Wine Competitions: Are They for You?

By: Nan McCreary

Every year, hundreds of wine competitions are staged throughout the world. As the wine industry becomes more crowded, winning a medal—especially a gold or a Double Gold—can attract consumers and build brand recognition. But the option may not be for everyone. It’s up to the winery to decide whether entering these events should be part of your marketing strategy.

  Wine competitions run the gamut from enormous international shows to small local events that only feature wines from a specific region or appellation. Typically, wineries submit entries to various classes. The wines are judged by a diverse group of wine experts, who sit in panels of three to five people to taste and consider each wine. Judging is all blind, with the panel only knowing grape variety and class. Wines are evaluated on their own merits—color, clarity, aroma, taste, finish and overall quality—rather than as part of a ranking and, based on voting by the judges, are awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal, or perhaps no medal.

  The Decanter World Wine Awards, the world’s largest and most influential wine competition, defines a gold medal as “an outstanding and memorable wine within its category,” a silver as “a high-quality wine of excitement and personality within its category,” and a bronze as “a well-made and satisfying wine within its category.” Many competitions offer a Double Gold medal, where all members of the panel unanimously award the wine a gold rating. In most competitions, wines advance through a series of rounds: the initial medal round, semi-finals, and the super panel or “sweepstakes” round, where the overall winners are selected.

  Beyond these basics, each wine show varies in size, entry requirements and benefits. Here are three wine competitions that offer a broad range of what to expect when considering entering your wines.

The Decanter World Wine Awards

The Decanter World Wine Awards, founded in 2004, is the world’s biggest and most prestigious wine show. Organized by Decanter—the world’s leading wine media brand—the London-based competition is recognized by wine lovers globally for its world-class judging panels and a rigorous judging process. In the 2021 event held in June, entries set an all-time record of 18,094 wines from 56 countries. Wines were judged over the course of two weeks by more than 160 wine experts, including 44 Masters of Wine and 11 Master Sommeliers, evaluated in flights by country, region, color, grape, vintage and price point. Categorizing wines by price ensures wines are judged against their peers.

  As in all wine competitions, judging is blind, with the panel knowing nothing about the producers. Entry fees are $230 per entry plus a $21 surcharge per order, plus shipping fees. Wineries must provide four samples of each entry. According to DWWA, winning a medal is a “trusted mark of approval for buyers globally and has been proven to increase wine sales, secure distribution in new markets and improve brand awareness.”

Medal winners may purchase DWWA bottle stickers and receive promotion from Decanter through its global digital network, wine tastings, presence at major wine trade shows and exposure to leading retailers throughout the world. For more information, visit www.decanter.com

The San Francisco International Wine Competition

  The San Francisco International Wine Competition is America’s largest international wine competition. Founded in 1980, the three-day event is one of the oldest international competitions in the world. In 2019, there were 4,500 entries judged by 60 experienced and internationally recognized wine experts. Winners are awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal or a Double Gold. The cost per entry is $110, along with the submission of three 750 ml bottles of each entry. Winners receive a marketing toolkit that offers tips for building brand recognition, boosting customer acquisition and retention, and generating publicity and trade attention. Winners also have access to pre-printed bottle stickers; medallion artwork to use in print, internet and social media promotions; discounted point-of-sale promotional materials; and participation in tasting events that provide exposure to target markets. For more information, visit www.sfwinecomp.com

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition

  Now in its nineteenth year, Rodeo Uncorked! highlights wine production in agriculture. The event sets itself apart for two reasons: Judging is based on a double-blind procedure, and it is audited onsite by PricewaterhouseCoopers, ensuring the highest integrity. This year’s competition featured 2,862 entries from 17 countries, including 480 wineries from Texas and several hundred entries from this year’s featured region, Washington State.

  Judges for the three-day event include local, national and international representatives from the supplier, wholesale, retail and restaurant branches of the wine trade, as well as members of the press and a select group of knowledgeable local consumers. Winners of the top 13 awards receive custom, hand-tooled leather trophy saddles. Class and Reserve Class Champions are awarded custom belt buckles. All winners have access to high-resolution formats for point of sale materials, including digital medals for online and print marketing and printed bottle stickers.

  The cost to enter the competition is $60 per bottle for early bird entry, along with five bottles of wine per entry. After the show, winners of the top award have an opportunity to participate in three wine-related fundraising events for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. They include Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup & Best Bites Competition, where 400-500 award-winning wines are served with gourmet foods from top Houston restaurants to over 5,000 attendees; the Champion Wine Auction & Dinner, rated by Wine Spectator Magazine as one of the top five wine auctions in the country; and Rodeo Uncorked! Champion Wine Garden, which offers winning wines for sale during the annual Rodeo in March. Every year, these events generate approximately $6 million charitable dollars to support Rodeo’s mission. For more information on the competition, visit www.rodeohouston.com/wine

What competitions should you enter?

  If brand building is key to your marketing strategy, look at each competition and consider the exposure you will receive as a participant or winner in the event. Also, look at the reliability of judging as a benchmark against your peers, access to digital marketing materials to promote your brand, options for participation in consumer events and cost of entries and bottles versus benefits offered by your entry.

  “The purpose of wine competitions is to advance the brand,” said Paul V. Bonarrigo, co-founder of Messina Hof Wine Cellars, Inc. in Bryan, Texas, and winner of thousands of medals in local, national and international competitions. “Many established wineries that sell out each year do not enter competitions.”

  While some wine competitions may promote an increase in wine sales for winners, that may not be true for all events. “Years ago, wine competitions were tied to retail promotion,” Bonarrigo told The Grapevine Magazine. “When Messina Hof Angel late harvest riesling won a gold medal at the Dallas Morning News, the next week we sold 700 cases to retail in Dallas. Due to the sheer number of competitions, there is very little impact on retail sales today.”

  Bonarrigo, who has entered six competitions per year for the past five years, claims his success comes from building brand recognition. “Today, medals help to reinforce your fan base and can help promote new varieties and new wines. The People’s Choice Competition in Grapevine is an outstanding consumer participation competition. We have consistently won best of class in 75 to 100% of our entries. It has helped us secure a very loyal fan base in Dallas/Ft. Worth and especially in Grapevine.”

  Bonarrigo said he enters some shows simply because he supports and believes in the cause. “A great example,” he said, “is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Merrill (Bonariggo’s wife and co-founder) and I helped launch the competition.

  “We have won seven saddles—six for Best Texas Winery and one for Top Overall Winery. The Rodeo does a great job promoting the winners with a Grand Tasting and a Wine Auction. Messina Hof holds the record for the highest price paid for a Texas wine at the auction. Our Tawny Port fetched $105,000.”

Sponsorship

For the sponsors of wine competitions, the goal is to market their event to wineries. Jennifer Lindsay, director of the Rodeo Houston Wine Show, said, “We work with local distributors through our winery relations committee to reach out to their suppliers and encourage them to enter. We also offer incentives, such as exposure through the Roundup & Best Bites Competition, the Champion Wine Auction & Dinner and the Champion Wine Garden, ‘the biggest bar in Texas.’”

  Rodeo Uncorked! awards also generate interest in the event. “Our top awards are very unique,” Lindsay told The Grapevine Magazine. “When people see the saddles and buckles in tasting rooms around the world, the word gets around and helps grow our competition internationally.”

  In the world of wine competitions, there is something for everyone. Besides national, international, regional and local shows, wineries can enter competitions that feature women winemakers or specific typologies or varieties. There’s even a competition that judges wines alongside other wines in their particular terroir—the Grand Harvest Awards in California. New classes are continually added: canned and flavored wines, saké and even CBT-infused wines are making their way into wine shows. Whatever your interest, there may be a competition for you.

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