What’s wrong with our wine show system?

Are trophies and gold medals worthless bling or worse?

The purpose of wine shows is to serve as a guide to quality for consumers, and a style guide for winemakers. I’ve long been puzzled by the gongs thrown up (no pun intended) by our wine show system. A few recent examples I covered in previous posts include

  • McWilliams Hanwood Estate Shiraz 2010
  • Taylors Promised Land Shiraz 2010
  • Brands Laira Cabernet Merlot 2009
  • McWilliams Mount Pleasant Jack Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
  • Wolf Blass, Red Label Shiraz Grenache (2010)

I threw in the Wolf Blass to show that it isn’t just me. I didn’t even bother with this $7 wonder, despite the raves and the 2 trophies and 2 golds at the Adelaide and Melbourne shows. Even JH heaps praise on it: ‘What an amazing wine,… vibrant purple-crimson, with totally delicious red berry and spice flavours, …  94 Points

‘I had to try this wine,’ writes David Hemmings in his blog. ‘Unfortunately … I found the wine to be incredibly underwhelming. With a medicinal nose, the palate of stewed red and dark berries lacked fruit intensity, acidity, complexity and oak influence – 83 points.’

Thanks, David. I could add a couple of Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs, such as the Invivo 2011 and the Whitehaven 2011. Trophies and medals for ordinary wines like these suggest major loss of plot on the side of the judges, even across the Tasman. And before you dismiss me as some crank, let me be the first to admit that judging wines is tough, and that your palate and your mind are subject to many factors that can mess them up real fast.

It’s not a new issue

The value of wine shows has been debated for decades, and my beef with medals goes back a long way. Before the internet and JH’s wine companion, medals on bottles were about all you had to guide you, unless you had inside knowledge or a great wine merchant. I remember reading an article in the Epicurean, which explained why the biggest, most alcoholic wines always won the big medals at the Melbourne Show.

The Melbourne Show, it turned out, was then held in the middle of winter in the huge old Exhibition Buildings in Rathdowne St. They weren’t air-conditioned or heated, so the wines on show never reached what we’d call room temperature. The only wines that spoke to the judges were those that literally leapt out of the glass and grabbed the judges by their throats – Rutherglen reds for example. By contrast, the Sydney show would be held before the Easter Show, often in sweltering heat at the end of a long, hot summer, again without air-conditioning.

Wolf Blass famously worked out what would grab the judges and won trophies virtually at will from then on, much like Lance Armstrong won Tour de France races, the Jimmy Watson his favourite. If a winemaker can make wine to a recipe like that, you know the show system is in deep trouble. But nothing has changed. The judges still fall for big alcohol soft reds with luscious fruit and toasty oak …

Even judges get confused

In a long line-up, big wines always stand out more than the elegant, restrained ones, not just in Melbourne. It’s a fact of wine judging life. I just found an article written by Chris Shanahan almost 2 decades ago, and I remember buying a bottle of the wine in question and shaking my head in disbelief when I tasted the overblown concoction. ‘It’s clear from the results of the 1993 ACI National Wine Show of Australia,’ Chris wrote, ‘that the judges, including a Chairman who presides over the biggest sparkling wine cellar in the southern hemisphere, cannot pick $10 bubblies from $20 bubblies on the tasting bench.’

The Kit Stevens Trophy for best bottle-fermented sparkling wine had gone to a Killawarra Premier Vintage Brut 1990, which sold for about 8 or 9 bucks. The wine beat the 1989 and 1990 Salinger ($27), Hardy Classique Cuvee Pinot Chardonnay 1990 ($28), Yalumba ‘D’ 1990 ($27) and more. ‘Taken at face value,’ says Shanahan, ‘the results should send us sprinting, wallets and purses open, to the nearest retailer.’

A year later, Chris is once more scratching his head over the results. He says: ‘The judges, led by Domaine Chandon’s Dr Tony Jordan in this instance, really should be made to stand in the corner. Either that or we accept Minchinbury, Carrington, Great Western, and Seaview at $4-$7 as better wines than Salinger 1991 ($30). And why a gold for Mildara Jamieson’s Run 1992 in one class and nothing in another? Or what does Orlando wine maker Robin Day make of a silver medal for Jacobs Creek Chardonnay 1993 and nothing, in the same class, for the twice-as-good, twice-as-expensive St Hilary?’

It’s a numbers game

A serious  problem with our wine shows is the sheer number of wines the judges have to assess – 300 a day is pretty normal. I don’t know about you, but 20-25 wines in one session are about as many as I can cope with before the fumes cloud my judgment. And two or three sessions a day would be my max. Overload is one explanation for the positive ratings really ordinary wines garner on occasion.

Wine show

Max Allen agrees: ‘Traditional wine shows also ask way, way too much of the judges by making them taste huge brackets of wine – 60 chardonnays, then 50 shirazes, then 30 cabernets, and so on. I don’t care how much of a gun taster a judge claims to be, by the 150th wine of the day, nobody is operating with all faculties in tip-top condition, and the poor wines aren’t getting the full attention they deserve. Judging this way simply does not do the wines justice.’

‘I think that wine shows are really quite silly,’ says Max. ‘The traditional form of wine judging in Australia, the one that developed from the Royal Agricultural Society Shows – you know, old geezers standing around in white coats with clipboards, working their way along a line-up of 100 young shirazes before lunch and awarding points of 20 as if the wines were heifers or sponge cakes – is deeply, deeply flawed.’

The winners are decided by deselection

Max makes another really good point: ‘… for a start, [wine shows] are often way too technical … winemaker judges usually first assess a wine to see whether it’s got any faults, whether it’s well-made, whether the oak stands out, rather than whether it’ll taste good with your pizza tonight. They don’t approach each glass in the way that normal people do: as a potentially life-enhancing few mouthfuls of deliciousness.’

Rick K

In other words, the medal winners are determined by tossing out the wines with faults, a point Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda made in a recent Decanter interview with Andrew Jefford: ‘… [The show system] just drives wines to a certain level of interesting boredom,’ he says, ‘clean boredom.’ He asks: ‘Why do winemakers run the show? They’re not the people who drink the wine. It’s absolutely crazy. You should have consumers in charge, with a small winemaking contingent.’

If you check that link, you’ll see a long and elaborate rebuttal by JH, which sadly questions Kinzbrunner’s credentials and his experience, and doesn’t address the central issue here: the system we have today fails in its fundamental purpose as a guide to fine wine, to both consumers and winemakers.

Even deselection is unreliable

The show system isn’t even weeding out the crook wines consistently, as the wines I listed at the top of this post prove. They all have faults, from coarseness and whiffs of oil refinery on the reds to the tropical fruit/ lemon acid simplicity of the Sauvignon Blancs. This style is a good case in point because, if our show judging system (or that in NZ) were doing its job, we would toss these wines out for not conforming to style. Let’s remember: wine show awards are supposed to do two things: be a guide to quality for consumers, and a guide to style for winemakers.

So let’s talk about style for moment: Sauvignon Blancs should not show passionfruit flavours, since they have no place in this style, and tropical fruits or sugar snaps sure as hell don’t. The fruit characters we want to see in a Sauvignon Blanc or SB-Semillon blends are herbaceous rather than fruity: tangy gooseberry, freshly cut grass, hints of lantana and cats pee, backed by minerally, flinty acid but not lemon acid.

Buy a quality Sancerre or white Graves from a good year, and you’ll see what I mean. In the Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson writes that descriptions of Sauvignon Blanc wines typically include ‘grassy, herbaceous, musky, green fruits (especially gooseberries), nettles and even tomcats.’ She adds that the wines from the New World are more perfumed, more pungent and more fruity, with hints of sweetness. Is that what we want in our Sauvignon Blancs?

I don’t think so, but the Kiwis did a good job convincing most of the world that perfumed tropical fruit concoctions with a dash of lemon acid were the pinnacle of this style. Why did they do that? Because they planted virtually every hillside in Marlborough with SB vines, once the world declared its admiration for their early examples. In the years that followed, the Kiwis sent shiploads of Sauvignon Blanc made from young vines across the Tasman. Young vines produce ordinary wines with poor varietal definition. Somehow, that lollywater became the style Aussie punters got used to. By now, the Kiwis have worked out they can flog us just about anything.

People are the most unreliable

‘In the Australian system, it is a classic “decision by committee” mentality,’ says one of the posts on the Wine Companion Blog, ‘i.e. the loudest personality wins out. It is more about the chief judge’s palate than anything else. This promotes “homogenization” of the results, which is the single biggest criticism of Australian wine internationally at present.’

There’s also the pressure of ‘getting through the brackets’, and that means pressure to achieve consensus so they can move on to the next bracket. It’s one hell of a production line. Yes, sure, the judges say it’s all in a day’s work and tell you that they cope with it just fine because they do it often and have a good technique and … I don’t buy it. It’s a ridiculous way to judge wine, wine that is designed to be enjoyed with food after all.

Max Allen agrees: ‘I’ve seen it happen: I’ve seen judges damn a wine while tasting it blind during the show, giving it low scores and criticizing its high acidity and lack of fruit – and then I’ve watched as the same judges glug the same wine with relish at dinner that night, giddy with joy at how its wonderful juicy acidity and savoury characters make it such a marvellous match with the suckling pig. Any system that allows  – indeed, encourages – this dichotomy is surely broken and needs fixing.’

Max at work

The bottom line

There’s plenty of evidence that our system of having judges award points out of 20 to each wine in huge line-ups will produce results that are all over the shop. I know the judges work hard at getting it right, but the system is broken for all the reasons and examples given above. It doesn’t work as a style guide for winemakers, and that’s the reason many of our best boutique makers – the true pioneers and trend setters – don’t enter their wines in shows.

The big guys, by contrast, throw every wine they have into every show there is, and we seem to have ever more shows – did you know we now have cool climate wine shows? Yes, more than one. And we have small maker wine shows now, and all those regional shows. Don’t get me wrong: new regions like the Mornington Peninsula or Orange need to have shows that help them define their regions’ styles.

The problem is that wine companies put even the smallest show awards on their bottles because they know consumers react positively to them (even if the print is so small they can’t read which show the wine won the medal in). Those shiny award stickers are misleading consumers en masse, end of story. What’s the answer? Cut down the number of wines judged on a given day, and serve the wines with food, and have more consumers partake. I don’t mean wine writers and sommeliers – they’re embedded, they’ve been trained by the judges.

The Sydney International Wine Challenge – yet another wine show – started to serve food for the judges in 2010, and they declared themselves thrilled with the concept.

Wine and food
yes, that’s a plate of food over on the right

Too expensive for every show across the country? Then cut the number of wine shows down from dozens across Australia to just a handful, and find a way to make that handful work properly.

Judging wines with food is not the final answer either, sadly. It just isn’t that easy. I taste wines for my reviews over several days. Time and time again, I’ve changed my mind radically on the second day as cloased wines opened up and blossomed, and seductive wines revealed their faults. Letting wines breathe for an hour or two doesn’t have the same effect as tasting it over several days.

The final point is to throw away the points system. Reward and award wines for character, not lack of it, and for raising the bar for styles, new and old. And for setting and maintaining standards, and for breaking new ground.