Wine competitions have long been a dubious side of the industry. Wineries submit wines along with a healthy submission fee; competitions send back shiny medals that have a strong whiff of pay-to-play, particularly as most every wine typically wins a medal. The situation recently, however, has gotten considerably worse.
Many competitions have started converting the medals they have traditionally given into scores on the 100-point scale. The results would be comical if they weren’t so harmful.
I will use as an example the Sunset Wine Competition from 2021. Sunset is one of the better-known competitions in the country. I even judged at it myself for a number of years back in the day. (I no longer judge at wine competitions for a variety of reasons.)
Let’s look at some of the scores Sunset gave to Sauvignon Blanc in its 2021 competition. I’ll start with the Darnault + Easthope Sauvignon Blanc Vin de France 2020.
This is an offering from Naked Wines, a wine club, that the company says retails for $24 but club members get for $11. Since these wines are typically sold only through the club, no one is likely really paying $24. This wine received a 97 point score in the Sunset Wine Competition. Yes, you read that correctly.
Let me put that score into context. I’ll use Wine Spectator’s database for reference, though one could use others. There are eight dry Sauvignon Blanc that have received scores of 97 points or above in the magazine’s history. Let’s review who the wineries are:
Chateau Haut-Brion (twice)
Chateau Cheval-Blanc (twice)
Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion (twice)
Those are widely regarded as some of the best producers of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends on the planet. The average price of the wines that have received these scores is $590.
This makes the 2020 Darnault + Easthope a world-beater. An $11 offering from Naked Wines received one of the highest scores for a dry Sauvignon Blanc in history! This seems like a news story or at the very least a press release, right? Call it ‘The Judgement of Santa Rosa.’
But here’s the problem. The 2020 Darnault + Easthope didn’t even win ‘Best of Class’ that year at Sunset. It was not the highest scoring Sauvignon Blanc at the competition. In fact, there were seven Sauvignon Blanc that scored 97 points or higher.
That’s right, Sunset scored almost as many Sauvignon Blanc 97 points or above in a single competition as Wine Spectator has in its history.
Think perhaps the judges scoring Sauvignon Blanc just got a little point happy? You’ll see the same thing for rosés and other styles. A 98 point rosé. Wow!
Okay, so scores at a number of outlets have been getting out of control for a long time. This is just another example of score inflation right?
Not really. The real problem here is the 100 point system is typically not the one judges use to rate the wines in these competitions. Rather, the score is likely being converted from whatever system they are using into a 100-point score.
It’s likely that in many of the competitions, the judges never even see these scores or have control over them. Though I have not sat as a judge on a wine competition panel in a number of years, I have never been to a competition that uses the 100 point system. Yet these competitions are producing scores on the 100-point scale.
How are they doing that? It’s not clear.
This speaks to a larger issue at most wine competitions. Many obvious questions that should do not have readily apparent answers.
Who scored the wines? What system did they use? Did the judges assign medals or did the competition itself do so? What was the cutoff used? How was the scoring system converted into 100-point scores?
Of all of those questions, the only one that can typically be answered by perusal of a site is who the judges were. Here high-credentialed people are used to give competitions a veneer of respectability.
This would all seem to be a laugh if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen wineries promoting scores like these from Sunset that are clearly absurd. I’ve seen some retailers do the same.
While I’ve focused on the 2021 Sunset Wine Competition, many other competitions are doing the exact same thing. Why?
The 100-point system rules the marketplace. Giving medals to every wine is apparently no longer enough to ensure the submissions keep coming. Now the wines need stratospheric scores to go with those medals.
Why is this such a problem? The 100-point system is already barreling toward oblivion due to score inflation, where scores from an increasing number of outlets are creeping up so high as to become meaningless. As more and more of those scores get promoted, the house of cards builds higher and higher. Wine competitions now using the system in this manner seems certain to only hasten its collapse.
When that happens, I’m sure some will rejoice. But what comes next?
Unfortunately the answer is harder times for the industry, as one of the central tools in the toolkit that has been used for decades to sell wine becomes ineffective. Once that happens, all the 97 point scores for $11 Sauvignon Blancs in the world won’t sell a single bottle of wine.
This is one of my longstanding pet peeves about the retail wine business. Why even bother with a 100 point scoring system? A local award competition now touts that they use a modified 200 point scoring system. I guess that’s how they can give “Double Gold” Awards to wines that would be lucky to score a “Gold” medal. These folks have now shifted to using points in addition to the Silver, Gold, and Double Gold medal awards. And as you noted, the scores have gone through the roof. Does anyone honestly believe that a 2020 Pet Nat Rouge produced in Washington could score 100 points? It is listed on the Awards website for all the world to see. Along with more than two dozen other “Double Gold” winners with points scores in the upper 90’s! What kind of joke is this? It’s like my grandson’s 3rd grade baseball team; everybody gets a trophy just for showing up. These “Competitions” are a cottage industry, and they have cheapened the meaning of quality with these awards. Every time I hear tasting room staff tell me that their wine got “Double Golds”, I take it with a huge grain of salt. It is the equivalent of getting a degree from a diploma mill. The focus isn’t on the end user and their enjoyment of fine wine. The focus seems to be on selling PR materials to wineries. There are a lot of talented, hard working winemakers out there, but not every wine is a 90 point wine. I am glad that you have reported on this.
While I agree that the number of wine competitions appear to be more and more generous with wines that medal and their subsequent scoring, one could also make the argument that there are more qualitative wines produced globally now than ever before in wine’s long history. However, using the WS’s 100-pt. scoring system as a barometer for conscientious justification of a wine’s overall merit is just a flawed as a wine competition misrepresenting its use in the first place. The WS 100 pt. scoring system (actually, Robert Parker’s system) has in large part been a pay-to-play subjective tool in their world of wine politics, but is also ripe with its own built-in failings that we’re all too familiar.
While judging in Orange Co.’s wine comp. in the 80’s & 90’s we were instructed to not be “stingy” with awards as the point of the competition is to give consumers what they seek… medals! Has the scoring skewed higher as of late? Sure, but every competition gets to set their own arbitrary prerequisite as to what constitutes a gold, double gold, or any medal for that matter (at least many have removed, “bronze”), and so long as wineries continue to value the merits of what a wine competition’s result brings to their marketing, wine competitions are here to stay despite their own internal shortcomings. Achieving a “90” pt. score in a wine comp. is actually, and deservingly, achievable for many wineries nowadays, versus trying to get the myopic attention of the WS et al.!
A score below 88 is rare and rarer. So it is a 12 to 15 point scale. The casual or low information consumer gets what they put into their process. More involved consumers know that plenty of wines without scores are ok to drink. And they know scores tell part of the story. Yes it is amusing to us. Sunset magazine is nice. Rarely found in wine stores or grocery stores.
This wine scored “98” at the New Jersey Quilters wine tasting.
A little joke to begin.
To many Wine competitions, using people we have never heard of giving outrageous scores to good wines.
The big wineries put a bottle necker on it touting the score . No credibility
Oh come on.
Yes these competitions have almost as much credibility as any magazine or wine critic scoring wines… we all know the entire industry of wine criticism is pay to play, in one way or another – either by a literal salary or the aggressive stroking of fragile egos.
Consumers, get a clue.
There’s one last good reason to share wines with wine competitions as a producer, for me : connecting with significant buyers who do these judgings. What I saw when I helped judge Seattle Wine Awards was the reactions of the judges after the tasting was concluded and the blinded wines known. They talked for a long time about their surprises and confirmations of those they personally prefered. And they’ll remember and buy those wines.
So while magazines don’t get read and only shock buzz feeds get read for free online and social media has replaced the news cycle (NYTimes is $1/mo!) – wine sales are now grown by friendly referral instead but no longer by anyone’s scored points. The last vestige of a judged tasting is knowing those judges will be paying close ranking of my wines for a day, and likely remember the results. So I read the list of judges first then decide if those people matter to my sales needs. Sometimes the entry fee is less than the plane tickets to go see them all.
But it’s true, back in the tasting room, no one cares about your wines point scores. Like ever. Recommendations from friends or even liked strangers such as in a Facebook group like “let’s talk about northwest wines” are what now drive new sales.
Great perspective Caleb! Thanks for sharing it.