Winemakers weigh the pros, cons, and relevancy of wine competitions in the modern market.
A tasting room lined with award-winning bottles, glittering with bronze, silver, and gold medals is nothing new. But is the time, energy, and money that goes into entering these competitions still worth it? Do these awards still hold the same gravitas as in the past?
Not for every wine style or pocket book
Jim Law, winegrower at Virginia’s Linden Vineyards, no longer enters his wines in competitions. His wines “evolve over time in the glass,” he says, and that’s the draw for his specific wine style — terroir driven, mineral, and concentrated, often needing years to age, or at the very least, hours to open once you pop the cork.
“In a competition, judges don’t get to spend a lot of time with a wine,” he says. “They judge on their first impression.”
While his wines have won accolades from the likes of Jancis Robinson who praises Law as “a key figure in raising standards in Virginia grape-growing,” in competitions, Linden’s wines always earn a meager silver medal.
For others, a concern about the way a specific competition runs keeps them from participating. John Cifelli, general manager at Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, NJ, says a lack of transparency stops him from entering the New Jersey Governor’s Cup judged by the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI).
“I think BTI’s scores are inflated, relative to other critics, and they seem to go out of their way to create esoteric, strange taste descriptors that may sound like a flaw in a wine that ends up with a 90+ score,” he says, citing the descriptor “soy glazed walnuts” used in the past by the BTI for a Chardonnay. But Cifelli thinks these competitions could be a good return on investment if it helps with marketing.
A Measuring Stick Among Peers
The 2020 New Jersey Governor’s Cup winner, Autumn Lake Winery (for their 2019 Estate Petit Verdot) saw experienced that marketing ROI. The winery has been open just five years, and it’s the second time it did well in the competition. (Previously, Autumn Lake’s Traminette tied for best white hybrid.)
For owner and winemaker Mark Hernandez, winning this year’s top prize was an honor and an indication of how the young winery is doing against nearby established and lauded wineries, such as Amalthea Winery in Atco that’s been around since the early 1980s and awarded the top honor in both 2018 and 2019 or William Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill where a 6th generation family farm produces wines that garner accolades from nationally renowned judges.
“For me, it’s a measuring stick—how I measure up against these other guys just to see where I am in the group,” says Hernandez, “We’re going to get a cup to display in the tasting room, but that’s not why I do it. I just want to see where we fall.”
Marketing opportunities and increased sales
When Port of Leonardtown Winery’s 2019 Chambourcin Reserve won the 2021 Maryland’s Governor’s Cup—the winery’s second time winning the honor—the state’s winery association sent a release to over 300 publications, a marketing campaign the winery didn’t have to initiate.
Winemaker Lauren Zimmerman says exposure is invaluable. Journalists write stories that people read, and the win resonates with wine drinkers.
“Once you win that honor, people put you in the high-quality category,” she says. “Online sales definitely increased from people outside the local area.” As did tasting room visits. And regular customers began purchasing more as well. The win increased the reputation of Port of Leondardtown’s as a whole, not just the award-winning wine.
For Philadelphia-based Scott Zoccolillo, wine director at Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, statewide competitions often point him to bottles from outside of major wine regions he may want to include on his restaurant’s wine list.
“Competition awards, just like scores, give the guest a basis of quality. I could sit and talk all day long about the qualities of the grape or the taste profile, but sometimes having a 95 pointer or Best in State, whatever the award is, offers … credibility to the wine and what we’re saying.”
“What comes with the award is a fair amount of targeted and free publicity,” says Carl DiManno, president and winemaker of 868 Estate Vineyards in Virginia. His 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito won the 2020 Virginia Governor’s Cup.
“Free” publicity isn’t truly free. There’s almost always a cost to entering wine competitions. Several bottles of each entered wine—that otherwise could be sold—need to be sent to the competition at the winery’s cost. There’s also an entrance fee. DiManno estimates $75 for each wine variety in the 2020 competition. He builds the cost into his advertising and promotional budget.
Unfortunately, DiManno didn’t get to see the full return on his investment. The results of the 2020 Virginia’s Governor’s cup came out about 10 days before lockdown. Winning did get the winery’s name out, and the winning wine sold out before 868 was able to reopen. But it’s impossible to know what opportunities the winery lost when people couldn’t visit.
Robin Shreeves is a drinks journalist and lifestyle features writer. Her wine writing has appeared in dozens of print and online publications including Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Courier Post, Spirited magazine, Edible Philly, Edible Jersey, USA Today, and Drink Philly. She holds a Level 3 wine certification and Advanced Wine Speaker certification from the National Wine School. Robin is also cofounder of Thinking Outside the Bottle that offers content writing for drinks brands.