Bling it on - the relative merits of wine competitions

It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that as a professional wine judge, I'm not about to trash wine competitions. Equally, however, I'm not going to overstate their importance. In fact, it's curious to me quite how provocative the topic of wine competitions is.
Let’s all agree that wine competitions are always going to be around: for the vast majority of producers, competition success is hugely important in the marketplace and consumers rely on the results, however valid these may be or not, to inform their purchasing decision when confronted by a goods category that is firstly difficult to understand and secondly vastly overtraded.

What makes wine competitions unnecessarily controversial are the extremists: those conveners who insist that the results that their competition generates are utterly authoritative SPACE (it’s a bit rich claiming to deliver the top 100 wines in the country when you attract less than 400 entries) on the one hand and the detractors who not only fixate on the element of chance in competition success but go further to suggest that competitions are run by those totally out of touch with the common people and only seeking to further their own agendas.

Much statistical work has been done demonstrating that random chance is a huge factor when it comes to the outcome of blind tastings – the evidence is compelling but I think rather misses the point. The aim of definitively setting one wine apart from another might not be as workable as some wine experts claim, but what different sets of rankings achieve, is to keep the wine industry fluid with no entrenched hierarchy. 

In the South African context, therefore, we currently see an intense and largely wholesome rivalry between producers, the corporates like DGB, KWV and Distell battling it out at one level and the boutiques like Chamonix, Paul Cluver and Tokara at another.

More generally, there’s the endless discussion of quality and style that differing results engender among all stakeholders, these being the producers again, trade, media and consumer. If it were not for competitions, I guarantee you the industry collectively would be further back when it came to such fundamental issues as cork versus screwcap or the threat posed by spoilage yeast Brettanomyces. 

The topic of the moment is, of course, pyrazines: there’s much greater caution overall when it comes to rewarding wines that show high levels of this compound than there were two or three years ago, and though I think we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, this must be seen as a positive development.

When it comes to interpreting results consumers are well advised to look for general trends rather than treating a single rating of an individual wine as absolute. For instance, look at the average ratings across a range of wines from a certain producer (it can’t be sheer coincidence that KWV was most successful overall at Veritas last year and Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show this year). Competitions are also useful for tracking general tendencies when it comes to regions (clearly Darling and Durbanville are well suited to Sauvignon Blanc) and vintages (2009 trumps 2008 when it comes to Stellenbosch reds).

In closing, I’d like to posit the idea that a wine industry gets the competition circuit it deserves. Wine judging qualifications are important and the wine evaluation course as run by Stellenbosch University is a minimum. However, a lot more training could be offered. The Wine Judging Academy begun by Michael Fridjhon, and set to run again in 2013 after being suspended this year, has proved a good means of identifying new talent. Then there’s also the matter of experience and this can only be gained by putting in the hours. The pool of senior tasters in this country is ageing fast and a new generation does not seem to be emerging - there should be more of a dialogue between senior and junior tasters.
Wine being poured at a wine competitions.