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The rush for gold.

I don't know about you, but I've always been a tad skeptical of wine competitions. Maybe it's because I've received so dang many press releases over the years from wineries braggin' about their gold medals:

JOE SCHMOE WINERY BRINGS HOME TWO GOLD MEDALS AT WINE FESTIVAL

Or perhaps:

BOX WINE WINS BRONZE MEDAL AT PRESTIGIOUS CALIFORNIA WINE COMPETITION

After reading a few dozen of these releases, it started to seem like just about any old wine could win a medal if you sent it out to enough county fairs.

I couldn't help wondering: What do all those medals really mean, and what does it take to earn them?

To put my nagging suspicions to rest, I recently paid a visit to Carol Seibert, managing director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition. No stranger to the industry, Seibert held various wine sales and marketing positions before coming to work with Anthony Dias Blue, director of the Competition, in 1990. More than a decade later, she's got the event down to a science.

Merits of Competitions

Here's what Seibert had to say about her involvement in the San Francisco International Wine Competition, and about the merits of wine competitions in general.

W&V: What attracted you to the Competition?

Carol Seibert: I just saw the potential for so much to do there. I stuck with it and after a couple of years of helping Jack Wiener run it, he turned the competition over to me. We keep fine tuning it every year, so it gets better and better.

W&V: What's your role in putting it all together?

Seibert: I do just about everything. I get the judges, produce the forms and get them printed, get people here to do the mailings and print the labels so they go out to the wineries. I don't do any actual warehousing, but I have volunteers who do it and they get paid in wine.

W&V: Are you doing anything new for the competition this year?

Seibert: Almost every year I make changes. What I'm doing now is buying tables at the Bon Appetit Focus, and for about $200 per city and a few bottles of wine, I'll go and pour the winners' wines under the name of the SF International Wine Competition. That gives the big winners yet another chance at visibility. It's all about keeping the name in people's minds, so when they go to the store they're thinking, "Oh yeah, I've heard of that."

We also try to change the competition a little bit every year, in terms of the categories. For example, when Sangiovese suddenly became popular in California, we added that in. So we add things that are current, and take things away that are not.

W&V: So how do you choose the judges for the event?

Seibert: They're all wine buyers for major restaurants, hotels or retail shops. Or they're wine writers. I get people from all around. The main thing I look for is that the judges are compatible and can get along with each other. They also have to be open to learning and they've got to be open to new discoveries. I don't like jaded, closed people who say, "It has to be a $60 boutique bottle of wine before I'm even interested." Most of our judges don't have too much of an attitude--and attitudes can be quite prevalent in the wine industry.

W&V: I may have noticed that. On another note, how do you handle it when the judges are compatible, but their palates are not?

Seibert: That happens occasionally, and we don't put those people together because they'd never agree on anything.

Judges Biased?

W&V: Are the judges ever biased against certain producers or regions?

Seibert: All of the wines are tasted blind. We have a private room that's just for pouring and each section of the room is set aside for a different panel. So the people in the pouring room open up the bottles, pour them into glasses and wheel them in on a tray to the judges. The judges never see the bottles, so all they know is the vintage and the varietal they're tasting. Some of these guys are so good, they can say, "This wine is definitely from Chile." And they're right! It's pretty amazing.

W&V: How many wines do the judges usually taste in a day?

Seibert: They each taste about 200 wines per day. They're good and fast and they learn not to spend any time on something they don't like. But tasting this many wines is very grueling--I like being on the end of it that I'm on.

W&V: Wow, how can they keep their palates going while tasting all those wines?

Seibert: Quite often the judges will bring toothbrushes with them so they can slip into the bathroom and brush their teeth. They get served a really nice lunch and they have bread and water so they can refresh their palates. We also bring in sliced roast beef sometimes, when they're tasting Pinots and other reds. For the vegetarians, we'll bring in some celery and tomato juice. One of the judges is turning everybody onto that because it's really good for cutting the red wine.

W&V: How do the judges decide which wines deserve bronze, silver and gold medals?

Seibert: The medals are determined by whatever the judges' palates tell them--there's no set criteria. Most of the judges are so experienced, they can usually tell right away when a wine deserves a certain medal. If they're undecided, they discuss the wines, and they'll go through and eliminate stuff and then go back.

W&V: How does a wine win a "double gold" medal?

Seibert: When the judges go to award medals, they might say, "Oh, I'm not sure if this is a silver or a gold," and they'll discuss it. On the other hand, if all of the judges on the panel say that a certain wine deserves a gold medal, no doubt about it, that makes it a double gold. But they all have to be in agreement. From the double golds, we ask the judges to pick their favorites. That's how we get the awards like "Best Cabernet."

W&V: Do medals usually result in more sales?

Seibert: I think so, because when they win medals, the wineries have something to put on their shelf-talkers to attract consumers.

W&V: Of all the competitions out there, which ones do you think carry the most weight with the wine buying public?

Seibert: Other than ours, I'd say the Orange County Fair, California State Fair, L.A. County Fair and Jerry Mead's. I think these competitions are successful because they have good judges. The Orange County Fair judges have to pass a test. We don't do that, but we usually don't have problems with judges not being qualified. Sometimes we'll get somebody who's a little bit younger, so we'll put that person with a judge who can mentor, so they grow and learn.

W&V: How predictable are the results of competitions like SF International? Do the big guys always win?

Seibert: We have surprises every year, like Raymond's Amberhill wine that won "Best Cabernet" last year. Out of all those $60 to $70 Cabernets, that $10 bottle won "Best Cab." That's amazing. We also had a tie last year for "Best Red" between Phelps Insignia, which is about $120, and a hand-crafted wine from Storrs that costs about $30. Storrs sold out of that wine so fast because of that. Consumers are so happy to find those bargains. It's very easy to have a lot of money and just go buy a $100 bottle of wine. Nine times out of 10 you're going to get a really good bottle. The trick is to get that really good $10 bottle of wine. Lots of wines under $10 have won "Best of Show" or "Best Varietal."

W&V: I've noticed that some wineries never enter competitions. Is it because there are so many contests out there that they think that winning medals doesn't mean anything to consumers?

Seibert: Most of the wineries that don't enter competitions, like Shafer, sell out of their wines every year, so they don't need any help. But wineries like Mondavi and Kendall Jackson really benefit from them because there's so much competition Out there and they make so much wine. If they win something it keeps them in the consumer's eye. Last year Kendall-Jackson won "Winery of the Year," and they're touting it all over the place. It's great for us and it's great for them.

W&V: What would you say to convince skeptical wineries that entering competitions like SF International is actually worth it?

Seibert: If wineries promote their medals, it's worth it. Whenever a wine wins something big, the price goes up 90% of the time. I noticed that when I was working at Andy Blue's, and we were getting wine in all the time. If a wine won something, the price always went up. So that's a good factor. Medals get noticed, and wineries can promote them on their shelf-talkers and such. The whole point is getting the eye of the consumer. Unless you completely sell out of your wine every year, I don't see any reason for not entering.

Judging for this year's San Francisco International Wine Competition will take place on June 23 and 24 at the Park Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco.

(Tina Caputo reports on the wine industry from San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to Wines & Vines.)
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Author:Caputo, Tina
Publication:Wines & Vines
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:1604
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