The U.S. Open of Wine?

Tiger This week the U.S. Open, America's most important golf tournament, will have the attention of sports writers, Tiger-watchers and golf lovers the world over. It's a big tournament and it always has been. Despite the existence of the Fed Ex cup, which is suppose to produce something like the final results for best golfer of the year, I think it's safe to say that winning the U.S. Open produces the greatest prestige for a golfer. Folks will be glued to their TV this weekend watching the U.S. Open.

So, where is the competition that would produce America's #1 wine?

There are many wine competitions across the country that judge single varieties, wines of a particular region, that associate themselves with state fairs, and those that have specific sorts of wine people doing the judging. But in my 20 years of working in the wine industry, there has never been any wine competition anywhere that was acknowledged as the most prestigious.

In a way, I think this circumstance is odd. Given that a competitive tasting between French and American wines back in the 1970s put American wine on the map, you'd think this alone would have provided the impetus to create something like a national competition that would be like the U.S. Open, America's most prestigious judging. But it didn't. It helped lead to a proliferation of competitions, none of which became the most important.

Wine Competitions are somewhat controversial within the industry. There are many philosophies as to how they ought to be run and what their results mean. For one, many of the most famous artisan wineries don't submit their wines for judging for the simple reason that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose be permitting the possibility that other much less expensive and lesser appreciated wines will wind up besting them. If I make a Syrah that consistently sells  out on release and I get $60 for it, why would I even consider putting it in a competition where a $30 Syrah might best it?

There is also the inherent difficulty for the judges. Judging 200+ chardonnays in a sitting is a very difficult thing to do. At some point, many judges simply start reacting to the most expansive, biggest, palate smacking wines that come in front of them. Is that positive?

Still, I think that  if it could be created, a national championship of wine would be a fun thing. I'm not sure it would be a good thing for the American wine consumer or the American wine industry, but it would be exciting if it could be organized and appreciated as a sort of national championship.

On the other hand, it wouldn't make for great TV.

19 Responses

  1. Gary "Iron" Chevsky - June 19, 2009

    Oooh, a controversial topic for sure. You are right – it seems there is too much commercial interests against this. This type of contest only works for the undergod (as in 1976 Judgment of Paris). The closest we have to a wine contest is Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year. I would be happy with a French-style 1855 Bordeaux-type classification or a Burgundy classification. Anything would be better than the current pseudo-individualistic culture, where it seems that every winery in Napa feels like it has to charge $50+ for their house wine.

  2. Morton Leslie - June 19, 2009

    For a brief moment in time in the mid 70’s Robert Balzer’s Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine annual winemaker tasting for the Cabernet and Chardonnay may have approached “most prestigious.” I remember how Mondavi was struggling to stay afloat and then in a blind tasting 30 or so California winemakers decided Bob’s ’69 Cabernet was the best Cab in America. The lore is that the wine sold out immediately and enabled him to buy out the Ranier’s interest.

  3. Steve Heimoff - June 19, 2009

    Tom, you listed so many good arguments against these kinds of competitions, I was surprised when you came out in favor of one! By the way, I loved Gary “Iron” Chevsky’s “undergod” typo!

  4. fredfric koeppel - June 19, 2009

    watching a wine tasting contest on TV would be akin to watching a chess match; big snore. but more to the point, wine competitions are inherently flawed, in my experience judging in several different ones. First, wines that are flashy and fruit-forward wine the awards; serious wines don’t stand a chance. Second, every competition in which i have judged allowed the judges on each panel to discuss the gold, silver and bronze winners and negotiate among themselves for the standings, in other words, “I’ll go up to silver on this one if you will.” Third, they give out WAY too many awards. i judged at a regional competition (in the Northwest) once and the man who ran the show actually got the judges together on the second morning and said, “I’m not seeing enough gold medals.” what kind of “victory” is it, anyway, to win a so-called “double-gold” as best cabernet when the best producers don’t even enter the contest. they’re all a sham and a waste of time.

  5. Jack Everitt - June 19, 2009

    Wouldn’t a national Learn About Wine Day (or week) be like one millyun times more useful?
    We don’t need anymore more wine competitions.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - June 19, 2009

    Fredric must have read my recent blog entry at vinofictions.
    Tom, I think it would be better to have annual best winemaker competition. What to have them compete in is the question–certainly can’t do wine, as that takes a long time to finish. Maybe they can compete in picking out wine flaws, or better yet, in picking out their own wines.

  7. David Vergari - June 19, 2009

    Just my two-cents worth: I would like to see more Americans discovering wine and drinking it as part of their daily meal(s). Wishful thinking on my part? Education et al would seem to be the way to achieve this. Wine competitions have their place, but…

  8. Samantha - June 19, 2009

    I like Thomas’s idea, it could be like Top Chef! Top Winemaker complete with elimination challenges and instead of Glad product placement, they could feature different estates…I’m gonna send Bravo an email.

  9. Carol - June 19, 2009

    Why do people assume that wine competitions can’t be educational?

  10. Samantha - June 19, 2009

    Carol- I think we can all agree that they are very educational, and important but to pick “The Best” seems rather impossible considering we are talking about taste…ever ask someone what the best; sandwich, french fries, pasta dish or whatever is, and get everyone to agree? Just not sure it can be done.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - June 20, 2009

    Exactly. But ours is a culture of both competition and excess–perfect for making the ‘best of’ seem like it’s simultaneously possible and important.

  12. Scott - June 20, 2009

    How about we have one guy taste all the wines anyone is willing to send to him, and he can assign a score on a 100-point scale to all the wines tasted. The wine with the highest score is the Grand Champion!
    OK, never mind.

  13. Samantha - June 20, 2009

    I think you are dead on and the wines that tend to get those high scores are often excessive, least for my palate. Another problem with picking a “winner” is, the wine is the “Best” for….? I can just see people grabbing a bottle of Zinfandel, (which might win if it was all supple, rich and gooey, as they show well in tastings, drinkings is a whole nuther story) because it’s the best, to go with like oysters or something, foul, yuck and not the best….for that.

  14. Dylan - June 20, 2009

    You answered your own question in the post. The key problems are apparent. Unlike with any given sport, where there are rules and a physical evidence of a result, wine tastings are subjective by nature. No one looks at a putt on hole 14 and says, “it felt like that took 3 strokes.” It simply did or it didn’t. That said, I don’t see there being a logical reason for a judging that ranks beyond all others.
    I do, however, love Thomas’ idea about winemakers picking out their own wines.

  15. calaban - June 21, 2009

    Contests are a joke. I’ve received a double gold in one contest … and snubbed in the next. Wine is very subjective experience. As a judge once … you’ve tasted 15 wines … the 16th had better be HUGE to make an impression. But in the end… what else is there?

  16. mydailywine - June 21, 2009

    Make it so Tom. I agree that competitions can be controversial but consumers do want wine recommendations and those ‘shopping lists’ are one result of wine comps. One can debate the quality of these recommendations, but isn’t what we have been doing with the Parker affair recently?
    A recognized national competition would act as further validation that wine has arrived in the U.S.

  17. fredfric koeppel - June 22, 2009

    I really like Jack’s idea about a National Learn about Wine Day.What a great notion for restaurants, retail stores, distributors and importers to get behind. People could be encouraged to try a kind of wine they have never tried before. Restaurants and stores could set up tastings and special tasting menus with guides to talk about the wines. This sort of effort would go much farther in encouraging Americans to have a glass of wine with dinner than all the wine competitions put together.

  18. Ken Bernsohn - June 22, 2009

    The number One wine for what? To drink while enjoying fine dining at a restaurant, to go with a Gratuitous Violence film fest at home,
    when reading a regency romance or studying a book on China prior to 221 BCE when it became one country?
    That’s like “What’s your favorite color” without specifying whether it’s for a bathroom or a truck exterior. I believe there are a variety of number ones, depending on the occasion.

  19. Italian Guy - June 24, 2009

    Right, there can’t be an overall number 1 that suits any occasion, indeed even if you could narrow the setting down to the type of restaurant you were eating at and what kind of meal you had, it would completely depend on your mood.

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