The results of major wine competitions can help consumers determine which wines are worth trying, but often newcomers to wine misinterpret the results.
They assume that all gold medal winners are better than all silver medal winners. Occasionally the opposite is true.
I have been coordinating wine competitions for more than 35 years and have witnessed this phenomenon so often I’d find it humorous if it weren’t so exasperating. This problem happens more often in competitions that aren’t extremely carefully organized, and where not all of the judges are professionals, but include younger and less-experienced people.
Also, I find suspect the results of competitions in which the organizers never heard of Dr. Maynard Amerine and his book, “Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation,” (1976). It established scientific guidelines that aim to avoid some of the fallacies created when judging anything, from pastries to pigs. But especially wine.
The fact that a silver-medal winner could be better than the gold medals in the same category seems confounding. But it can occur for various reasons, some of which are related to the fallacies of blind tastings, or possibly to the type of wine being judged.
Assuming a panel of three persons judging cabernet sauvignons contains one judge who is a newcomer. Amerine wrote that such novice judges tend to be timid and often fall into the trap of the ”Error of Central Tendency,” in which their scores are not cast on the basis of perceived quality as much as from timidity.
Say the three votes are a gold (from the senior judge, based on factual and specific evidence from the aroma and taste), a silver (from another skilled judge) and a bronze from the newcomer.
This wine probably deserves a gold, but ends up with a silver medal.
Another wine in the same set is more powerful, loaded with oak and high alcohol, and it is made to be obvious and impressive, and has little subtlety. It isn’t as good as the wine that got the silver, but it is impressive to the newcomer, who votes it a gold. Judge No. 2 agrees that the wine is impressive.
So it may get a gold medal, but the first wine was a victim one of science’s blind-tasting fallacies, and probably is a better wine.
Similarly, some white wines can get gold medals because of a dramatic floral aroma or even a trace of sugar, even though the aftertaste may be lacking. A more subtle and food-friendly wine in the same category often winds up with a silver, even though it is a better dinner companion.
Many wineries send their wines to market sooner than they should because it makes economic sense, even though the wines are in an awkward state. I have seen many young pinot noirs that suffered with judges who didn’t understand them.
The result is often that simple, fruity pinot noirs with no cellar potential end up with gold medals when far better wines that are simply too young either get silvers or bronzes.
Given a little time in the bottle, such wines usually are far better than those that got gold medals. This situation occurs more than anyone is willing to admit — except wine makers.
In 35 years of judging, domestically and internationally, I know that some wines get high medals from less experienced judges who mistake one aroma for another. I have often seen zinfandels with high volatility receive gold medals from judges who like such a characteristic, even though it is technically a flaw.
And then there is the varietal prejudice that some judges bring to the table.
This occurs when a wine is made from a grape variety the judges know little about.
In one celebrated case, the best Gamay I ever tasted would have gotten no medal at all had I not become nearly apoplectic.
I’ve voted gold. The other three judges gave it no medal. I asked my panel if they had ever tasted a Gamay as great is this. I learned that none of them had ever tasted any Gamay at all!
And can you imagine California wine judges trying to evaluate hybrid varieties such as Vidal, Seyval, Baco, Frontenac, and Noiret? A few of us love such challenges, but for the most part such wines are usually disparaged because they are not Chardonnay.
So yes, gold medals can be great. But it is my considered opinion that silvers can be the equal of any gold, and greater then some.
And my opinion of bronze medals? Well, that’s an entirely different discussion.
Wine of the Week: 2013 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills ($35): Terroir lives! There is a “Santa Barbara regional character” to this lovely pale-red, silky pinot noir, with hints of dried leaves, dried cherry, and a subtle earthiness that works beautifully with rare roast beef. Those who’d like a classic example of central coast herbal-ness will get it in this wine.