Merlots and Medals: Veteran Wine Judge Tim McDonald on the History and Impact of Wine Competitions

Lined up with gleaming stickers of gold, silver, and bronze slapped on their labels, award-winning wines stand at attention on shelves across the country like so many grape generals turned out for a military parade.

But does a Merlot with a medal taste better than one without? And, perhaps more importantly, does it sell better?

red row 2The relevance of wine competitions has been emphasized this year with a flurry of celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of one of the biggest wine showdowns ever, the famous Judgment of Paris tasting where California vintages bested some big names in French wine—a huge score for the New World that established the Golden State’s credentials as a major player and sent sales soaring.

The 1976 tasting was a relatively casual affair arranged by Stephen Spurrier, an Englishman looking to muster attention for his Paris wine shop, and featuring only 20 wines. Today’s big competitions are big business, drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of entries and handing out equally substantial amounts of hardware.

Some say too much hardware. The notion of wine competitions (and the 100-points ratings scale popularized by pioneering critic Robert Parker) as a reliable measure of wine quality hasn’t gone unchallenged.

Among the criticisms are complaints that competitions have an incentive to reward wineries, who pay fees to enter—more than $1 million a year according to some estimates—and that judging can be inconsistent. Robert T. Hodgson, a retired professor with a background in statistics who is also a winemaker, has published research showing inconsistency in medal results—wines ranked gold in one contest got no medals of any color in others.

tim spittingTo help make sense of this, we went to an expert for some answers—wine industry veteran Tim McDonald.

McDonald knows competitions; he’s served as a wine judge at more than 200 wine and spirits competitions in North America and is currently director of wine judging at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and chief judge at the Central Coast Wine Competition. And he knows wine. Currently a partner at the media relations consultancy Wine Spoken Here his previous experience includes serving as marketing director of fine wine communications at E. & J. Gallo and director of trade relations at Trinchero Family Estates.

 

Let’s talk history. What do you think was the legacy of the Paris Tasting?

Tim at The Best of Challenge 2013McDonald: The Paris Tasting, which is almost a half-century-old, made all of us aware of blind competitions and how a group of tasters can come up with sometimes surprising results. The legacy is that fair-and-square tastings are the standard now. The blind tasting reveals the best wine in the class or type.

Could something like that happen today?

McDonald: In today’s time a Paris-type tasting will not have the same impact mainly because the drinking public gets their wine recommendations from the clerk in their favorite shop whether a small wine store or a big operation like BevMo!. The vast majority of buyers pay attention to a myriad of things like scores or awards or accolades. And, there are so many places to get a score these days. Also at websites like wine.com and many others you can get aggregated scores and reviews.

How important do you think wine ratings/medals are to consumers today? 

McDonald: Ratings and reviews and scores still matter, perhaps even more today. We still have the Academy Awards, Olympics, The Grammys, The Derby, The World Series and the scoring system is not going away anytime soon. Younger wine drinkers ask their friends or the shopkeeper or look at POS in store shelves. And now that so many are buying wine online they pay attention to what that source says. The wholesale distributor relies more than ever for scores for the off trade to “sell in.” This is not as key in restaurants.

What does a major competition win mean for a producer?

McDonald: A win sells more wine if you communicate it to your fans and friends. I manage the judges at two competitions, the San Francisco event in June and the Central Coast Wine Classic. Every year there is a story about the brand that won Best Cabernet or Winery of the Year and the winery sells out of the winning pick or the traffic to the visitor’s center rises.

You’ve seen the Hodgson research maintaining that wine competitions are inherently subjective. What do you think about that?

McDonald: The evaluation or judging of wines is and always will be subjective. Some expert tasters like low oak and some don’t. Some like dark Pinot and some like lighter ones; some dislike higher alcohol and some don’t. Some judges love natural/organic/biodynamic/orange wines—some don’t care how the farming is practiced. What tastes great is what usually wins in a three- to five-person panel blind taste. I have judged hundreds of wine competitions and all of them are different with different judges, held at different times of the year and logically get different results. I believe it is the SUM of the PARTS—scores, gold medals, and solid reviews make a reputation for a particular wine. These wine competitions regardless of when and where they are held depend on the WHO part, as in who is judging and running the competition. For the most part they are all quite fair. But if I were a winery entering a particular competition or magazine submission the WHO part would be Number 1.

What do you think will be the next big thing in terms of how wines are evaluated and presented to consumers? 

McDonald: Frankly I would like to see aggregated wine reviews from important sources. For instance, a Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition, 90 points in Wine Spectator and seen in Sunset Magazine as one of the “Top Eight Chardonnays for Summer.” Buzz is created from multiple recommendations and if you are making great wine this should happen over and over till you move on to the next vintage.

About the Author

Michelle Locke is a writer, photographer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay area. A news reporter for many yeras, she now writes about food, drink and travel, producing stories that appear in newspapers and magazines nationwide. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. One of my friends forwarded this article to me. I would like to say this. When confronted with my research, most people reply that evaluating wine evaluation is subjective, as if that is a substantial response to my research. But that is not the point. I agree that wine evaluation is subjective. But, when a judge offers an array of awards for the same wine, that is not subjective, that is sheer nonsense. The fact that individual judges have such a large disparity of scores in evaluating wines suggests that the outcome is random. Going from competition to competition, my 2009 paper shows gold medals are mostly awarded by chance. Enter enough competitions and you will win at least one gold.(I tracked one case wherein on winery submitted a wine in 14 competitions, getting No Awards in 13 and a gold in the 14th. What do you think appears on the label? “Gold” medal winner.

    Thanks for the article. You might want to interview Robin Goldstein for more on price/performance data.
    Bob Hodgson

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