THE July announcement set the wine blogs buzzing: Charles Shaw Chardonnay, the $2 wine sold at Trader Joe's discount markets, was awarded a double-gold medal at the 2007 California State Fair (ending Sept. 3). One of the most prestigious wine competitions in the country has canonized a wine whose name is synonymous with cheap -- bringing into question the validity of all wine competitions.
In Los Angeles, the gaffe comes just as Ralphs Grocery Co., in its first year as sponsor of the Los Angeles County Fair's wine competition, rolls out an aggressive campaign promoting the fair's medal-winning wines.
The Charles Shaw win may sound crazy, but wine industry insiders familiar with the organization and structure of competitions aren't surprised at the results. Dozens of wines at each competition win gold medals, double-gold medals, best-of-class awards and other hyperbolic distinctions. And there are dozens of competitions around the country, making it possible for any wine, even Two-Buck Chuck, to win prestigious-sounding awards.
"I can see how it happens, giving Charles Shaw a double-gold, particularly with Chardonnay," says Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. He judges at three competitions a year. "You are sitting there as a judge, you've tasted two flights of 10 Chardonnays that are very austere -- and I like those wines -- then a wine comes along with a touch more fruit, a little more rounded, and it stands out. And you hang your hat on it as a judge."
Mistakes happen all of the time, says Andy Perdue, editor in chief of Wine Press Northwest, a regional wine magazine. Perdue created the Platinum Competition, which tastes and reexamines the wines of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia that have won gold medals in any one of 30 competitions he tracks.
Last year, his panel tasted 250 gold-medal wines; 15% of the wines didn't measure up, he says.
But the competitions aren't meaningless. Wine competitions are blind tastings -- that is, wines are placed before a broad range of palates without the judges knowing the specific wines they are tasting.
The results can be informative for wine lovers looking for alternatives to the ratings bestowed by critic Robert M. Parker and his influential point system.
In fact, some new competitions have been launched with the specific goal of competing with the attention-getting power of the big-name critics.
Although the 40-some competitions nationwide are all blind, they vary in size and sponsorship. The Los Angeles County International Wine & Spirits Competition and the Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition, like most wine competitions, originated as part of a county fair.
Publications sponsor some of the best-known competitions, including the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition is a charity fund-raiser. And the Critics Challenge in San Diego is a business venture.
Not all wineries enter the contests. In fact, critically acclaimed wineries rarely bother with contests. But new wineries struggling to be noticed, the many medium-size wineries disregarded by the major critics, and big wine companies with long lists of releases that play the competition odds, all have reasons to enter.
And if a winery enters enough wines in enough competitions, it usually wins something somewhere. Entry fees range from $50 to $150, with a donation of four to six bottles per entry. Big competitions such as those put on by the L.A. County Fair and the California State Fair involve 60 to 70 judges who include winemakers, vintners, retailers, sommeliers, publicists and wine writers. The typical $100 a day they are paid is hardly the attraction. Judging in wine competitions is actually an efficient way to keep up with each vintage's offerings, to notice winemaking trends and simply stay abreast of industry gossip.
A grueling job
After two stints at the L.A. County Fair, I know how grueling the competitions can be on judges. The first year, I was given 30 Zinfandels to critique after a similar round of Syrahs. So many of the wines were overblown, alcoholic fruit bombs that no amount of careful spitting could save me from a dawning sense that I was being poisoned. By the end of the eight-hour-long day, I had a blinding headache.
I gained a measure of respect for those judges who sort through the sensory overload. At the same time, I saw how conditions such as the ratio of judges to wines to be tasted and the relative quality of the wines in a flight can skew the results from any one competition.
The value of wine competitions, says Clarissa Elgarten, publisher of American Gold Medal Wines, an online service that compiles the results from 21 widely followed American wine competitions, is in the aggregate. Each year there are several wines that consistently impress a broad range of judges to earn top awards from several competitions.