These days there is no shortage of guidance on which wines to buy. There are traditional sources like writers (like me) who write and review wines for publications big and small, or your local wine retailer, and newer sources like wine bloggers or individuals posting on social media like Facebook. On Facebook alone, I must see 25 or more individual wine recommendations in my feed every day!
How do you decide which of these recommendations to pay attention to and which to avoid? Truthfully, there’s only one way and that is to try the wines, see if you agree with the assessment and then see if that agreement holds up over future recommendations.
There’s another source of wine recommendations that we see every time we walk down the wine aisle at Safeway: wine competitions. How many times have you seen the words “Gold Medal” emblazoned across a shelf talker for a particular wine? Do those words really mean anything or are they just marketing hype?
For me, the rule is the same: “try the wine,” but I think the underlying question for many people (especially you skeptics and cynics out there) is whether these competition results are real and are the results based on serious tastings performed by qualified judges?
I think that for the most part they are. To demonstrate why I believe this, I’d like to walk you through the process involved in awarding a Gold Medal in one of the biggest and most prestigious wine competitions there is: The San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC), held each year in June in San Francisco. How do I know all this? I have been a judge at this competition for quite a few years. It’s the only competition I judge, mainly because I believe in the quality of the process and the results.
In this year’s SFIWC, 58 judges worked three days to taste and judge 4,569 wines from 31 countries and 26 states. The judges were a broad-based group selected from the retail, restaurant, winemaking, media, and consulting worlds, the majority having judged at this particular competition for many years, bringing a consistency to the judging process and to the results.
Judges were grouped in panels of three or four judges and spent the first two days tasting through all the wines and ranking them in the following categories: “No Award,” “Bronze Medal,” “Silver Medal,” “Gold Medal” and “Double Gold Medal.” The Double Gold Medal is awarded when all judges on a panel give a wine a Gold Medal. The third day of judging is the Sweepstakes Round where all of the Double Gold Medal wines are judged blind again to pick the Best of Class and Best of Show awards.
The wines are tasted blind in flights that average around 12 wines of a similar type or variety. Corked or questionable wines are re-poured from a second bottle. After a flight is complete, judges discuss the wines and agree on the medal awards. Quite frankly, the first two days are a lot of work and it takes real concentration to work through the wines and stay focused, even for someone like me who has been a professional taster for more than 30 years.
For me, three things make these results trustworthy for the average consumer: 1) the wines are tasted blind; 2) the wines are tasted by qualified judges with a broad range of wine tasting experience; and 3) those same qualified judges have been there for years—it’s not a revolving door. All of these aspects bring consistency and reliability to the results.
And while I can’t guarantee all of this is true for all competitions, I do believe that they are run for the most part by sincere people trying to do a good job for wine consumers and wineries.
Want more proof? Here are the Double Gold and Gold Medal winners from this year’s SFIWC from wineries based here in the valley. Give these terrific wines a try:
Double Gold Medals
Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 25 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 35 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (carnerospress.com).