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)

Chateau Margaux

Didier Dagueneau

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.

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