Turning Award Medals into Marketing Gold: How Wine Competitions Build Community & Recognition

By: Tracey L. Kelley

If there’s one aspect of wine we can all agree on, it may be that what’s “good” or “bad,” in most applications, is all a matter of taste. Of course, some qualities must be consistently present, such as acidity, alcohol, aroma, body, clarity, sweetness and tannin. But when vintners place their bottles next to one another in a wine competition, each judge lends not only industry knowledge to a winning selection, but also palate preference. So why enter?

  Quite simply, exposure. Few avenues of marketing and promotion provide such an effective boost as medaled wines sitting prominently on shelves. From regional appreciation to international recognition, competition awards wave a sparkly hello to customers at retailers and in the tasting room. Additionally, the judging panels—often staffed with sommeliers, publicists, wine reviewers, distributors and other industry notables—provide another layer of marketability. Some studies in France assess the impact of gold, silver and bronze medals on wine producers’ ability to increase prices by as much as 15%. That, at the very least, might be just enough to offset the cost of entry fees, shipping bottles to various competitions and printing medal-announcing bottle neckers.

  So, which competitions should you enter, with what vintages and for what purpose? There are many variables. Some winemakers feel the current market is oversaturated with events—a rough estimate suggests more than 100 competitions in the U.S. and Canada alone—which lessens the impact of winning. Others are concerned about entering contests that award the equivalent of participation medals instead of segmenting the truly best. 

  Nevertheless, the practice is still stacked with advantages. So, prioritize your rationale. If you’re new to the market, revising your marketing strategy or want to showcase longstanding vintages or fresh approaches, venturing into competitions might help build your network and increase visibility. To guide vintners looking to compete, we talked with four distinctly different directors to provide an overview of possibilities.

The Unique Flavor of Each Competition

  It’s essential to research competitions a year or two in advance to gauge which ones match your objectives. Study their entries and winners. Examine the judges’ qualifications and whether the evaluation is a blind process for impartiality. Also, determine if their promotional partnership will be beneficial and how it positions your wines.

Critics Challenge

  “A wine competition medal is a third-party endorsement. It says to the consumer that a group of wine professionals found the wine had merit. That can tip the scales when a consumer is undecided about which wines to buy from the many options available,” Robert Whitley told The Grapevine Magazine. Whitley is the wine reviewer for Wine Talk and founder/director of four international competitions: Critics Challenge, San Diego Challenge, Sommelier Challenge and Winemaker Challenge, all based in San Diego.

  Whitley designed each competition to celebrate the differences in wine, regardless of origin. Entries are open to all wines produced for commercial sale from any part of the world. “I launched the Critics Challenge 17 years ago because I believed my colleagues in wine journalism had important and unique perspectives on wine evaluation,” he said. “For one thing, their understanding of the differences between wines based on place of origin and cultural influences was deeper than most.”

  The competitions have judging panels comprised of experts representative of the topic event, except the San Diego Challenge, which includes a combination of journalists, sommeliers and winemakers, plus other expert evaluators. Whitley believes this segmentation provides additional benefits. “Wineries had a hunger for critical feedback. Hence, we provided comments from the judges on the medal-winning wines. Those comments, in turn, could be used as a marketing tool on POS shelf-talkers or wine-club newsletters,” he said. 

Whitley’s Tips for New Entrants?

1.   Understand that young wines don’t always shine. They go through phases as they mature, so don’t be discouraged if your wine doesn’t medal or doesn’t earn the prize you think it deserves.

2.   Enter multiple wine competitions for the reason above.

3.   Study the lineup of judges before you enter any competition and choose the competitions that field the best evaluation teams.

INDY International Wine Competition

  You might also find that certain characteristics of a competition matter more than others. Jill Blume is an enology specialist with the Purdue Wine Grape Team at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and executive director and chief judge for the INDY International Wine Competition.

  “It’s the largest independent, scientifically-organized wine competition in the nation, accepting both commercial and amateur entries from 94 countries and the U.S.,” Blume said. “It’s a unique competition because it’s based at a university and administered by faculty and staff from the departments of food science, computer and informational technology, and horticulture and landscape architecture.” There are 75 classes to enter.

  The INDY, established in 1992, features a broad judging panel that’s craft-specific. In addition to retailers, distributors and winemakers, professionals might include grape growers, chefs and social media promoters. “This mixture makes the event an ideal testing ground for experimentation and an opportunity to receive professional feedback from leading wine experts,” Blume said. “It’s a great opportunity for new wineries due to the diversity of our judges, their knowledge and openness to new varieties and wine styles.”

  Blume noted that an important characteristic of the INDY is to “evaluate traditional and non-traditional Indiana wines with those from the U.S. and around the globe in the same competition. It’s exciting to see humble, unpretentious wines from the Midwest and new cold-hardy grape varieties like Vignoles, Chambourcin, Traminette and La Crescent win big at the INDY,” she said. “In the final Best of Show round, judges don’t know the wine’s variety, packaging, vintage, price or region. The winners are chosen solely by the judge’s senses—sight, aroma and taste.”

  Blume’s top tip for selecting competition wines? Choose those that have big aroma, big finish and balanced sugar, acid and alcohol.

Finger Lakes International Wine & Spirits Competition

  Regional pride and a sense of community enhance other international competitions as well. For the past 20 years, the Finger Lakes International Wine & Spirits Competition (FLIWC) in Mendon, New York, has accepted entries from all over the U.S., Canada and other countries. The event began as a fundraiser for Camp Good Days & Special Times—a non-profit organization that provides programs and services free of charge to children and families impacted by cancer.

  “Supporters of Camp Good Days recognized the opportunity to harness the goodwill in the Finger Lakes wine community to benefit funding, and at the same time, bring visibility to the quality of Finger Lakes wines,” said Bob Madill, head judge of the competition. “With the support of wineries and wine judges from around the world, over 90% of the funds raised go directly to the residential camping programs that are provided free of charge to the participants.”

  Winning entries receive special POS material detailing the event’s mission, so, “wine lovers can choose a quality wine with a heart,” he said. “I worked in the high tech world for over two decades and in the world of wine for even longer. Nothing I’ve done professionally has given me so much honor, pleasure and satisfaction as being Head Judge for the FLIWC and working alongside my colleagues and hundreds of volunteers at Camp Good Days.”

  FLIWC judges are selected to represent the major wine regions in the U.S. and have varying professional industry backgrounds—sommelier, media, educator, winemaker, trained/accredited/experienced judge and so on. Madill pointed out that, in 2019, a change in the selection process ensured an equal number of men and women judges and an equal number as table captains.

Madill told The Grapevine Magazine the award-winning Finger Lakes wines are being compared with others from well-known wine regions and that the awards are given by panels of “exceptionally experienced judges on the basis of merit.”

  “About 20% of the FLIWC judges are local winemakers. This provides them with the opportunity to interact with other judges from all over the U.S. and Canada—who in turn place all of the wines that they taste within a broader perspective,” he said. “Conversely, it provides the other 80% of participants with the opportunity to become familiar with Finger Lakes winemakers and later, in social situations, with their wines. This networking has proven invaluable over the past two decades.”

  Madill advises winemakers to consider three points when submitting to a competition:

1.   Place the beverage in the appropriate category and provide all of the information requested. Reach out to the head judge for assistance if in doubt.

2.   Respond to the call for entries in a timely fashion and ensure delivery to the proper address.

3.   Lead with strengths.

Central Coast Wine Competition

  Standing out in America’s wine epicenter is a unique challenge. Still, Lacie Johns of Solterra Strategies, event manager of the Central Coast Wine Competition (CCWC) in Paso Robles, California, believes this is one of many reasons why the event is so important.

  “A group of winemakers, including Gary Eberle, started the CCWC in an effort to showcase the quality of wines coming from the Central Coast, as there wasn’t one specifically focused on them,” Johns said. “This event promotes the excellent quality and diversity of commercial wineries and grape growers while recognizing the fastest-growing wine region in California.” The competition began in 2011.

  Johns told The Grapevine Magazine that 75% of the grapes used to produce the entries must have been harvested within the eligible grape growing regions. “The Central Coast AVA includes these counties, from north to south: Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties,” she said. “This competition also includes wines made from grapes grown in Ventura County.”

  Current chief judge, Tim McDonald, rotates judging panels with new judges each year, featuring experts who “can make connections with our brands that would benefit them outside the competition. Most of our judges are wine writers, restauranteurs, wine merchants and some select sommeliers and winemakers to add variation,” Johns said.

  She added the CCWC promotes entries all year long with various partnerships, including local media profiles, stand-alone retail space in Central Coast grocery stores, and a significant event, the California Mid-State Fair. The competition also provides newcomers a foothold in the industry. “It’s a perfect way to weigh your wines against your neighbors and peers within the Central Coast. It encourages friendly comradery with your neighbors, and also can be a way for younger brands to emerge and be recognized amongst their peers,” she said.

Johns Offers this Competition Insight:

1.  We suggest wineries make sure to enter the wines that they’re most proud of, but also know that every judge is interested in different wines, so it helps to enter more options than less.

2.  Unique wines are always encouraged. It’s not the biggest varietals winning every year. Last year we had a Fiano take the top prize, and the year before that was a Grenache Blanc.

3.  When the competition is over, we encourage winemakers to take advantage of any opportunity/benefit offered through the competition. For example, we have the benefit of the partnership with the California Mid-State Fair, which allows us to reach thousands of consumers for wineries.

Listed below are the 2020 event dates for each competition. Some may be a result of rescheduling due to the U.S. public health emergency this spring. Please review individual competition sites for rules and dates of entry for this year and request 2021 information:

Central Coast Wine Competition: The 2020 competition is scheduled for June 17th–18th. https://centralcoastwinecomp.com/

Critics Challenge Wine Competition: The 2020 competition is scheduled for June 20­th–21st.  Please visit this site for updates on Whitley’s other competitions. https://www.criticschallenge.com/

Finger Lakes International Wine & Spirits Competition: The 2020 competition is scheduled for July 18th and 19th.

INDY International Wine Competition: The 2020 competition, usually held in May, is still postponed at press time.

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