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Thursday 23 October 2014

Why the wine industry is obsessed by little gold stickers

They arrive in my email in-box with meticulous, monotonous regularity.

After just about every wine show (and there are now more than 70 official shows in Australia and several others that hand out accolades) I receive a barrage of press releases saying that: "Our chardonnay is the best in Australia after winning the trophy at the [Insert Any Name You Like Here] Wine Show."

Or if the show is in London, New York or Ljubljana and has an international field: "Our shiraz is the best in the world." 

Just to put the record straight: Winning a trophy at a wine show does not make your wine the best in Australia, or the world. It makes it the favourite of the small group of judges who tried it at that show. At a certain temperature, and almost certainly without food.

Most wines, as you know, are enjoyed with food. And the whites and sparkling wines are almost always drunk chilled by consumers. 

The reality is that a wine can win a trophy one week, and get a score of 14/20 the next. Different judges; different scores. But no one ever sends out a press release saying: "Our wine wasn't even good enough to win a bronze."

The reality is the wine show system in Australia is extremely good, particularly at the regional level, for winemakers to benchmark their wines against others from the same area. And for punters to get to know some new producers. 

If more than a couple of panels (different judges; different shows) award trophies or gold medals to a particular wine then there is a pretty strong basis for assuming that it is a wine of excellent quality that appeals to winemakers, sommeliers and, sometimes, wine writers with educated palates. 

If the judges of one show share similar palate opinions to you; excellent news all round. But they may not. 

A gold medal, meanwhile, does not mean that a wine was the best in a show. It merely means it was in the top bracket. Maybe 15% of entries at any one show might reach the gold standard. 

And please bear in mind that many wineries, particularly those in the upper echelons, do not enter their wines into shows. At all. Other wineries, often small ones, find entering shows is just too expensive.

If they do enter, big brands are on a hiding to nothing and potential headlines like: "$15 shiraz is better than Penfolds Grange". 

The fact is that a lot of very good people with palates far better than mine give up a lot of their time to judge at shows "and help improve the breed". I'm in awe of the number of wines they can taste each day.

There is also the fact that consumers love the little gold, silver and bronze stickers awarded to wines that are successful at the show level. Stickers help sell wines. And that's the bottom line. But look closely and that gold-coloured sticker may just say "Good with fish".   

So please, next time you are thinking of proclaiming your trophy-winning gruner veltliner as the best in Australia, maybe think twice.    

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