Wine Competition Conundrums: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This article originally appeared in Wine Business Monthly on May 29, 2019. Thank you to Erin Kirschenmann and editorial staff for sharing with this with your readers.

I’m getting push-back from my clients. Not on sending wines for review, but for submitting them to competitions. I agree with this in principal, as the number of wine competitions has proliferated over the last 10 years, as have the number of medal categories and wines awarded. Let’s examine these two issues – the increased number of competitions and awards – and lay out some considerations to help inform your decisions.

Too many wine competitions? The number of wineries in the U.S. and globally has grown exponentially, and everyone is contending for the attention of wholesalers and consumers. Receiving awards is a way to brand differentiate and gain marketing clout. How to choose those most impactful to your business? I asked two competition professionals about the “landscape” of today’s competitions.

Erin James, editor of Seattle based Sip Northwest Magazine sums up the situation. “There is such a dynamic spread of style in wine competitions across the country, from the “little league” variations where nearly everyone gets some sort of medal to more stringent operations like ours – Sip Northwest Best of the Northwest – that only awards medals to a top set of winners. I don’t think one way is better or more accurate than the other, just different options. I would like to see more competitions providing feedback to producers from judges, and elevated judging panels to ensure that feedback is educated.”

Eric Degerman, CEO of Great Northwest Wine and founder of multiple competitions summarizes why he believes medals still matter to consumers: “So within the wine industry, just as it with many things in our society, there continues to be a desire for third-party endorsement.” This makes sense as the number of wineries in the U.S alone exceeds 10,000. It is expected that the number of import wines into U.S. markets will soon exceed that. Offering consumers purchase guidance, as simple as medals awarded, appears to have some competitive value.

Too many medals awarded? Many competitions are giving out too many awards as a percentage of total entries. I think there are two main reasons for this. 1) The quality of wine has improved in all regions due to technology and winemaking experience, and 2) competitions are giving more awards because the revenue generated by competition managers is significant. More awards given equates to more wines submitted, and may lead to additional ad revenues, i.e. label placements, website ads, etc. However, the cost-benefit of awards seems less significant as the percentage of total wines awarded has increased. This also raises the quality of judging panel question. Are there enough qualified judges to go around? And, how are they performing overall? Consider the following studies.

In 2008, Robert Hodgson, Professor Cal State Humboldt, studied the performance of wine judges at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, and published his report in the Journal of Wine Economics. His exhaustive analysis looked at judge consistency in re-evaluating the same wines, and concordance of results across multiple competitions. You can go to the American Association of Wine Economics website, pay a fee or download from a university library to view the full reports. The net results were that neither judge consistency or wine scores are reliable or consistent. They concluded:

  • Perfect judges do not exist
  • Judges are biased after discussion
  • Male judges are about as good as female judges
  • Judges tend to increase their scores after discussion

In 2018, a French study evaluated whether winning medals in wine competitions affects price increases. In his summary review of the study, Dave Nershi, of Vino-Sphere compares French wine studies with what’s happening in the “New World”, and says “the study shows winning a medal has a strong effect on wine prices, however the prestige of the competition makes a big difference. In France, regulations prohibit awarding more than 33% of participating wines. Some contests are even more strict. Winning a Gold medal in Bordeaux is certainly meaningful – and apparently you can take that to the bank”. The study suggests a 13% increase in prices for Gold medals, and about 4% for anything less. You can read the entire French study here. Dave added, “This study is focused on France, and so it isn’t clear to what extent the findings apply to the U.S.”

I asked a few Willamette Valley clients to comment. Richard Boyles, founder of Iris Vineyards in Eugene offers this: “Awards from competitions keep Iris Vineyards’ wines in the eyes of the public and give consumers permission to try a bottle they may not have tried before. This also reinforces the perceptiveness of Iris’ loyal followers.” Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood adds his criteria for selecting competitions: “I choose specific national competitions that are well organized, attract high caliber judges, and get some national attention. I see value with the judges, who are often buyers and influencers, being exposed to our wines. There may be some consumer exposure value, although with the large number of wines and the large number awards given, this value is less than I once thought.” Wayne Bailey, Youngberg Hill Vineyards in McMinnville sums up his view: “ I choose competitions for brand building, market base, reputation with buyers, and legitimacy of the competition.”

Will Goldring, who in 2002 founded Enofile Online, an online wine competition management system, currently provides services to over 40 wine competitions nationally. Will says “Most of the competitions we help manage are long-standing for several years, and a few are newly minted. From our perspective, success factors include association with a major media outlet or renowned event, and post-competition publicity and/or events that generate sales. I would say about 30% of the competitions we manage have significant post-competition events that make a really big impact in recognition and subsequent sales.”

Should you submit wines?

I think the two key questions are – what is your goal in submitting wines, and whose purchase decisions are you trying to influence – trade, distributors or consumers? Here are some competition strategies to consider 1) Current Vintages – submit wines that are available in your tasting room, online store, in out of state markets 2) Core Wines – submit large production or flagship wines to support distribution sales 3) Judging Panel – who are they, what are their professional bona fides, readership and influence? What are their palate preferences and where are they from, i.e. home palate? 4) Tasting Process – how are the wines being evaluated, categorized and tasted? Will your wines show well? 5) Residual Marketing Value – what is the reach of the event, will the results be promoted in print and online, and will you receive digital badges for content marketing? 6) Consumer Events – are there events and is there an option to participate? 7) Costs? Consider entry fees and bottles required against all the above.

Here’s a perspective from Michael Cervin, a 20-year wine journalist, and 15-year wine judge who likes judging panels that benefit the wineries. “The more progressive competitions disallow winemakers as part of the panel because typically, based on my own and competition directors’ experiences, winemakers find flaws and faults in wine, when the goal is to award wines. Therefore, when looking for ROI, journalists, wine buyers and distributors make up a large segment, at least here in California, in part because they write about the winning wines, they buy the winning wines for their wine lists, and they sign up wines for distribution.” This speaks to the key points of differentiation of wine competitions. Does it help build my brand? Is there marketing impact? Will there be print and digital media announcing the results? Does the competition have readers, subscribers, an email list, social media followers? Otherwise, medals without marketing are an expensive proposition.

Finally, if you are not familiar with how competitions work, read this article by Erin James, Behind the scenes of a Wine Competition, which reviews the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic – Sip! wine competition. Erin also judges and hosts a competition for her magazine and shares some thoughts on the benefits to wineries who enter competitions. “If they place or win, clout and influence! That lauded reputation is a sales and marketing tool to connect with consumers. Another advantage is to receive feedback from judges, to make the product better in the future. Top priority for our Best of the Northwest competition has always been to share the results in our magazine, and to build the year’s best drinks shopping list. We are adding an option for producers this year to receive feedback on their submissions, to ultimately bring more value to their entries.”

As always, there is a cost to enter and to advertise your winning medals. I wouldn’t consider this unless the competition does a good job of promoting award winners and has reach and readers that matter. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. Awards are good marketing content for retailers, to feature as signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall sales plan. In the end, that bottle necker or end of isle display may be what inspires a consumer to grab your wines first.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s enjoyed 10 years of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations and communications consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).