wines earns a nice profit (the Chronicle is only a naming sponsor, which is a shame because the newspaper could use the money.)

The Chronicle competition gives out so much hardware that it manages to call 110 wines “best-of-class” even though it has only 101 categories. Did I say “only?” Could you divide US wines into 101 categories? It helps to have nine categories for Cabernet Sauvignon, eight for Chardonnay and seven each for Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

But it’s not just wineries that love the Chronicle competition: the public loves it too, as an annual tasting in San Francisco of some of the 4,644 medal winners (in 2012) sells out.

I have judged at the Chronicle competition, but not in several years. I’ve been spoiled by judging only in the European style for a while, in which you make your decision and let the statisticians sort it out. The exception is Critics Challenge, where you have to write publishable notes for each wine you give a medal, thus giving you personal responsibility.

Back to California

I had almost forgotten what most US competitions are like. Then I agreed to judge at this year’s California State Fair competition.

I couldn’t resist the draw of history. The state fair competition was important in helping the California wine industry grow before Prohibition (it started in 1854) and rebuild after Prohibition. At a time when few took California wine seriously, it was a way for small wineries to get a PR boost. Maybe that’s how the whole culture of winery-interests-first competitions started.

Recently the California State Fair competition had become an embarrassment for the entire concept of wine judging.

Charles Shaw won best Chardonnay at the state fair in 2007 with a wine that was apparently created just for the competition. “The characteristics that we look for in our gold medal winner … a nice creamy butter, fruity … it was a delight to taste,” judge Michael Williams told ABC News. The award validated Two Buck Chuck drinkers in the idea that there’s no point in spending more than $3 for a bottle of wine.

Then, in 2009, retired professor Robert Hodgson published a study of the California State Fair showing that only 10% of the judges were able to give consistent ratings to the same wine. That study is still being cited by people who want to attack wine experts and even wine itself.

Two good journalists, Mike Dunne and Rick Kushman, took over the California State Fair competition this year. That’s why I agreed to judge. I wanted to see what they could do to restore its integrity.

Sweet, yet bitter

I don’t think they’ll invite me back, and not only because of this column. And I’m not sure I should go back. I might go into diabetic shock if I have to judge another group of supposedly dry Zinfandels or Petite Sirahs. Here’s how sweet they were: When I got home, I craved root beer. I drank one, and it was drier than about half those wines.

Tasting these, one after another, led me into one of the many internal debates I had during this competition. Is this the kind of wine US drinkers want? Shouldn’t I reward wineries for pleasing the public?

In Europe, sweet red table wines labeled as dry would get no medal and a round of grimaces. In Sacramento, I was accused by a fellow judge of having a European palate. But I like fruit flavors in wine. In fact, I think that’s why I get invited to Europe to judge — to represent the American palate. Now I feel like a man without a country.

Wine after wine, I said “no medal.” One of my colleagues runs three US wine competitions. He thought about 80% of the wines deserved medals, which seems to be the US standard. And he kept expressing disgust, politely, with my penuriousness. Once, in the Pinot Noirs, we argued outright, on my core issue.

“You’re judging these wines against the entire world of Pinot Noirs,” he said.

“Yes I am, because when people go into a wine shop that’s how they judge these wines, not just against the 35 wines we have today,” I said.

We didn’t argue the point anymore, but my panel kept actively trying to find gold medal wines. The discussion that I started this column with was typical. Nobody, ever, adjusts their judgment downward. What happens is that judges trade votes: I’ll give a gold to that wine you like if you give a gold to mine. I wouldn’t play that game, and thus my panel ended up unusually parsimonious.

It needs to be said that the California State Fair, in part because of its reputation of rewarding wines like Two Buck Chuck, got more than 2700 entries, but does not get the best wines in the state. Wineries big and small enter their wines hoping to get lucky with generous judges, and often succeed. If these were the best wines California could make, I would break down and cry and move to Oregon.

The State Fair ended up giving 218 golds, about 8%, far fewer than the Chronicle, which gave 18% combined to best of class, double gold and gold. Only about 34% of the wines entered in the State Fair competition earned some kind of medal. This is very close to European standards, and a nice first step toward restoring public trust.

Maybe next year, the following scene will not happen again.

Drinkable medal-winners?

In the governor's chairOne evening, the judges were invited to the Leland Stanford Mansion for a gala dinner. This is where the governor of California meets visiting dignitaries, including the president of Mexico. In fact, I got kicked out of the governor’s chair, unfortunately before I could pass any legislation.

At the dinner, medal-winning wines from the 2012 competition, the last under the old regime, were served. Fortunately many of the judges are winemakers who also brought their own wines. I drank the heck out of an Andis Amador County Semillon brought by judge/winemaker Mark McKenna. Judge/winemaker Amy Butler brought a nice Ranchero Cellars Paso Robles Viognier.

Meanwhile, the wines that had medal stickers on them — gold, silver, bronze — sat on our table, 3/4 full at the end of the night.

We expected to drink red wine with the main course, but it turned out to be white wine food (pork with red pepper sauce, and chicken with rice). So I grabbed the only unopened gold medal-winning white wine, a Chardonnay. A few people, including me, tasted it but nobody would drink it.

But nobody would blink at giving a wine like this a gold medal.

Which brings me back to my question: who are wine competitions for? The winery that got the gold medal for that Chardonnay is one of the largest in California. Giving the winery that medal makes it happy and keeps entries coming in.

Maybe consumers won’t have the same fussiness as we did at dinner. Many consumers will drink pretty much anything in front of them. Maybe it makes them feel better to buy a $7 wine that won a gold medal. Maybe it’s all about validation.

Maybe I should have just said about the wine at the top of this piece, OK, give it a gold. I feel like the judge in the Special Olympics who says, “Sorry, you’re just not that special.”

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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37 Responses

  1. Evan Dawson

    Great stuff, Blake. I’m glad to hear you stick to standards instead of acquiescing to reward mediocre wines.

    But be careful. When I addressed this subject on NYCR a couple of years ago, I was attacked by judges across the country. My points were these:

    1) Consumers have no idea how medals are awarded. Ask someone in a tasting room what a silver medal means. Just last week, someone told me they thought it meant the wine must have been the second-best wine in the entire competition.

    2) Mediocre wines generally enter competitions. But consumers don’t know this.

    3) Wines that get no medal are not published on lists by the competitions. I was told that was because it would “embarrass” the winery that sent the wine. I argued that consumers deserve to know the entire list; after all, isn’t the purpose to educate consumers? This point convinced me that the purpose is not to educate consumers.

    4) Many judges — at my very first competition judging! — warned me about tasting fatigue. One told me that he’s always “shot” by the afternoon, even though he has to keep judging dozens of wines.

    5) Judges often disagree because we all have different standards. With wine critics, at least the reader can get a sense for what that critic prefers over time. With competitions, consumers have no idea who did the judging and what they value.

    Privately, I heard from many people who agreed. Publicly, I was told that I was a nobody who had no clout to criticize, and maybe the world would care if Tanzer or Jancis said the same.

    So be careful. You might be blackballed for writing this kind of story. No one likes a boat that’s rocking.

  2. Jim Caudill

    Actually, in the give and take among judges that comes after the initial thoughts are expressed, I’ve often been in robust conversations where a judge explains his ratings and, based on those insights and some further tasting and thought, I’ve just as often gone down as up. And yes, the converse is also true. I think the percentages you cite for this year’s State Fair tell the story: the approach resulted in a much fairer analysis of the wines presented. And yes, there are lots of categories because those categories in some competitions are often organized by price, so a $20 Pinot Noir isn’t being judged against a $60 Pinot Noir. You might argue it should be, but that is clearly not the way consumers evaluate wine. Each panel takes on its own personality, and Mike did a good job in trying to have each panel balanced with varying viewpoints: a journalist, a winemaker, a representative from the trade, and select winery representatives. All bring something different to the party and actually, your insightful thoughts and analysis are more welcomed than I think you realize. Perhaps no one competition tells the tale, but when a wine consistently earns top recognition at a number of competitions, you can bet it deserves a closer look.

    • Blake Gray

      Big Jim: I agree with you that there should be price categories — broad ones. At the Chronicle competition, a $34 Pinot Noir, $36 Pinot Noir and $40 Pinot Noir are not judged against each other. They are in separate price categories and call each wine Best of Class.

      • Tim

        Inaccurate and not true sir. You should have been on my panel. Sorry to read about your less than satisfying wine judge experience. Cheers, Tim

  3. Blake Gray

    Thanks Evan. Have you done much judging since?

    I was telling a different competition director about this article before it was published, and how it might get me disinvited from the state fair, and she said, “Like how what you wrote about our competition got you disinvited?” So that’s a risk.

  4. 1WineDude

    The key thing in all of this, for me (I judged different wines in the same CA State Fair competition on a separate panel form Blake’s), is that the field you taste is the field that you get, and it’s not always a field of the area’s best wines. I kept getting torn between judging a wine against its peers in a flight, and against its peers for those types of wines throughout the world.

    In the end, I settled on something in between; medalling in some way/shape/form if the wine showed well against its peers, but only going high Silver or low Gold on wines that I thought would show well against other similar wines from similar regions on the store shelf.

    As for the CA State Fair itself, I generally had better wines than Blake’s panel apparently, and I thought they did a good job of revitalizing the program in general. In the Best Of rounds, I thought a few of the wines probably shouldn’t have medalled (even though they would’ve been Gold at that point), but it was a small percentage overall.

    Like Blake, I’m in the middle of judging about 5 competitions this year (in Europe, S. America, and the U.S.), and as I recently discussed on 1WD no two of these competitions go about things in exactly the same way. I suspect that nut will never really get fully cracked. The key for consumers, unfortunately, is that they have to get a little educated on how those competitions work, and probably should be at least a little but suspicious of a product that has a Bronze from a U.S. competition, depending on the competition.

    That likely will not happen, and I can’t say I’d blame busy people for not trying!

  5. Lenn Thompson

    Obviously people Evan and I are on board with your post, Blake — but I’m wondering if you can expand on the “if you give my wine a gold, I’ll give your wine one” exchange — why should a judge feel any sort of ownership of a wine he or she is tasting?

    I think that may be part of the problem right there. Are judges sometimes self-important and forgetful of their purpose?

  6. Mike Dunne

    Blake, if you aren’t invited back to judge at the California State Fair it won’t be because of anything you wrote here. We welcome positive criticism. Wine competitions generally need to take steps to improve their relevance, reliability and transparency, and I think we took some steps toward that goal in Sacramento this year. This kind of evolution is nothing new for the State Fair. Remember, Robert Hodgson’s study of judge consistency was undertaken at the State Fair, no other competition signed on to his research; the hope now is that his findings can be used to make our evaluation of wines more consistent and meaningful. I’m thinking that maybe classes of wine should be organized by both price and region of origin as well as by varietal or style, but should judges be told the price categories or the appellation? I’m confident you have an opinion. Incidentally, I think you were unfair in casting aspersion on the Two Buck Chuck chardonnay that was named the best take on the varietal at the State Fair a few years back. Was it really a lot made only for competitions? Perhaps, but to say it “apparently” was without backing up your skepticism with the journalistic legwork you are capable of pursuing isn’t playing fair. Also, you are plain wrong is saying that no judge ever adjusts his or her judgment downward during deliberations. I just finished judging yesterday at the San Francisco International and each of the four judges on my panel more than once downgraded wines following the sort of enlightening debate that group deliberations are meant to generate. Sorry you got kicked out of the governor’s chair at the Leland Stanford Mansion, but I doubt whether even wine-loving Ronald Reagan would have sat at that antique with a glass of wine that could have stained its fine wood.

    • Blake Gray

      Mike: Sorry, enough judges were talking about that Charles Shaw Chardonnay as being a competition lot that I thought it had been revealed. Not true? The wine is legendary; is that part of its legend apocryphal?

      I was also told, and didn’t question the source, that the state fair passed a rule because of that wine that wines submitted for medals must be available for sale. Also not true?

      Re price categories: I believe wines should have price categories. No consumer equates $10 Chardonnay with $50 Chardonnay, so judges shouldn’t either. However, no matter how many entries they get, the Chronicle’s categories, with groups as small as “$30-$34.99,” are all about maximizing medals. Two price categories per wine varietal, or at most three, is consumer friendly.

      Go River Cats.

      • Rick Kushman


        Just to build on what Mike said, one big reason we invited you is because you’re a thoughtful guy and, honestly, we really welcome the questions and columns like this. (We also trust your palate, whatever continent it may be drawn to.) We’re asking ourselves all the same questions that amount to: How do we make this competition most valuable to people who buy wine. Our secondary purpose is aimed at the industry — we would like our awards to be a standard of quality to help wineries see where they stand.

        We also know it may take some time to get to where we ultimately want it to be. Having said that, the percentages you cited seem to show we’re moving in the right direction.

        As for the rules, yes, wineries do have to guarantee that the wine being judged is for sale to the public. All the info I’ve heard about the Two-Buck Chuck chard comes down to, no one is sure either way.

        Go Giants.

      • Martin Cody

        By the single statement: “The characteristics that we look for in our gold medal winner … a nice creamy butter, fruity … it was a delight to taste” immediately disqualify the judge and potentially the event. Unless, that descriptor is known by all wineries ahead of time. So yes, if wineries know that’s what judges are looking for then it wouldn’t come as a surprise that TBC took gold or that wineries would create wines targeting that profile. That’s a judge’s profile, not a varietal or region.

        Exceptional piece and great replies.

        Martin Cody
        Cellar Angels, LLC

      • William Allen

        well said Martin. And the bottle of Two Buck Chuck I tried on a whim last month had none of those characteristics. Nor very drinkable.

  7. Donn Rutkoff

    Maybe I am boringly repetitive. I agree with W. Blake that sugar is too prominent in too many domestic wines. The telltale is the actual drinking. The medal winners were not “two people, one bottle, 45 minutes, gone” wines.

    I have been selling wine in retail stores since 2001. Large stores, small ones. I carried the bag wholesale in the SF area for a mere 2 years for names such as Kosta Browne and Staglin, and 5 years for a book of Burgundies and Germans.

    I wish more people in the biz., writers, owners, bloggers, etc., would spend some hours, not minutes, but hours weekly talking to my customers in a GROCERY store. Costco and Safeway sell more wine than anyone by a large degree. Not just under $10. Visit a new Safeway premium stores to see.

    The people who drink sweet dry wines are happy with a bunch of 1% to 1.5% sugar sweet dry and don’t need much help. But I sell substantial volumes of actually dry wines, via talking plainly to the customer about sweet dry versus actually dry.

    Customer of the wine medals? Yes, it is the winery. Few people stick with buying by scores or medals once they find out that there is NO VALUE ADDED. Total crapshoot. Random selection works as well to suit any person’s palate.

    The customer of the fair is just like Facebook. The drinker is not the customer. The advertiser is the customer, the score or medal is up for sale, and the profile of the chatterer on Facebook is the item being sold. If you call the emperor naked in public, the paid advertising community try to shusshh you. That is how a free world works, for better or worse.

    I quit reading score magazines about 6 years ago and nobody has walked out on me, no customer has called me ignorant, for ignoring scores and medals. I read PWV, Markus Keller, Dr. Smart, Clark Smith, and talk with the eno professors at Davis or Fresno State. I talk about ripening, acids, skin thickness, and color pigments, right there in the grocery store aisle. Not nose, not pain grille, not poesia, never use aggressive or pert or other descriptors of human behavior to describe a flavor, and I don’t even use the term fruit forward. I call it sweet, not forward.

    Call me if you want me to be a judge. Or a paid reviewer. I sell wine EVERY DAY to the full spectrum of consumers. Is that a qualification?

  8. Donn Rutkoff

    Oh yeah, one correction. I read Decanter, on-line. some reviews get on-line. A 17 in Decanter is not bad, but is, uh, let’s see, do the math, uh, yea, it’s 85 on the 100pt, which is next door to a kiss of death.

    I am sure some people do buy scores. But I get a lot who don’t, I get a lot complaints about poor quality nickel sale wines, and are happy happy happy with my recommendations and make repeat trips to the grocery to buy wine.

  9. jeremy

    Hi Blake,
    I live in Wisconsin and the new wineries are popping up all over. Along with that comes hoards of metals that oooh and aah the new wine drinkers here. I think it is a real shame the way these medal winners are advertised. The other problem here is all the sugar levels are way to high. The “dry” wines that are realy off dry are big disapointment when you buy them and find out later. I love to try the new wines being made but there is no reliable evaluations of the wines. I buy some wine on line due to the fact that they there is no distribution. When making a selection there is nothing other than the awards the wine won listed on the site to give an indication of quality. I would have to say I have been disipointed many times. If the metals are for the customers then the customers they are not for all of us.

  10. unknown winemaker

    I’ve judged in many competitions, and also made wines that have done extremently well at the state fair in years past. This year? NADA!
    I’m appalled at the wines that were awarded medals this year, and at the judging sequence that was used–it seemed like the Consumer Wine Awards of Lodi, where every winning wine had 3% residual sugar.
    The Callifornia State Fair Wine Competition is history for us and, I suspect, for many serious winemakers!

    • Blake Gray

      An unsatisfied customer? We had this discussion more than once: This is why competitions give bronze medals.

  11. Erika Szymanski

    Blake, something I wish you’d mentioned in this piece is what judges are asked to do, what the judging criteria are. When I rate writing exams to place incoming college freshman into different composition courses, I can’t rate them based on whether I like an essay, or even whether I think the student has earned a place in a given class, but on whether it meets the criteria to be placed into a given course. Moreover, everyone who rates these exams starts each session with a “norming” exercise to give some reassurance that we’re all roughly in the same place. So, as a judge, are you asked to follow certain criteria independent of your own preferences? Do you ever conduct a “norming” exercise with your fellow judges to evaluate whether you are evaluating the wines in a similar or consistent way? Clearly the pursuit is subjective in any case — as is reading placement exams, inevitably — but having criteria at least aims toward everyone looking for the same general attributes.

    • Blake Gray

      It’s a very good question, and one I asked at the beginning of judging. At the Concours Mondial, there is a verbal definition of what each medal means, and a calibration wine for discussion each day, along with the score it received. I think these are both important, because on my panel we clearly differed on our definitions of what a medal-winning wine should be.

  12. Miquel Hudin

    Obviously there is a need/desire to get a certain result from medals using this type of system. I don’t know why the points systems aren’t used more often in competitions that are truly trying to award meaningful medals. The most honest competitions I’ve been a judge on use these and it seems to engender a good result.

  13. Duncan Ross

    This is an awesome topic

    A couple of things…. discussing a wine during any evaluation will lead to influencing scores. This have been proven in studies, and you can try this one at home by blind tasting the same wine in a group setting and having a persuasive/convincing actor type speak negatively about the wine on the first pass, and glowing on the second. Anyone whose confidence is shaky will line up.

    Second, Consumers are shocked to learn that there are more than one gold medal awarded per category and that the requirement for bronze is basically “a defect free commercially made wine”. Because these medal fests are named “competitions”, the consumer believes that there are winners and losers, like football, baseball, or a spelling bee.

    Lastly, here in NY State, the NY Wine and Grape Foundation is using either 90 point or greater scores in a wine magazine OR a gold medal in any “competition” as an evaluation point for including wines in promotions. This points to the need for the industry to have some method of evaluation that is reasonably consistent and assure/clue in the consumer of the contents of the bottle so their expectations align with the product. I’m not sure what that would be.

  14. harvey posert

    Oh my goodness! If you’ve read this far and seen the Charles Shaw item, I have to respond. As the pr consultant to Bronco Wine Company, producers of Charles Shaw, I can say directly that Fred Franzia isn’t producing competition lots of that wine! The Consumer Reports last month rated l0 Chardonnays worthy of consideration; Charles Shaw was #3 at $3 vs. wines costing as much as 10 times. Now over 700,000,000 bottles of the brand sold in 11 years.

    • William Allen

      funny…I did a rant on FB today about the new Charles Shaw medal and many people weighed in on the inconsistency of your the beverage. (Sorry I refuse to call it wine.)

      They don’t vinify all their ‘wine’ at once its multiple lots/bulk, from many sources.

      One went so far as to state their common practice is to go to TJs, buy one bottle, and ifs drinkable go back in for more, or wait if not.

      I have judged several large wine competitions, and now refused, appalled.

      On a whim I bought a bottle last month, I mean hell, it was $3 and gave it an honest assessment. It was

  15. Tim

    Wow, although a very thoughtful post from W, I am very concerned about the many inaccuracies and opinions based on incorrect information. You can do better than this.

    • Blake Gray

      Tim: Be specific. I’ll respond to specifics if I can. If you just don’t like the article, that’s your opinion. Maybe you’ll give it a gentleman’s bronze?

  16. Rick Schofield

    It’s like the county fair where one grandma gets a blue ribbon for her apple pie and beats the other grandmas, all worthy warriors.

    It’s all subjective and a little luck of course.

    Only because it’s alcohol, an adult beverage, it’s taken more seriously.

    The actual benefit of judging wine is for the fun of the judges and the commercial interests of the entrants and the organizers. There is no right or wrong score or even right or wrong scoring criteria or category organization.

    I had a good Pinot Gris tonight, not as good as the best I’ve had. But at $25, maybe it was slightly under achieving or over priced. I’m sure someone gave it a 90 and someone gave it an 87 and some competition gave it a Silver and another a Gold. As a consumer, I don’t care what they gave it. I paid for it and I drank it regardless of those so called experts.

    Wine is so fleeting. Judging hammers might be more appropos.

    Went to my sister-in-law’s last weekend. She served an oxidized red that was open on the counter at room temperature for a week. The consumer is the judge.

    Now we know why classified growths, Armand Rousseau, Hill of Grace, and Screaming Eagle don’t enter competions. There is no perfect assesment.

    Rick Schofield
    Port Ewen, NY

  17. Tanya

    Out of curiosity: Was it your panel that argued through the lunch hour and snapped at the volunteer entering scores?

    • Blake Gray

      No. We worked quickly and our disagreements were very civil. In some respects we were the ideal jury. In fact, I’ve been thinking about that since writing this column: If you knew you had two jurors who you respect, one who’s very generous and one who you expect will not be, wouldn’t it behoove you to put them together — especially when you know they’ll be civil?

  18. Aaron

    Excellent article, and kudos to the guys from the Fair responding in the comments!

    A few weeks ago I went to a winery here in the Finger Lakes. It was my first visit there, and I was immediately struck by the unbelievable number of medals displayed in the lobby area. In the tasting room my wife and I kept giving each other sideways glances that said, “Really? *These* wines won medals?!”

    And now I know the secret. Thanks for the illuminating article. The world in general needs more sunlight shone into its dark corners, and the wine world is no different.

    I will now make it a policy to mentally write off any winery that touts its medals.

  19. A WINNER IS YOU | Warehouse No. 5

    […]     Ever wonder how some wine brands manage to win so many of those medals that adorn their bottles from wine competitions near and far? In particular, an inexpensive wine brand that also happens to be non-vintage that is piled to the ceiling at the local Liquor Locker? Well, W. Blake Gray, who writes a great wine blog, The Gray Report, wrote an eye-opening and would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-true article for Palate Press about his recent experience judging a California wine competition here; […]

  20. Spencer

    Maybe the wine industry should follow in the footsteps of the beer industry, which has a “Beer Judge Certification Program” ( This might help to instill some discipline and consistency both within and across competitions. Sounds like it is pretty much a free-for-all right now.

  21. William Allen

    Nice work Blake. Most (not all) wine competitions are a farce – I judged two major competitions, some smaller ones, and likely never will again. I wanted to publish something like this a few years ago and out of respect to a dear friend who recruited me, I passed.

    Back to back flights of overpowering wines, 2 minute evaluations, bartering and trading.

    A wine medal from a major competition is as much a red flag to me as a Robert Parker 95 score to a Rhone wine…

    I have judged several major and some minor, and I won’t be doing any again on the ridiculous gold medal system.

    The system is flawed, and in many cases, as Blake points out, the judges could use more breadth. A ‘panel of winemakers’ doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. Many have little experience in tasting outside of the new world and their palates are strongly geared that way.

    Yes, there is some interaction and debate, but there isn’t time for much, the pace has to be fast and furious to get through the day, and it also is often useless.

    In one case I had to take 2/3 of the table of why a beautiful Sauv Blanc, that could have been a ringer for Sancerre, deserved a better than a non score because it wasn’t ‘varietally correct’ aka it didnt show like the NZ SB cat pee stuff….the argument being made thats what consumers buy.

    Sorry I agree with Blake, its a global stage.

    Nice job Blake, call it like you see it. Ballsy. The competitions that won’t invite you back are worth skipping.