To Enter or Not to Enter, That is the Question
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.
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!