Wine shows from a consumer perspective

Since I think more than a couple of people are starting to wonder about the Australian wine show system, I read with interest the other day that the best and brightest had recently gathered in the Hunter Valley to discuss its future.  The outcomes and recommendations seem rather commendable and include (according to the press release):

* the enhanced focus on consumer engagement and marketing and the importance of strong, relevant communication of wine show outcomes;

* the continued focus on best practice and the communication of agreed standards for the conduct of wine shows; and

* moving the dialogue about the purpose of shows from "improving the bread" to the "pursuit of excellence".

Sure, my eyes glazed over at the words "enhanced focus", "consumer engagement", "best practice", "agreed standards" and "moving the dialogue", but I generally admire people and organisations who at least appear to be having a think about the merits of what they are doing and trying to do it better.  While I won't pretend that my opinions matter on such issues, my observation as a consumer is that I find wine show results to be of little weight when making wine buying decisions, so perhaps this is a timely intervention.  It even got me thinking about the merits of the system, and more particularly, who benefits from it.  My reflections follow.

It seems reasonably clear to me that wine shows have benefits for the judges, and can benefit wineries.  For judges, wine shows appear to present a good networking and socialising opportunity, and an opportunity to taste, en masse, wines to benchmark and improve their palates, if they are so inclined.  My own limited observations of wine show proceedings, despite the white lab coats and sterile environment, was that it was a roll call of interesting people mostly doing what they love.

For wineries, wine shows are relevant, I imagine, if they generate sales.  This assumes that consumers take wine show medals as a reliable indicator of quality.  Some may take it on faith.  Many, such as me, won't unless they understand it.  The quid pro quo for wineries is that they must usually pay to enter wine shows, and supply their wine in sufficient quantity.  Whether that's a worthwhile exercise will depend most likely on the outcome.  At best, I expect this is a calculated gamble.  At worst, it is a gamble.  Frankly, if I were a winery, and I am evidently biased, I'd send more wines to people writing about wine, and talking about wine, rather than to wine shows where the wines are tasted blind and may never be even noticed.  A lot of Australian wine seems unremarked upon, and for the undiscovered winery, I genuinely wonder whether entering wine shows is a smart way of addressing that.

For consumers, I think the benefits of wine shows are less obvious.  Some wine shows might help consumers identify extremely good wines.  For example, I think many wine drinkers would be happy to try a "Jimmy Watson" trophy winning wine (the trophy awarded for best young dry red wine at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show), largely because that award has a long history and some caché.  For the rest of the time though, as a consumer, there seems to a high number of wine shows, and it is not clear what their hierarchy is.  I am certainly not across it and I might even be classed as an engaged consumer.

It is also often not immediately clear from a consumer point of view who organised the wine show or how and whether the organisers benefit personally from it (and therefore how any conflicts of interest were dealt with).   Perhaps more importantly, it's also not often immediately apparent who the judges were and how their opinions were aggregated, averaged and vetted.  This interests me.  Were there strong outliers?  Did the head judge have strong preferences?  Were the judges experienced with the style of wine at hand?

I also sometimes wonder as a consumer whether gold means gold, i.e. first.   I suspect that for some wine awards, it might be a bit like a credit card or airport status programmes, which I now think are up to rare earth elements.  I am exaggerating, but you see my point.

The thing though that troubles me most with wine shows is that it seems that an awful lot of wines are tasted over a very short period of time.  I think this inevitably risks straining the likelihood of accurate results (see below for my interpretation of "accurate").  I suspect that most normal people, even "wine people", would not wish to taste 100 odd wines in a day.  I usually can't sensibly taste more than about 30 wines in a day, without fatigue or thoughts of "why am I doing this" becoming dominant.  If that doesn't fatigue you, think about a flight of 100 wines of a style or variety that you don't care much for.  Like dry verdelho.  My point is simply that there must logically be a point of fatigue where inaccuracy sets in.  By "inaccurate" I mean that the judge is no longer reliably rating wines according to his or her preferences.

That such results are then (I am guessing) aggregated and averaged with other judges' scores means they risk being rendered meaningless too, in that by reflecting an "average" view, no-one's actual views are reflected.  I tend to prefer individual opinions when it comes to wine.

How the wines are presented to the judges also could have a huge impact.  I have seen it time and time again at blind tastings that a very good wine will show less well if it is surrounded by other very good wines that are often only slightly better.  The former wine tends to be rated as hopeless by otherwise sensible people, when on its own, the wine is by definition very good.  Thus whether the wine show presents the wines across grape varieties, vintage, regions or price points could be highly relevant to the awards given.

Finally, there is the much commented upon tendency for wine shows to reward big and bold wines since they stand out in long line ups.  I think that a good taster will inevitably be able to see through this, but that might be harder in very large scale tastings if fatigue sits in or flavours and tannins stay in the judges' mouths.  I am theorising, but much like wine fashions, there is perhaps also a risk of wine shows going too far the other way to over-compensate and over-rate early picked, green, thin and/or flavourless wines.

I think therefore wine shows could achieve more for consumers.  If nothing else, it looks helpful that people are thinking about it a bit more.
Wine Thoughts
September 11, 2012

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