By Dan Berger

The director of a national wine competition got a nasty note from the owner of a small winery saying he would not enter the wine competition because, he alleged, all such competitions were rigged.

His rationale: the gold medals in many categories go only to wines selling for $5 to $10, and that his $25 Syrah was entered and got no medal. The man alleged that all competitions were in cahoots with the major wine companies to produce this result.

When the competition director sent me a copy of the winery owner’s memo, I began to muse about this situation. Since I have run the Riverside International Wine Competition for 33 years, and since I know many competition directors around the world, I know the allegation of collusion is absurd.

That prompted me to look back at wine competition results from prior years to see if the winery owner had a point about lower priced wines getting golds and pricey wines getting shut out. And I guess you could say he was partially right: some top-scoring wines typically are reasonably priced. But not all of them.

However, some years ago a privately published magazine called the California Grapevine ( tracked more than a dozen of the major wine competitions, awarding points for gold, silver and bronze medals, and then charted how wines from the various grape varieties did. 

In one year I looked at, the top-scoring Cabernet Sauvignons sold for $30 and $35. These are not cheap wines. But right behind in the mix was a wine that was a wine from a large winery that sold for $12. And that a number of Cabernets at $40 were bronze-medal winners.

This doesn’t mean that the results were rigged. It means that a lot of high-priced wines are simply not worth drinking at any price, in the opinion of the judges. Wines at major competitions are judged double-blind – the judges do not know what wines are in the competition and don’t know much of anything about the wines they are evaluating.

And an increasing number of wine judgings are now not even telling the judges the prices of the wines.

All I could tell from looking at the results of major competitions over the last decade is that the judges preferred the simpler and less alcoholic, less woody versions of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In Chardonnay, the top-scoring wines are often $25-$30. To be sure, it means that the $50 (over-oaked and alcoholic) wines end up with silver medals. Does this means the competition results are rigged? No, what it means is that judges prefer balanced wines.

The pattern that seems to be best for earning high medals at wine competitions is that balance pays. Wines that have an over-abundance of one thing (oak, alcohol, etc.) often do less well at such events than they do with individual reviewers, who have sight of the label and know the price. It’s easy to give a high score when you know that the brand is one that commands respect – even if the wines are less than great to blind-tasting judges.

The angry wine maker who said he wouldn’t enter any wine competitions wondered how a “cheap” wine could possibly score so well. After much thought, a couple of ideas came to me to explain this.

First is that judges must wade through dozens of wines a day, 200 or more a day in some competitions! And with red wines especially, palate fatigue from too much tannin is a real danger. After a while, the wines taste bitter.

So some of the more astringent wines would be hard to judge at the end of the day. 

But lower-priced wines typically don’t have much astringency, and thus taste better to tired judges.

There is another factor: sometimes a winery is simply very good at crafting wines that deliver classic flavors at a fair price. Kendall-Jackson, Fetzer, Trinchero, Beringer, Sterling, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others now make mid-priced wines ($10 to $15 a bottle) that not only shine at wine competitions, but are preferred by consumers.

I know many wineries that use the results of wine competitions to spark their marketing efforts. True, some of these are not wineries that have much likelihood of earning a score in the high 90s. But to judges who do not have sight of the label, a number of well-balanced wines score high enough to earn silvers or golds.

It might be a good thing for those wineries that have suspicions about wine competitions to attend one and observe the process of how medals are awarded. It would be eye-opening.