By Laura Ness
In a world turned upside down by uncertainty, some things stand fast. Wine competitions are part and parcel of the yearly routine of the wine world, as much as tending vines, picking grapes, and making wine go on despite the havoc wreaked by nature or otherwise. Wineries depend on wine scores and ratings to move their product efficiently: they especially depend on high profile wine competitions to help drive brand awareness and create excitement for their wines.
Debra Del Fiorentino, President of Wine Competitions Production & Management (WCP&M), who owns and operates high profile competitions like the Sunset International Wine Competition, has successfully run three competitions since June, and is now working on the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge, to be held July 14 and 15.
“All imaginable health precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of judges and backroom staff, while the wines are given the full measure of respect they deserve. We pride ourselves in running the cleanest wine competitions, in every way possible,” says Del Fiorentino.
And the response from wineries, who need the competitions more than ever to obtain ratings for their marketing efforts, has been huge. Winning a competition leads directly to better brand visibility.
Gio Balistreri of Russian River Vineyards had the good fortune to win both the Experience Rosé Competition (for his 2019 Russian River Vineyards Rosé of Petite Sirah from Fountaingrove) and International Women’s Wine Competition (for his 2016 Horseridge Vineyard Pinot Noir), knows well the benefit.
“Wine Competitions rock! The success and awards help me sell wine immensely! 90% of my business is Direct to Consumer (DTC), and by receiving these awards, along with the points scored by the judges, it allows my tasting room staff to use these awards as tools to sell more wine. When a guest sees a wine score of 98 points, Double Gold, Best of Class and was Judged Best Overall Wine in the Competition, they get excited to try that wine and even more excited to take it home with them!”
Barry Herbst, Wine Buyer at Bottle Barn (Santa Rosa), judges many wine competitions, and appreciates the opportunity to discover new gems to recommend to his customers. “Certainly for local wineries here in Sonoma County, Best of Class and Sweepstakes in higher profile competitions like Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle, Press Democrat (North Coast Wine Challenge) and Sunset do move the needle for them. As for us, the Harvest fair is the one competition we do a lot of buying for and the sweepstakes winners in the white and red categories can generate sales of up to 400—500 cases, if they are reasonably priced. Otherwise, I do buy some winners from SF Chronicle and Press Democrat and will probably start this year buying winners from Sunset.”
Amanda Holsine of Husch Vineyards in Anderson Valley told us, “Wine Competitions have always played an essential role for our winery and customers. As a small family-owned winery, our customers appreciate hearing about the success of each wine. The validation from well-respected judges and peers puts value behind the awards. Who doesn’t love a gold medal, especially from a high profile competition like Sunset?”
Husch had two Best of Class winners in Sweepstakes at the Sunset International Wine Competition, taking Best Dessert of Show for their 2016 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, and winning a Best of Class for their 2019 Husch Chenin Blanc.
Bryan Cass, General Manager of Cass Winery in Paso Robles, was delighted to receive a Best of Class award for the 2019 Cass Oasis Rosé at the Experience Rosé Competition. “I think that wine competitions play an important role right now for all the reasons they always have, mostly being that there is so much wine out there and so many brands, it can be very difficult to figure out what should taste good when confronted with a wall of wine. With virtual wine tastings now being more popular than ever, competitions are a good way to influence a purchasing decision when the wine isn’t in the customer’s mouth. The person doing the virtual tasting can describe the winemaking aspects of the wine, the flavor, the story of the winery, and then throw in the accolade on top to further solidify the customer’s purchasing decision. While the person giving the virtual tasting usually works for/with the winery, the person (judge) giving the score/accolade doesn’t have any reason to overvalue the wine being evaluated.”
Winemaker Mari Coyle of ONEHOPE Wines was thrilled to have their 2016 Red Blend win a Best of Class at the Women’s Wine Competition: “Our recognition at this competition is part of our ONEHOPE story that empowers women in the wine industry. Quality wines and our connection to our community are woven in our fabric to nourish the future. We are proud to have reached the Sweepstakes with our best selling blend made exclusively for on premise locations.”
Clearly, wine competitions can really help wineries attract more consumer interest, and there’s little doubt that winning a competition leads directly to better brand visibility. Just ask Gio Balestreri of Russian River Vineyards, who is trying to figure out how to ramp up production to meet the increased demand. It’s a good problem to have.