One of the most rewarding things for a producer of goods/services can be receiving recognition and/or acknowledgement in their field. It can come from an independent reviewer, a widely accredited organization, or your great aunt Margaret – wherever the praise comes from, it’s good to hear.
When those accolades are paraded before the consuming public with little explanation or context, I get slightly uncomfortable; it doesn’t negate the award’s value, but clarity in how it was achieved would be nice. Enter wine awards.
for consumers: the architecture of awards & judging
Most in the wine/spirits industry are familiar with the architecture of judging, but many consumers aren’t. Format and judging criteria can vary but competitions are, for the most part, a pay-to-play program: a winery chooses to enter wine and pay a fee, which is common. Not everyone chooses to enter. Fees range in price; they cover administrative costs and sometimes help to ensure qualified judges by offering an honorarium – depending on the size of the competition, evaluation process can take several days.
Canada has nationwide awards and regional competitions; some of our Canadian wineries also choose to compete on an international stage in the US and Europe. Professional competitions mandate wines be judged blind, and judges are distributed into small panels or groups to evaluate groups (flights) of wine within pre-determined categories.
Scoring varies by competition. Some allocate number scores, and the cumulative score for each wine represents its place on the podium. Others allocate a group of letter-grade equivalents similar to our school systems. Multiple wines can “win” a gold because that category represents the number value of what in scholastic terms would be a letter grade of “A”.
Confused yet? I’ve participated in regional wine judging and it can be a challenge even from the inside. A good evaluation system is clear and should have measures in place to help judges overcome style biases. We shouldn’t assume a professional evaluator can always overlook her/his style bias – human nature is flawed, and that’s okay. Having more than one panel evaluate a flight (if possible) or submitting finalists to another panel for judging can be time consuming, but these measures can help keep things somewhat objective but this duplication isn’t always possible.
making changes: doing the best with what you have
The Okanagan Wine Festivals Society has recently concluded the 20th annual Spring Okanagan Wine Festival Best of Varietal Awards. I was asked to participate as a panel judge, making this my second judging experience for the Festivals. Recently, the Festivals have changed their format for evaluation and who is invited to judge. What was previously a peer-evaluation with winemakers has become an industry panel of sommeliers and restaurateurs, including a couple of us writer types who apparently drink enough to qualify. (although I’ve done that WSET thing)
The “best of” model used here is a somewhat subjective sensory evaluation of wines in categories based (mostly) on varietal (read: grape/type). The best is that which best portrays the characteristics of the varietal or type. A number (20%) of the remainder are awarded the title of finalist, in no particular order. Panelists were asked to come to a consensus for each of our categories, and other panels would be responsible for their allocated categories. While it would have been nice to send our finalists on to another panel, that would have meant us tasting more wines too – and with around 100 samples on our day’s agenda this could become a multi-day experience. That could increase the cost to administer and subsequently the fee to submit wine.
Disclosure: I agreed to judge for no compensation other than a surprise swag bag that included a bottle of the delightful Sumac Ridge 2008 Stellar’s Jay. by the way, thank you for the swag OK Wine Fests!
what it all means
This year’s Best of Varietal winners is a motley group of consumer-friendly sips and wine-geeky love affairs, which is very Canadian. It means we’re struggling to be politely firm about what we should be encouraging our growers to focus on, maybe because we know they need regular sellers to keep their business afloat so they can explore what makes us British Columbia. Stylistically this group is all over the map. So is our BC wine style – we don’t have one yet.
It’s wise to remember that this doesn’t represent the best of everything BC has to offer, because not every BC winery entered each of their wines in the competition. Some hadn’t bottled their latest vintage by the time the deadline rolled around, so they missed out. By not having everyone enter these competitions it allows for people like me to find undiscovered gems and share them with the consuming public. There’s value in that.
Awards like these are helpful to consumers while they navigate an ever-expanding selection of BC wine. When you find a “best of” label, it means a group of wine-type people evaluated that particular wine against at least a few others of its style and proclaimed it to be one of the better expressions of its kind. There’s value in that, too. As a wine enthusiast and one who lives in the heart of BC wine country, I also get overwhelmed by selection and new faces. This experience of blind tasting was invaluable; after the competition, judges keep their notes and have access to the answer key. Something that might not have been as high on my radar before this can be bumped up a slot.
When it comes to selecting something to fall in love with, only you will be best judge of who wins what in your house, backyard, or sitting around the campfire this summer. When you’re in a shop and see a note saying “winner” next to a bottle of wine, take closer look. Not all that glitters is really gold – and not all that sits quietly on the shelf isn’t worthy of sharing that spotlight.