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Withering Hills or Competition Cock Up?

Jelly%20Bean%20Trophy.jpg

We posted a couple of weeks back about our Best-Pinotage-In-The-World Trophy from the International Wine and Spirits Competition and we raised some issues about competitions generally. There is more competition related news and it deserves a bit of analysis.

BTW- The photo on top is what we are using the Trophy for right now. The Jelly Bellies have proved very popular. We tried the flowers and bath essence route, but we think that the fruitiness of the Jelly Bellies goes with the spirit of the Pinotage 😉

There have been a number of stories over the last several days about NZ winery Wither Hills and their alleged submission of a gold medal winning wine to a local competition, that was different than the wine that they shipped to the market. Yesterday is was reported that they were stripped of their medal and they are facing significant embarrassment.

We are not entirely convinced that this was bait and switch, though it may well have been. Only they really know, but it raises a much more fundamental issue about wine judging and competitions.

Once upon a time, wine was made on a much different scale than it is made today. Wither Hills reportedly made 100,000 cases of the one wine in question. Making 100,000 cases (1.2 million bottles) is a much different exercise than making 1,000 cases. Everything from how the grapes are sourced and grown to how the wine is fermented, aged and most importantly, blended and finished must be done in a way that balances quality and volume.

Anyone with even a slightly inquisitive mind will ask themselves: Is it possible for the first bottle of a 1.2 million bottle production to taste the same as the millionth?

(Ever had a bad cup of coffee at Starbucks, followed by good one?)

The worlds’ most popular premium Chardonnay is Kendall Jackson Proprietor’s Reserve. We believe that they make about 24 million bottles. Are they ALL the same?

Of course, the answer is no. Part of having a meaningful brand is about establishing a ‘house style’. One of the skills that only certain winemakers have, is making large quantities of stylistically consistent wine.

What that means is: making wine so that even if there are variations between bottlings in alcohol, acid, pH, etc., the wines are blended and finished in a way so that they taste consistent, if not identical. It might sound a bit mass production-ish, but in our consumer-driven world, many brands that cultivate the impression of scarcity, are actually made in a large scale. For example, I suspect that there are many millions of bottles of Dom Perignon made in any given vintage they declare. Are THEY all the same?

Even in the good old days, many of the great Chateaux of Bordeaux bottled their wines barrel by barrel. For many reasons that I do not have the space to go into here, there are often large differences between barrels of what should be identical wines. In fact, this is one of the key reasons why spending vast sums on very old bottles of wine is a folly- you just do not know what you will be getting when the cork is pulled. [Which barrel did that bottle of ’45 Latour come from?]

My point is that many of the competitions were created in a time when the wine business was very different than it is today. The scales were different. There were no 100 million-plus bottle brands like Yellow Tail. I think that we all need to rethink the metrics used for rating and judging wines. Perhaps some realignment of how Competitions are run, (or whether they are really a relic of the past ) is in order given the dynamics of the contemporary wine business.

If the New Zealand International Wine Show is stripping Wither Hills of their medal, then they need to deal with all of the issues of all producers they judge, and variation of bottlings in large scale production.

We mentioned in the previous post that we think the trend is for the consensus of consumer opinion to determine a wine’s merits. In just the last week there have been two new websites unveiled that do just this: Bottle Talk and Wine Experience.

Good Luck to both of these sites!

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