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. (

Virginie Boone, Wine Enthusiast

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Lyn Archer, aka L.M. Archer, an international fine wine writer, critic, judge, and curator who covers Burgundy, bubbles, Oregon,  and emerging wine regions.

Virginie Boone reviews and writes about the wines of Napa and Sonoma for Wine Enthusiast Media and is a longtime resident of Sonoma County.

She began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, writing guides to the American South, South America, Northern California and the Loire Valley, which led in a roundabout and perfectly sensible way to California-focused wine coverage for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Savor Magazine, Sonoma Magazine and others. She is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond.

You can find and follow Virginie on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? I’ve always loved wine, my mom is French and even though she was on a military wife’s budget, we always had wine in the home. But as a writer I came to it via travel writing. My life’s goal was to get paid to travel and so I became a travel writer, working for Lonely Planet guidebooks for many years, as well as my share of startup magazines and websites. I had a travel assignment for Rough Guides I believe, to New England, set to depart my home in Northern California in September 2001. Well, 9-11 happened and everything changed. I did that travel assignment, but it was eerie, landing in Boston 10 days or so after 9-11 to a quiet airport full of heavily armed soldiers. My flight home was delayed because of suspicious graffiti in the bathroom. Soon after I did another guidebook to the Loire Valley (which was amazing), but the travel was again pretty fraught. My husband and I had just moved up to Healdsburg from San Francisco and I thought, why don’t I write about my own backyard, that can be travel, too. Soon enough I was writing a weekly feature on wine for The Press Democrat as a full-time staffer. It was the best education I could have had.

What are your primary story interests? I know a lot of people say it, but I like researching and writing stories about people, how they got into the wine world, what keeps them interested, who do they work with, how do they make it work. A lot of my work involves tasting, scoring and writing reviews, which is much more about the wine than what’s behind it. It’s good to have a balance between this and the bigger narratives about wine. With that, I’m increasingly interested in issues of sustainability, labor and where wine fits into those bigger picture issues. And of course, the travel element around wine is a natural go-to that’s hard to resist.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both? I’m sort of an odd hybrid of both. I am technically an independent contractor, but I work almost exclusively for the Wine Enthusiast and do own a beat, Napa and Sonoma. It’s the best of both worlds most of the time. I work independently but have colleagues all over the world who do what I do. We meet in person as a magazine a couple times a year and of course are otherwise fairly regularly in touch. But I do also like to stretch my wings and write elsewhere, especially if it’s outside of my day-to-day beat and has to do more with travel, teaching, speaking on panels, that sort of thing.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face? Ugh. It’s pretty hard. I feel very fortunate that somehow it’s worked out for me. But I work a lot. Most of it is relatively glamorous, social and amazing, but there are days I’m chucking a car-full of recycling into the bins at the Healdsburg dump, too. I’d say the biggest challenge is the time it takes to do all the things that don’t make money, social media first and foremost among them, but also all the box schlepping, organizing and yes, that recycling.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? That I love wine and all that goes with it, but it’s not my everything. If I wasn’t making a living writing about it I don’t think I’d write about it for free or in my free time. I think about it in the context of a lot of other things, from music to sports to old Hollywood to politics. That said, in addition to being a travel writer and editor in my former life, I once covered the NFL, SF 49ers predominantly, for an ESPN product called Sports Ticker. It was pretty funny. And yes I’ve seen players in the buff.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine? That it doesn’t have to be a big deal. That doesn’t mean I think people should like shitty wine, or wines made in a cynical way, but that getting into wine means trying lots of things, hopefully traveling along the way, even if it’s nearby and not about how much money a bottle costs. I think we’re turning a corner on wine being a precious commodity that’s too good for most people to have. Even if it’s expensive, it doesn’t have to be exclusive or untouchable.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? I’d be making Ken Burns-like documentaries about old Hollywood stars and jazz musicians.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews? Doing wine reviews is the most routinized. We taste blind, so I have an assistant set up flights for me to taste. I typically won’t do more than 12 wines at a time of one variety or more than two flights in a day, especially if I’m tasting at a winery for general information on the same day. Wines are often opened 30-60 minutes before tasting, especially young Cabernets. I’ll go back to a wine several times if it hasn’t opened much on the first taste. I write my notes longhand in a notebook. I have a shorthand only I can understand, plus it’s helpful when there are questions about a vintage or designation. I always trust my notes. By the end of every month those reviews go into a central Wine Enthusiast database and eventually into print or online publication. I taste around 250 wines a month this way and that’s barely keeping up with how much wine is coming in.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up? Wine Enthusiast plans its big features once a year at our summer edit conference. We pitch, they accept or decline, and stories get slotted into every issue, with some wiggle room. Front of book and web stories, that sort of thing, are pitched throughout the year, though increasingly we’re scheduling web stories quite a bit ahead. This is true of other people I write for as well.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? I try. It depends what it is. The Wine Enthusiast will post from its social media accounts and that usually reaches a much bigger audience of people. But I do think it’s important to get wine stories in front of people who don’t necessarily think they want to read a wine story. That’s where travel, food, people, etc. often come in.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? Be normal. Nothing wrong with reaching out directly person to person, but do understand what that journalist does, their level of experience and what might interest them. I don’t like spending a lot of time looking at cellars and tank rooms unless it’s pertinent somehow; I also don’t need to taste 50 of your wines at a time, again unless it’s somehow relevant to a bigger story. I don’t need a four-course meal for no reason, nor do I want zero food if we’re tasting 50 of your wines. I’m pretty happy to just walk around a vineyard, grab a sandwich and talk about what you’re up to. It’s fairly simple for me. And this is how a lot of younger, more interesting brands are handling things because they don’t have huge facilities or budgets. Also, say thank you when something good happens, like when you make the cover or top 100 list.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? I see lots of advantages, from the relationships publicists have built over many years to their understanding of publishing schedules, submission guidelines and general vision of each publication and journalist. Pick wisely and I see only upside. Most publicists I’ve met are positive, energetic and great people-people and that’s worth a lot. I could never do their jobs.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)? Not long ago I saw the documentary André, about André Tchelistcheff. I never had the chance to meet him but have met many winemakers who did, and who were mentored by him. He had a fascinating life, one we couldn’t imagine, having to flee Russia and later losing a family farm in France before finding his way to Beaulieu in the Napa Valley. He’s done so much for California wine.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? It varies. I have a 13-year-old son so it often involves driving him around and hanging out at home. I drive a lot during the week. My husband and I like to cook and entertain. I also like to hike and am lucky to have Annadel, Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks in my backyard. But usually I’m also tasting and writing sometime during those days off.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? I had the chance to interview this world-famous Japanese musician named Yoshiki a couple years ago. He was one of the founders of this monster metal group called X Japan but is also an amazing classical musician and composer. He has a wine project with Rob Mondavi and Rob was kind enough to make the introduction. The closest I could get to meet him was New York City, where he was making his debut at Carnegie Hall. We sat in the front row and cried our eyes out, it was incredibly moving. Yoshiki has had a very dramatic life and the sadness and grandeur of that is in his music. We said hi back stage, stopped by an after party and went out for Chinese food until the early morning. The next day I interviewed him amidst his legit entourage in a hotel room in Manhattan while it started to snow outside. I’ll never forget it. A fan of Opus One, Yoshiki and Rob’s Cabernet is stellar, too.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? Tie between Sonoma and Napa.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background, going on his 10th year 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 consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (

Engaging with Writers before “The Ask” – Part II

What do Writers really need and want?

Q&A Interview with Jim Gullo

This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one appeared in the May/June issue of The Grapevine Magazine and is available online. I continue my conversation with Jim Gullo about what it’s like to be a professional writer, and to discuss the wine business from his perspective. Jim is a self described Author, Journalist, Wine Writer, Food Eater & Pastryologist. He tweets, he writes, he eats and he’s coming back for more. His work appears regularly in the Alaska Airlines Magazine, Horizon Airlines Magazine, Oregon Wine Press and other publications. Turning to books in recent years, Jim has most recently authored “Grouch Bag,” a children’s novel about finding the Marx Brothers; “Trading Manny,” how he and his son learned to love baseball; and “Fountain of Youth,” a bittersweet novel about coming to terms with loss. He has also written 100s of magazine articles, and now writes from his perspective in the middle of the Willamette Valley wine country. You can learn more about Jim on his website and blog:

I asked Jim to do this interview because I believe small wineries can benefit from his insights. In this section we’ll get into specifics about the mechanics of working with professional writers.

  1. How do you juggle multiple writing assignments – your books, travel and wine writing, etc?

I have been making this up as I go along for 29 years now, so am fairly good at looking for clients, pitching stories, researching and writing them and meeting deadlines. When I don’t have specific, paying assignments I try to spend my time working on book projects, which pay even worse than magazine writing but are creatively very satisfying and have a potential upside of sales. I don’t have as much time as I would like, to talk with people and explore if I don’t have a dedicated business reason to do so. Between family duties (I have two sons at home) and trying to keep my business afloat, I don’t have much time for speculative writing or research.

  1. When and how did you get interested in wine, and when was your first wine themed assignment?

I grew up in a winemaking region of western New York State and was always fascinated by the confluence of agriculture, nature and craft that goes into fine wine. I quit my job in New York in 1981 to go to France and Switzerland to pick grapes, and was exposed to lots of fine wine, and the charm of winemaking villages. Travel writing has brought me to places like the Piedmont in Italy, the Hunter Valley of Australia, the Loire Valley and the canals of Burgundy in France, and the wine regions of Oregon and Washington, and my food stories would invariably be intertwined with wine. In fact, I first “discovered” the Willamette Valley on an unrelated travel writing assignment, and knew instantly that I wanted to live here and report on the people making these extraordinary wines.

  1. Why is it important to read a writer’s articles in advance of contacting and pitching them?

It’s not one size fits all. There are lots of different writers doing different things, with different specific interests. My focus has always been to look for bigger stories to report, that fit my writing style, and I like to immerse myself and participate in a story where I can. It was perfect for me, for example, when Sokol Blosser recently invited me to attend one of their first cooking classes, and I could chop and cook and participate. Trade information about vineyard practices and clonal selections doesn’t do much for me. But I don’t think that everyone should know and have to keep up with every writer out there. Just keeping me in the loop of what you’re doing at the winery will allow me to decide if there is something I can use, or plug into an existing project.

  1. Do you think it’s helpful to subscribe to a writer’s blog, newsletter and social media sites if they are on your target media list? Why?

No…who has time for all of that reading? That’s a job for the PR professionals. I would say that if you like something you read, and it seems to fit with what you’re doing at your winery, you should note the writer’s name and make sure they’re on your contact list.

  1. Do you find that most small wineries have a unique and memorable story to tell/pitch? What makes for a strong “story hook”?

Sure, but I think that most of the stories are personal – about people. Why they’re doing this with their time and money, what brought them here, what are their backgrounds? I’m still a total believer in the Oregon paradigm of independent people coming here to craft something memorable, getting involved in the community and putting in their own sweat and tears (and money) to make great wines. The corporate and business story of rich people buying into the business and running it from afar leaves me cold. Also, there isn’t much I can do with stories about receiving scores, or vineyard practices and clonal selections, although those stories are useful to many of the wine writers and bloggers, as are Press Releases with real news.

Please keep in mind that there are now upwards of 700 wineries in the state of Oregon, 450 or so in the Willamette Valley alone. We can’t cover everybody. The people whom I wind up writing about took the time to make a personal connection, invited me to their events, allowed me to get to know them and sample their wines, and (this is important) make terrific wines. I can’t write about a winery if the wines are mediocre, even if I adore the people.

  1. What SHOULDN’T wineries do in their interactions with writers?

Oh boy, another question that I could go on and on about. For one thing, you should make sure that your website, press releases and blog are not riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. We writers have a special fondness for the language, and seeing it mangled leaves us cold. When you expound on your attention to detail in every aspect of your winemaking operation, but misspell every third word and have the grammatical awareness of a sixth-grader…well, I have to question your ability to recognize details. Having a professionally produced Media Kit is very helpful and saves writers time by summarizing the key facts they will want to know.

Also, blowing smoke won’t get you far. I once had a regional group of winemakers blather on to me on how their wines were far superior to Bordeaux – but they’d never been to France. Other people bragged about how theirs was a top tourist destination that everyone should visit…but there was limited lodging of any size in the region, and that was a casino. And the vineyard owners who bragged that they were growing “the grapes for a $100 pinot noir”…but didn’t much like pinot themselves and hadn’t tried many. Come on, people! Let’s get real.

Keep it simple, keep it honest, tell me what’s important to you about your operation and we will find some area to work together.

If you don’t have anyone on staff with the skills and/or desire to write and pitch your stories and your wines, you should consider meeting with and possibly hiring a PR professional to assist you.

CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th year 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 consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.  (