To Enter or Not to Enter – That is the Question

To Enter or Not to Enter, That is the Question

Part 1

Starting last year, we decided not to enter our wines into wine competitions anymore. This isn’t sour grapes as the wines have done well in the past. But short and to the point, we just don’t think the competitions work anymore.

The concept of wine competitions is great. Three or more judges sit with a flight of wines in front of them, prepared to discern which glasses contain wines of superior quality. Trained in tasting wine, the judges use a point-scoring system, breaking down each positive and negative aspect of the wine, to determine the level of medal (gold, silver, bronze) the wine should receive. One judge may say “gold”, and the others may say “bronze”, finally agreeing on some place in between. This takes the individual likes and dislikes of each judge into play.

However, we’ve always had a concern that to some degree, competitions are more of a popularity contest than a true determination of wines of greater quality. This isn’t to say that the tastings aren’t done blind. They are. No individual judge knows the identity of any of the wines during the tasting.

But we feel in competitions that the “popular style” of the day trumps actual true quality.

Is this pretentious? I wrestle with this every time I think about it. We’ve always felt that consumers should be drinking what they enjoy. So who are we to say that big, ripe, slightly-sweet red wines (which also tend to show better (and obliterate the surrounding competition)) are not the pinnacle of quality if that is what people are drinking?

But what if our feeling of quality (balance, complexity, sense of place) seems to go counter to how we see competitions going? If we can’t respect the results, we shouldn’t be participating. And this is where business and ideology combine. Entering competitions costs money and wine. In a given year, we would spend $5000 or more entering competitions in hopes of getting gold medals.

Finally, with the fact that wine tasters in the tasting room seem to be becoming more educated about wine and asking less about awards, it seemed that the $5000 spent on competitions could be better spent on other parts of marketing, press releases or donations.

Is this ultimately the right decision? Who knows? But it does explain why you won’t see our wines at the State Fair, the County Fair, or any other fair out there. And when you come into the tasting room, be sure to remember that you are the one doing the tasting. Your opinion matters (even if it is different than mine and person the next you), because you’re the one drinking the wine.



Part 2

Since writing and “releasing” this blog about competitions several weeks ago, we’ve gotten quite a few responses. I’m excited that the topic started more discussion about the value of competitions and how they are used in the world of wine.

Some of the comments questioned our decision to pull out of competitions. To be honest, it could be “marketing suicide,” we don’t really know. We haven’t actively engaged in competitions for years, having pulled back to simply entering a selection of wines into the Orange County Fair, El Dorado County Fair and the California State Fair. And our sales continued to grow, but we did enter those competitions.

Our limiting of wine competitions has been a slow process down to no competitions, so we perceive the risk of losing sales to be low. Many people commented that they don’t find competition results important unless they don’t know the brand (i.e. on the shelf of the store). I agree whole-heartedly that medals won can sway consumers unfamiliar with the wines.

Wineries have the opportunity to engage consumers with the wine bottle’s label, information about the wine, an experience with the winery’s web page, or tasting the wine (amongst others of course). There is no doubt that wineries spend a lot of money designing labels that are attractive and say something about the wine. This goes for the web page as well.

But to attract consumers to your brand on the store shelf, we are competing with every other brand that has invested in their label just as we have ours. So here comes one of the poignant comments we received. Competitions (or rather the results) are important if we are interested in attracting new consumers to our brand.

It doesn’t surprise me that people in the tasting room are not swayed by gold medals. They are tasting the wines and can determine on their own whether they like a wine or not. From our point, they are already in the tasting room, so they have already shown an interest in our brand.

Since we do such a large portion of our business through our tasting room, locals and our wine club, we haven’t seen a decline in purchasing with our pulling out of competitions. However, for newer wineries trying to make a splash, wine competitions may be necessary to attract in new customers.

Are we at Madroña lucky by having such a strong core of wine lovers following the winery, or are we foolish, slowly bleeding away interest in our wine by ignoring new customers unfamiliar with our winery? Again, we don’t really know, except that we have chosen different ways to showcase our wines and quality.

It’s clear that we no longer think the competition system works for being an indicator of pure quality. I’d rather see a system that rates “lack of faults” in wines rather giving a medal or point score. But this isn’t very likely for the near future.

So instead we’ve searched other avenues to promote the wines to new customers. Recently our 2009 Signature Cabernet Franc was selected for the New York Times Wine Club and our 2010 Signature Chardonnay was accepted for the William Sonoma Wine Club.

It’s true that the wines were vetted through a series of tasting panels (with opinions of their own), but these panels are not comparing one “Zinfandel” to another “Zinfandel” through a long tasting of Zinfandels. Instead, the wines are tasted on their own merits, something we believe in.

We similarly are celebrating certain wine varieties on different months, partnering with local restaurants to pair selected dishes with our wines. This is expensive (like competitions), but there are more winners as consumers, restaurants and our winery all succeed at the same time (with no “losers”!).

So are competitions all bad? I don’t think so, but I understand they are a marketing tool, and not necessarily the rating of quality like many think. Competitions can play a role for new wineries or large wineries needing to keep their name out there.

For us, competitions just don’t work anymore, and we’ll be putting our marketing dollars in newer ideas. Intelligent or not, it just feels right for us. By the way, tell your friend (unfamiliar with Madroña) about our wines. We may need it!


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12 Responses to To Enter or Not to Enter – That is the Question

  1. Rosanna Lippe says:

    I agree with you 100 percent, Paul. Drinking and enjoying wine is completely an “individual” activity. I have managed a tasting room in the past, and I can say that for EVERY wine, there was always someone who thought it was the BEST. I am not a great “judge” of wine for others, but I am a great judge for what I enjoy. When I hear about a “rating” or an “award” I do sometimes like to taste that wine — to see if I “agree.” Thus, the bottom line is totally individual.


  2. Pete says:

    In general, I disregard competitions. I read descriptions and use my small knowledge of what I like, generally where it’s made and if the description sounds like something I might like.

    For example, I like old-school Zinfandel, lots of pepper and spice, not jammy or fruity. I want a Zin that slaps me around and then spits at my feet. I know that’s not very popular any more, which sucks because I have a VERY hard time finding Zin I really like any more.


  3. Jeff Truxal says:

    Your blog smacks of fear that your wines are not in the “popular” mode. Popularity=sales; go with the flow. One man’s “feeling of quality” is just that: one man’s. It is still judging, and you are presuming to judge the judges. What is more pretentious than that?
    $5000 is chicken feed compared to the value of a”popular” gold medal or best of class; it’s an excellent way to get people who have NOT tasted your wines to try them without having to stumble across them at esoteric tastings. Besides, it gives us, your best customers, something to brag about! Please rethink your decision, it is a marketing disaster.


  4. Frank says:

    I agree that medals and Wine Spectator ratings don’t necessarily make for good tasting wine…for me. If it taste good to me, I buy it and I drink it. I’ve tasted some gold medal wines that were outstanding and some even my garbage disposal wouldn’t drink. But, that’s just me, someone else might love it. Taste is subjective. I don’t like peas, for example, but that doesn’t make peas taste bad.

    All that being said, when it comes to buying a wine blindly, just looking for a good Cab to go with tonights rib eye, for example, that I haven’t tasted, a Spectator rating or medal winner might sway me to buy one wine over another.

    You make some outstanding wines, Paul, and some not so outstanding wines…to me (although I’ve never had to offer any of your wines to my garbage disposal). One way to get others to want to try your wines is to make them known through awards and ratings.

    Its a tough call, enter competitions, or not. At the end of the day, youre a small business owner. Good business sense asks, are you getting good ROI on the money spent for competitions? Is it driving new customers to try your wines?


  5. Bill Tobey says:

    Paul- I applaud you for not entering. Personally awards have no impact on my wine decisions. On the other hand, as a wine broker I do find some restaurants & retail outlets are impressed by awards. So I do recommend that wineries I represent enter at least one or two competitions.


  6. Could not agree with you more, Paul. Friends Barry & Jean Carlson and Harriet & Ken Carlson (not related but both couples are Madrona Wine Club members) often comment on how unrated and more-often-than-not less expensive wines so often top the ones getting scores of 87, 88, 90 and above. The ‘market’ may be for “sweeter” wines but I and my friends enjoy the complex tastes, aromas and balance of carefully crafted wines. One of the reasons I so regularly enjoy the wines of Madrona; as do my friends. Keep it up, Paul… !


  7. Sheri Arnold says:

    Awards – a subject dear to my heart. You feel that competitions just don’t work anymore and I question the “anymore”. Judging has always been subjective, and sometimes downright inaccurate. Judges are subjective and yet people continue to compete, whether it be swimming, horseback riding, bread making, wine making and on a higher level, the Olympics. Medals are awards that people understand, even if they don’t understand wines! I believe a “newbie” would put out the money and try a medal winner or a medal winning winery versus picking the pretty label or hoping against hope that they don’t pick a “bad” one for that special dinner. There are so many choices in wines today; those medals are a definite marketing advantage if you are looking for new customers. If new customers are not a concern, then by all means stick to your guns. Maybe you need to make just one, over the top, “popular” tasting wine to wow those judges, win a medal, and then educate those that come to your wonderful winery.


  8. Geoffrey Burns says:

    It appears that increasingly when I visit a winery and they proudly pour a Gold Medal winning wine, that I am not impressed when I taste it. And it doesn’t seem to matter which competition teh award is from. The Orange County Fair used to do a pretty good job, but the California State Fair seems to award medals to some mediocre wines. Maybe it has to do with the expertise of the judges. I always wonder if it is me, or has this bottle been open too long, or is this bottle not representative of the entire lot. I exepct to be able to agree with the panel of “experts” when in fact I frequently disagree. I see gold medal ribbons plastered across the walls of tasting rooms where I can’t find even one wine that I like at any price. I think I would be more impressed if each competion awarded a lot fewer medals to soem really outstanding wines.


  9. Gary says:

    Paul, after many many years of doing competition in my field, boat restoration and winning numerous first place awards, I came to the conclusion that it really is not worth it.
    A very few pretentious customers will site awards and brag when they serve a wine to their friends but by far among my wine drinking friends we drink what we like and not what the cost or award levels have been.
    Customers buy what they like and loyal customers buy because of the quality and the persona and they really do not look at the awards. Remember that customers like to do business with friends rather than strangers and you have done a great job of promoting your family business on a personal level.


  10. Dan Belik says:

    Paul, as a wine consumer but not a professional (in any sense of the word), I am overwhelmed by the awards display. Is there a winery anywhere that does not have a huge bouquet of ribbons on display? Can I tell the difference between a gold medal from Calaveras County and a silver from Monterey? No and no. Do competitions create a market for you in and of themselves? I don’t know, but if they don’t, orient yourself towards exhibitions where more of the public can be exposed to your product. It seems to me that your approach of promoting less-than-common varietals and creating wines that reflect your terroir are attributes that you can market, otherwise you are just competing to spend advertising money with every other winery.


  11. David Johnson says:

    If judging were consistent enough to alert me to the simple, overripe, gummy style that seems to be creeping into El Dorado, I would pay more attention to it. Unfortunately, Gold Medal wines from one competition can sometimes (often?) get nothing in another setting, so the value of medals as an indicator of quality is questionable. As far as medals influencing my purchases, I have to say it they don’t. I buy wine because I have tasted it in the tasting room, tried it at home through club releases, or have enjoyed it in previous vintages. Keep making complex, high-quality wines and most people will want them, medals or no medals.


  12. Mary Geisler says:

    I never purchase wines by their awards. I have attended one of the Calif. award events and find it hard to belive that anyone can chose a “award” wine after tasting 300 or more Chardonnay’s. As you travel around Calif. you can taste and buy what you like – not what someone else who may not even be in the wine business say a wine is “award winning.”

    Keep up the good work Paul.


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