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Wine Competitions vs. Wine Reviews
The Wine Guy's Opinion

What's the difference between a wine score, like the 100 point scale that Wine Spectator uses, and the gold medals given at competitions like last month's Indy International Wine Competition at the State Fair Grounds?

In the grand scheme, not much... it's just another way that wine lovers satisfy their compulsion to judge wine. In a practical sense though, there is a big difference. Wine Competitions are grand events that span days and involve hundreds of people, and in the end, hand out thousands of medals that adorn winery tasting room walls. At last month's competition, 70 judges, in teams of 5, tasted through almost 3,300 wines over two days. Each team has the option to award each wine either a bronze, silver or gold medal... or no medal at, all by majority vote. The most coveted medals, called Concordance Gold, are awarded when all the judges on a panel agree on a gold medal wine. The best of show awards are then selected in a final re-tasting and voting at the end of the contest.

Magazine reviews on the other hand, are a lot less fun. Typically one person, like Robert Parker of Wine Advocate, tastes through thousands of wines over many months, compiles tasting notes and assigns scores. Those scores are then published and winery fortunes rise or fall with the numbers.

Which method offers a more objective evaluation? Well, Mr.. Parker could have a bad day, while 5 people on a panel offer diverse tastes. On the other hand, Mr. Parker doesn't have to taste 150 to 200 wines a day, a palate-deadening experience. People often ask me why I don't pay more attention to contests. Competitions are designed to be inclusive of every aspect of wine and winemaking. For our purposes, scores from people like Robert Parker or James Laube of Wine Spectator offer more focus on established producers, and vinifera grape varietals. The consistency offered by knowing a critic's tastes means a lot to me when I am forced to order large quantities of wine untasted. And, I believe that a point scale is a far more nuanced method of expressing a judgment than simply saying this wine got a gold medal. After all, Oliver Winery's Soft White (think aromas of Welch's grape jelly) won a Concordance Gold for Niagra grape based wines. Oliver has pioneered wine making in Indiana. And, it is a good Concord. But, you have to admit that I would have a tough time getting 99% of my customers to take Soft White seriously.

Do wine competitions identify outstanding wines? Of course they do. However, I often think that the judge's jaded taste buds gravitate toward the wines with the most memorable or distinctive components. Both wines we we are reviewing this week, the best red and best white of the competition, I think suffer a little from that syndrome. I am including Jill Ditmire's reviews of them from the Indianapolis Star (Jill was one of the judges), the magazine reviews we could find, and what we thought. Better yet, buy a couple of bottles and see what you think. Complete results from the competition are available at

Wine Guy Reviews

Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Aldan Vineyards 1999 Alexander Valley, California $29
Indy International Wine Competition 2003 "Best Red"

What Jill Ditmire Thought: Winner of the 2003 Indy International Wine Competition Best Red Award. Huge, fragrant nose of ripe cherries, soft smoke and eucalyptus. Full-bodied, lush, fresh, vibrant and an incredible value.

No magazine reviews were available...

What We Thought: Like most beauty contest winners, this is a very showy wine with an incredibly intense and complex nose of bittersweet chocolate, sweet black cherry, nutmeg and hints of cedar. It has a deep clear, ruby color, medium-body and more dark chocolate along with black raspberry overtones on the palate. The finish is short, revealing very dry almost dusty tannins. There is a lot going on here...

St. Supery Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2002 Napa Valley, California $15
Indy International Wine Competition 2003 "Best White"

What Jill Ditmire Thought: Rich, Zingy, fresh, this medium-bodied dry white exudes a fabulous fresh nose of honeydew melon, figs and herbs. Lush, balanced, flavors of melon, white grapefruit and gooseberry finish clean and crisp. What the Wine Critics thought: Wine Spectator 89 points Rich and concentrated, with ripe honeydew melon, green apple, fig and lime peal flavors. Intensity lingers with bright, tangy citrus character. Drink now.

What We Thought: Another memorable wine... it's Zingy all right, and filled with in your face aromas and flavors of tart grapefruit, gooseberry, lime zest and green apple. Crisp, bright, and very intense, it tastes a lot more like New Zealand than California. We offered this at the Sullivan Museum wine tasting last Friday and there were no neutral opinions, only pleasure or pain.