« BBC Segment | Main | Self Service »

December 6, 2006

Withering Hills or Competition Cock Up?


We posted a couple of weeks back about our Best-Pinotage-In-The-World Trophy from the International Wine and Spirits Competition and we raised some issues about competitions generally. There is more competition related news and it deserves a bit of analysis.

BTW- The photo on top is what we are using the Trophy for right now. The Jelly Bellies have proved very popular. We tried the flowers and bath essence route, but we think that the fruitiness of the Jelly Bellies goes with the spirit of the Pinotage ;-)

There have been a number of stories over the last several days about NZ winery Wither Hills and their alleged submission of a gold medal winning wine to a local competition, that was different than the wine that they shipped to the market. Yesterday is was reported that they were stripped of their medal and they are facing significant embarrassment.

We are not entirely convinced that this was bait and switch, though it may well have been. Only they really know, but it raises a much more fundamental issue about wine judging and competitions.

Once upon a time, wine was made on a much different scale than it is made today. Wither Hills reportedly made 100,000 cases of the one wine in question. Making 100,000 cases (1.2 million bottles) is a much different exercise than making 1,000 cases. Everything from how the grapes are sourced and grown to how the wine is fermented, aged and most importantly, blended and finished must be done in a way that balances quality and volume.

Anyone with even a slightly inquisitive mind will ask themselves: Is it possible for the first bottle of a 1.2 million bottle production to taste the same as the millionth?

(Ever had a bad cup of coffee at Starbucks, followed by good one?)

The worlds’ most popular premium Chardonnay is Kendall Jackson Proprietor's Reserve. We believe that they make about 24 million bottles. Are they ALL the same?

Of course, the answer is no. Part of having a meaningful brand is about establishing a ‘house style’. One of the skills that only certain winemakers have, is making large quantities of stylistically consistent wine.

What that means is: making wine so that even if there are variations between bottlings in alcohol, acid, pH, etc., the wines are blended and finished in a way so that they taste consistent, if not identical. It might sound a bit mass production-ish, but in our consumer-driven world, many brands that cultivate the impression of scarcity, are actually made in a large scale. For example, I suspect that there are many millions of bottles of Dom Perignon made in any given vintage they declare. Are THEY all the same?

Even in the good old days, many of the great Chateaux of Bordeaux bottled their wines barrel by barrel. For many reasons that I do not have the space to go into here, there are often large differences between barrels of what should be identical wines. In fact, this is one of the key reasons why spending vast sums on very old bottles of wine is a folly- you just do not know what you will be getting when the cork is pulled. [Which barrel did that bottle of '45 Latour come from?]

My point is that many of the competitions were created in a time when the wine business was very different than it is today. The scales were different. There were no 100 million-plus bottle brands like Yellow Tail. I think that we all need to rethink the metrics used for rating and judging wines. Perhaps some realignment of how Competitions are run, (or whether they are really a relic of the past ) is in order given the dynamics of the contemporary wine business.

If the New Zealand International Wine Show is stripping Wither Hills of their medal, then they need to deal with all of the issues of all producers they judge, and variation of bottlings in large scale production.

We mentioned in the previous post that we think the trend is for the consensus of consumer opinion to determine a wine's merits. In just the last week there have been two new websites unveiled that do just this: Bottle Talk and Wine Experience.

Good Luck to both of these sites!

Posted by Jason at December 6, 2006 9:38 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Hi Jason

Thanks for the mention - much appreciated!

It is early days but we hope over time that Bottletalk will offer valued consumer opinion on what wines to buy.



Posted by: Mark at December 6, 2006 2:48 PM

A move towards consumer driven ratings is without doubt the way forward - consumers these days are not a susceptible to clever/traditional PR - within minutes they can surf the net and iron out the truth, relative prices, and the general consensus of any given topic.

And here is where the knowledge of collective minds should reign supreme - rather than be given into influence from a select few people who wield power and influence within the industry.

The problem I have with all these awards is that they all become institution's in themselves - where the pressure is on the rate and recommend the right wines so that the reputation of that award is upheld - which can immediately create bias. Yes blinded tastings iron this out somewhat but there again the experts/chairmans know there stuff and generally what they are tasting and can therefore lend influence.

I guess its all about finding what awards suit/align with your tastes - and to take them all with a pinch of salt.

Finally, while it would be great to do away with these awards, try telling that to a wine farm thats just received a Veritas 'Double Gold' and has seen sales quadruple. I hate to say it, and perhaps I'm being negative here, but with that kind of money making influence, the award institutions must be open to a 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'.

i hope im wrong with that last statement but hey, who knows. all the more reason to move toward consumer driven ratings! So good luck to the two sites, I for one will be visiting them on a regular basis!

Posted by: Cru Master at December 7, 2006 8:33 AM

I def think that a move toward consumer driven awards and recognition for wine would be the way forward. there has been a shift away from brand/PR power to consumer power - and its all thanks to open source forums such as blogging - so the industry needs to embrace it.

now you don't have to be a so called expert to voice your opinion or concerns - and whats more, be heard.

The problem i have with awards and their judges, is the institutions that they become. the power they wield in enormous - and the sales and therefore money that they generate is huge. that is if they recommend the right wines etc - which for immediately creates bias. These institutions need to uphold their award 'brand' - what they recommend needs to be good to make their award more prestigious etc....

while blinded tasting seem to rinse out this bias, well i don't know so much. chairmans on the blind tasting boards are 'experts', some with exceptional talent, and can possibly pick out a certain wine with ease - therefore to influence the vote on a wine can become easy.

And with so much money involved, and perhaps its being a little negative, but one has to wonder if an 'ill scratch your back, you scratch mine' scenario creeps in between wine farm and wine judge.

i hope the above is not true but it just seems that the focus has shifted top awards rather than the wine itself - more about what ("Veritas is better than Michelangelo") award sticker you have on your bottle than the label of our wine itself.

the difficulty is this, try telling a wine farm who have just seen sales and revenue quadruple because they one a double gold at Veritas to rework or do away with awards. it's vicious circle that will take someone bold and innovative to break.

Posted by: Cru Master at December 7, 2006 11:20 AM


Agree with you. the issue fundamentally is that Awards help simplify the decision making for the consumer. People want to know which wines are the good in the sea of possibile choices. They help people make better and more informed decisions. Arguably, the 100 point system is even better as it quantifies every wine, even if it, by its nature is a little arbitrary.

It seems that everyone wants 'certainty' in a product that inherently is subject to change. Is a double gold wine today still going to be double gold quality in two years. Nobody knows.

Many of us in the business forget that the awards are not for the benefit of the organizations that grant them or the wineries, but for the consumer. There needs to be less politics and engagement with what our customers really want.

Posted by: Jason at December 7, 2006 11:45 AM

less business in politics and less politics in business!

Posted by: Cru Master at December 8, 2006 8:21 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)