Wine competitions, medals and numbers: do they take away the pleasure of discovery?

Tasting as a professional has brought me over the years to be a judge in many international competitions, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the London International Wine Challenge, passing through 5Star wines at Vinitaly. 

Each competition has its own rules and mechanisms, but basically it is a group of qualified people who blind taste wines (with little information about them, that is provenance, vintage and blend, only in the USA also the price range) and are called to express a judgment in numbers or medals. As a general scheme it is considered 100 for perfection, between 85 and 90 a bronze, between 90 and 95 a silver and from 95 on a gold medal. 

You can watch backstage footage of some of the most important competitions I’ve taken part in on my YouTube channel. Here is the latest and also the most prestigious and extensive in the world. 

In London for the International Wine Challenge 

The International Wine Challenge is one of the most authoritative and extensive wine competitions in the world. I had wanted for years to become one of the judges who come from 52 countries where wine is produced. 

I can say with satisfaction that I was the only Italian journalist to judge the IWC now in its 38th edition. 

  • Each wine entered in the competition is tasted by at least 12 different judges, including several Masters of Wine. This process, which consists in several tasting rounds, ensures that no excellent wine escapes the chance to win a medal. 
  • There are 3 tasting rounds of the more than 13 thousand samples in competition. 460 international experts are invited to judge. 
  • Eight is the minimum number of times the wine is tasted to be sure of the score obtained. 
  • 24% is the increase in average sales following the affixing on the bottle of the label corresponding to the recognition received (according to a 2018 study conducted by IWC and Coop). 
  • 1.2 billion people were reached by IWC communications. 

But do these recognitions still make sense? 

It would come to answer yes, given the numbers I listed above. It is undeniable that in a hit-and-run market in which consumers often have neither the time nor the desire to inform themselves, the system of numerical judgment or the medal facilitates and speeds up the choice. Even importers and distributors encourage wineries to take part to these competitions in order to get recognition that can be used for commercial purposes, but I would like to go beyond logical and economical considerations, which remains the most rational choice.

What about the story of the wine? 

As you know my job is to tell about wine. I write books, I mainly tell about human beings, places, cultures, which are what make a wine unique and make it anything but a drink. 

The system of judgments does not belong to me, on this blog or on my social channels I have never published reviews with judgments about wines, not even the ones I liked. I think my job is to be a megaphone. To give voice to the story of a wine, not to judge it. And I think reducing it to a little number or to a three lines summary description that could work for thousands of other wines with the same characteristics is a pity, to say the least. 

I realize, as I said above, that the market has other logics and other times, and professionally I am also called to this task, but with extreme sincerity I tell you to look further, to take the time to go deeper. 

The pleasure lies in the path of discovery 

In fact, I believe a good part of the pleasure for a wine lover is in the phase of research, discovery, investigation. Being curious about a new grape, looking for its history, discovering the producers who keep it alive, reading about their business and then, after this journey, finally buying and tasting that wine, will be an immense joy, a cubic joy compared to the bottle rushed from the shelf because it had one hundred stamps on the label and therefore “it must be good”. 

The opposite process also applies: being guided by the label but then being ready to change one’s mind, to have a critical conscience, to look for more information about that producer.

In conclusion, therefore, I would like awards and medals to be one of the many instruments of choice, but not the only one. For this reason I concentrate 90% of my professional efforts on telling, investigating, discovering and traveling. You cannot describe a wine without having worn out the soles of your shoes in the vineyard and in the cellar, going on site. Mario Soldati used to say that. It is not feasible for most of wine lovers, but for that there are us, the wine reporters. Get comfortable and be ready to travel through the pages of a book, the images of a video, the words of a post on social networks. The only responsibility you have (and it is no small thing) is to choose the right voice! 


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