Have you ever been persuaded into buying a bottle of wine in the supermarket by a round ‘medal’ badge?
Those gold, silver or even bronze awards are a persuasive tool: they make the average, thinly informed wine-buyer feel like they’ve made a safe bet in terms of quality.
Evidence suggests that a shiny sticker can sell as much as seven times as many bottles as the same wine without.
But with a plethora of different awards dishing out stickers, some experts warn there are flaws to the workings of major wine competitions and advise consumers to follow their own nose instead.
Some judges can taste as much as 50-70 wines per flight – so can they maintain their level of accuracy when it comes to competitions? Some say this is not possible and errors can be made
The awards tend to feature teams of expert judges who will taste what are known in the wine world as ‘flights’ – this is a group of similar wines, usually made up of three to eight glasses.
At the end of the competition, awards will be dished out to various bottles – and that gives the winemaker the opportunity to stick a medal badge on their bottle, which they will hope will boost sales as a perceived mark of quality.
Lukasz Kolodziejczyk, a judge at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards and head of fine wines at Cult Wines, admits that with so many ‘flights’ of wines being tasted by judges it’s not possible to get it right 100 per cent of the time.
He says: ‘Unfortunately, we simply cannot assume infallible accuracy. The Decanter World Wine Awards, for instance, take place over five days, with around 50-70 wines per judge.
‘Experience is crucial and goes a long way, but with so many wines being tasted and the first few invariably garnering the most attention, even the most experienced of judges are vulnerable to error.
‘We are certainly seeing disparity among wine critics, and this is likely to continue.’
Kolodziejczyk is not the only wine expert to admit that chance can be a great factor in which wines win an award. Richard Ellison, founder of Wanderlust Wine says that even when tastings are done blind it’s sometimes contradictory.
Ellison explains: ‘They [judges] will have a specific idea in their head to be outstanding and there’s no real answer to that as it’s a sensory thing.
‘I did a degree in food and wine technology and it [tasting] is completely open to interpretation. And that’s why these things are relatively pointless.’
How does a wine competition work and what does a wine award mean?
Major wine competitions that you have probably seen adorning supermarket bottles include the International Wine Challenge (IWC) the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Gold silver and bronze medals are given to those wines that have scored the most points based on a consensus of four or more wine experts.
According to Lukasz Kolodziejczyk of Cult Wines (a Decanter World Wine Award judge since 2014): ‘The wines are typically scored blind, with only country, vintage, region and blend of grapes given as information.’
With so many wines to taste and compare, judges don’t drink the wines but spit it out.
‘A bronze medal means that a wine is well-made, straightforward and enjoyable; comparatively a silver award shows that the wine is accomplished, with impressive complexity.
‘A gold award would show that a wine is of great complexity and character.’
International Wine Challenge Competition Director, Chris Ashton, adds: ‘Below 50 per cent of the wine entered will get a medal. Three to 5 per cent get awarded a gold medal. At the end we have five champion wines.
‘We don’t give [prizes] to everyone that’s entered. We do try and pull out the best. Judges have reputations to keep.’
The death of the wine competition?
With some experts questioning the authenticity and consistency of wine judging and some wineries shirking participation in competitions, is it possible that the industry will do away with such competitions at some point?
This is unlikely because, when faced with hundreds of wines to choose from, consumers are often still swayed by whether a wine has done well at a reputable wine competition.
This was evidenced in a survey conducted by the International Wine Challenge. It shows that wine awards are far too lucrative an undertaking for the industry and retailers alike to be a scrapped as it has been proven that consumers are influenced by a gold or silver award badge.
The study conducted earlier this year found that wines bearing foil stickers for gold, silver and bronze or Commended IWC medals can sell up to seven times as many bottles as the same wine with no sticker.
The study was conducted at selected M&S and Co-op stores and was designed to gauge customer reaction to wines displaying medal stickers. Over a four week period IWC stickers were applied to over 100 award-winning wines sold by the two retailers.
The results showed a strong customer bias in favour of the stickers. Sales of Co-op’s gold medal winners grew by 200 per cent where stickers were applied, while the retailer’s IWC Great Value Winner saw an increase in sales of 476 per cent.
The overall increase across all stickers when combined (gold, silver, bronze and commended) was 24.1 per cent. Meanwhile, M&S saw 117.3 per cent jump in sales of wine with gold stickers overall, with one winner seeing a 700 per cent increase in sales for the period.
Lukasz Kolodziejczyk a judge at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards and head of fine wines at Cult Wines says that when it comes to wine competitions ‘we simply cannot assume infallible accuracy’
Why competitions should matter
International Wine Challenge Competition Director Chris Ashton maintains that consumers should continue to consider wines that have done well in competitions.
He reasons: ‘From our point of view we’re looking for the best of the best. If a consumer goes into a supermarket and sees a wine with an IWC label, that has been through a very rigorous process and we’re very independent. We have nothing to do with supermarkets.
‘People are looking for recommendations. We say try it – we’re trying to give people the confidence to try something and buy it.
‘I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it but what I can guarantee is that it’s a terrific example of that “style of that wine”. We’re saying “that is how it’s supposed to taste”. Having these recommendations is very useful for people and that’s all we try and do.’
While Ashton maintains that competitions have merit in what they do he advises consumers to do their own research as well.
Wine competitions now typically have a category that highlights the best wines at the lowest prices aimed at those consumers who are cost conscious
‘I would do a bit of research first. Have a look at the competition. Make sure it’s got a website where you can find the wine. There could be things on wines that pretend to be competitions when they are not.
‘You could have a sticker put on by a producer that says “Best of Australia” but it’s not a competition that’s been entered. It may look like a medal but it’s not a competition. Find a [competition] brand you can trust.’
Eben Sadie a South African wine producer agrees that consumers should do their own research but believes that technology will soon have a greater role to play with choice.
‘Any purchase in the world requires some form of research, each phone is a powerful information platform and you can stand in a store and read all about a wine on your phone.
‘I think the future of wine is not going to be competition driven but rather information driven – it’s one of the upsides of modern technology.
You may not always like the wines recommended by wine competitions, so this is why it’s vital to trust your own taste buds and do your own research
Does price matter?
Consumers are swayed by price and judges can be influenced as well, which is why that information is generally hidden when it comes to wine tasting at competitions.
Judges are typically unaware of the price as well as the producer and brand.
Ashton explains: ‘We don’t judge on price. If the wine is delicious it shouldn’t matter if it’s £200 or £20.
‘We believe that a judge can be swayed by knowing what the price of the wine is.
‘So, for example if it’s £200 a bottle and an excellent wine – they could mark it down from a point of view that it’s not great value.
‘On the flip side they could be overgenerous on cheaper wine.’
If price is a factor when you’re choosing your wine most competitions tend to have a category that awards medals to wines that are the best quality in a particular price band.
The IWC, for example, have a Wine Great Value Awards: for 2019, wines awarded gold medals start from just £5.25 (see above).
Ashton says: ‘We get all the gold medal awarded wines and look at volume of production, prices and availability. So you could for example have a great value wine under £15, £12 and £7.’
How to choose your wine
1. Consider wine competitions: If the wine has been awarded a wine competition label you can be guaranteed some level of quality.
Lukasz Kolodziejczyk a judge for the Decanter World Wine Awards says: ‘The scores and medals are incredibly important, helping customers make more informed decisions about the wine they are considering buying.’
2. Don’t disregard wines that haven’t entered or won competitions: Reasons range from not being able to afford it to not seeing the value of competitions for their brand or even that they’ve decided to focus their marketing budget elsewhere.
Kolodziejczyk says: ‘Many wineries who choose not to partake in competitions produce high quality wines and still sell well.
‘They certainly shouldn’t be ignored, as they can represent some of the most unique and interesting offerings on the market.’
3. Make use of technology: You can download a wine app on your phone which can give you a rating on quality and taste based on consumer reviews.
Wine apps to consider include: Vivino, Plonk, and Wine-Searcher.
Richard Ellison, founder of Wanderlust Wines says: ‘Scan a label using an app and it will tell you what normal people think out of a score of five.
‘It cuts out the bullsh*t. If you walk around as supermarket and know nothing it’s a great way of finding value for money.’
4. Trust your own palate: It’s not uncommon for supermarkets, wine shops and merchants to hold wine-tastings. And ‘doing your own research’ is not something most wine lovers will have to be persuaded into.
Kolodziejczyk adds: ‘It’s always worth remembering that your personal palate is the best judge of wines and points are not always the be-all and end-all.’
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