When I think of a wine competition, I think of bottles of red wine and bottles of white wine squaring off. Perhaps bottles of Merlot and Riesling arm wrestle or a glass of Shiraz and a glass of White Zinfandel enter a chugging contest.
Maybe a West Side Story-like reenactment happens: Pinot Noir snaps, Pinot Grigio leaps, and — in a fit of rage — a flute of Champagne pulls a corkscrew on a Chianti. Yes, I imagine all of this when I hear the term “wine competitions,” but, alas, that could be just me.
In actuality, wine competitions do pit one grape against another, but these contests involve way less drama than West Side Story (and much less singing). Wine competitions use blind tasting — a form of tasting where the judges don’t know the wines they are drinking — to determine the winners. Awards are given in a variety of categories. There is often a bronze, a silver, a gold, and a double gold. Some wines go home disappointed, some go home satisfied, and some stand behind the podium and thank the academy.
In many of the most popular wine competitions, awards are not few and far between: a third or more of the wines presented will go home with medals. This allows the wines and the winemakers to present and sell themselves as award winning, a concept that is not only good for individual winemakers, but also the entire wine industry.
For this reason, wine trade organizations, wineries, or industrialists typically set up these types of wine competitions. While wine competitions remain most popular, there is another form of wine competition that has recently gained momentum. Instead of being organized by those who back the industry, these competitions are organized by those who consume it: the wine lovers.
Wine lovers started a new competition aimed not at advertising wine as award winning, but at judging wine based on its quality. Like its predecessor, this type of wine competition also involves blind tasting. However, the main difference lies in the fact that numerous awards are not given out. Instead, wines are ranked numerically, from highest to lowest, in each category. For instance, if 20 wines enter the competition, each wine is ranked from one to 20. Ties, however, often occur.
Winemakers usually avoid this form of wine competition. Unlike other wine competitions, this kind only allows for one winner, giving winemakers less marketability. Wine lovers, however, typically prefer this type, believing that a competition with only one winner allows for the finest wines to be discovered.
One can make an argument for the wine competitions implemented by wine industrialists and the wine competitions implemented by consumers: both types have their benefits. No matter which is preferred, wine competition as a whole has vastly improved the quality of wine. Like with most contests, placing wines against each other forces wineries to bring their A game — and their A grape — to the table.
Competition often breeds greatness. As winemakers explore new regions, raise quality, and invent new viticulture techniques, the wine industry continues to improve, making both the wine thinkers and the wine drinkers happy.
In the past, there has been a variety of wine competitions set up by a variety of different people. Some of these wine competitions involved all sorts of wines, such as the Wine Olympics of 1979. Some involved one type of wine, such as the 1980 Great Chardonnay Showdown (insert Old West theme song and tumbleweed here).
The Wine Olympics of 1979 did not involve a Pole Vault or Synchronized Swimming (the only curling that occurred was the curling of an arm lifting a wine glass to the lips), but the Wine Olympics remain one of the most well known wine competitions of all time. Organized by GaultMillau, a French food and wine magazine, this event was both enormous and diverse: 330 wines from 33 different countries were sampled and ranked by 62 wine professionals from 10 different nationalities. Notably, no wines were disqualified for doping.
In 1980, the Great Chardonnay Showdown pitted Chardonnays against each other. Put together by Chicago Tribune wine columnists, this event gathered 221 different Chardonnays. Blind tasted, each wine was sampled by five panels of five judges. Though both France and California entered the majority of the Chardonnays, the event included entries from everywhere in the world.
Perhaps the most important wine competition to date was the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a competition that is now known as the Judgment of Paris. Prior to this year, France was held in the highest regard, believed to be the best producer of wine, glasses down. French wineries, so people thought, had no rival. The Paris Wine Tasting changed this notion, ultimately changing the wine industry forever.
During this competition, California Chardonnays and California Cabernet Sauvignons were blind tasted against French Chardonnays and French Cabernet Sauvignons. Though everyone assumed that the French wines would win, California wines received the top mark in both categories. The winners were a Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and a Cabernet from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. When the winners were announced, some Napa Valley viticulturists actually claim to have heard their grapes shout “Booh-ya.”
This competition was laden in controversy as soon as it ended. The French press virtually ignored the outcome and one of the judges actually tried to change her ballot. The winning winemakers also received several letters from those involved in the French wine industry, passing the results off as merely a fluke.
France used this contest to its advantage, seeing it as a sign that it needed to review some of its winemaking procedures. The quality of French wine was ultimately improved in the long run. Since the Judgment of Paris, several replications of the competition have taken place.
Wine competitions have been, and will continue to be, around for decades. Some people might not find them as exciting as the competition of the NFL or those displayed on network reality shows, but wine competitions, unlike so many other competitions, aren’t meant to entertain. They are implemented and reproduced as a means to improve an industry, allowing grapes, vines, and greatness to grow.