Wine Competitions and the Ethical Conundrum

winejudgingAt a wine competition the award that every winery wants to win is the “Sweepstakes” Award. Sometimes it is called the “Chairman’s Award. In short, these awards are given to the single best red, white, rose, sparkling and dessert wine. Many red wines may get a gold or even a “double gold” award, but only one is awarded the “Sweepstakes Red” Award.

Sweepstakes Awards are determined by all the judges at the competition on the basis of a vote. Throughout the competition, individual panels will “send up” a wine to be tasted by the entire group of judges at the end of the competition and considered for the Sweepstakes Award. Most often these wines have already been awarded Double Gold awards by panels. Occasionally, they are simply Gold medal winners that have not been deemed Gold Medal wines by all four judges, but perhaps just three. It’s rare that two wines from the same category (say, “2013 Chardonnays” or “Semi Sweet Rosé produced from Hybrids”) are sent up by a panel for consideration.

The last thing the judges do at the competition is taste all wines sent up in the five broad categories (Red, White, Sparkling, Rose, Dessert), then vote for the wine in each of those categories they believe deserves to earn the Sweepstakes Award.

Recently, at the Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition, myself and my panel of three other judges were confronted with a thorny issue that doesn’t arise too often for competition judges. In judging a set of dessert wines in the “Ice Wine” category, our panel awarded “Double Gold” medals to two different wines. That means each were judged to be Gold Medal wines by every judge on the panel and that they were the same type of wines.

Both were produced from hybrids. Both were luscious wines, richly textured, laden with just the right amount of acid, and layered with sweet complexity. Here’s the thing…knowing that there would likely be only 5 or 6 dessert wines submitted by the entire group of judges for consideration in Dessert Sweepstakes category, it was highly like that if we “sent up” both these wines for consideration, their similarity would result in some judges voting for one of these wines as the sweepstakes winner and another set of judges would vote for the other similar wine as the Sweepstakes winner. If we only sent up one of them, it was likely that those judges that would have voted for one or the other would vote the single ice wine we sent up.

In other words, if we sent up both wines for consideration, it would guarantee neither would win because the vote would be split.

As a panel, we debated the prospects. Both deserved to be sent up for consideration by the entire group of judges. But, being sent up for consideration doesn’t deliver any additional prestige to the wines beyond their current Double Gold status. We had to ask ourselves, do we send up each to be considered just as they normally and should be or instead should we choose just one to be considered and thereby given a very good chance of winning the Sweepstakes Award?

As a panel, we opted for the later option, hoping to give one of the wines the very good chance to bring home the Sweepstakes award. But which one?

Here’s the thing, the only thing we knew about the wines was their place of origin, varietal, residual sugar level and alcohol level. Since consumers don’t care much about levels of residual sugar nor about alcohol levels (they were similar anyway), we had to ask ourselves do we decide on which wine to send up based on which region we wanted to provide a little boost of prestige by giving it the chance to have one of its wines win a “Sweepstakes” award at a well-regarded competition?

This is tricky because judges are not supposed to make judgements about a wine based on where the wines come from. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t need to taste all the wine, but rather just look at the appellation of the wines and only judge those from regions we want to give a boost in prestige. That of course is as unethical as it gets and simply isn’t done.

In the end, my recommendation on which wine to send up was based on largely on the region it came from. I could have flipped a coin. I can’t say how my fellow panelists landed on the same wine I did, but we only sent up one.

In the end, this was one of those very rare occasions when I undertook to make a judgement about a wine based on my desire to see a particular part of the wine industry get a boost up.

Was this wrong? Unethical?

What’s interesting is that in the end, when all the judges at the competition voted for their favorite dessert wine, the one we sent up was beat out by the slimmest of margins by…wait for it…a lemoncello. ::::Sigh::::

Despite the defeat, the ethical question remains. The absolutely ethical thing to do would have been to send up both wines, rendering them both completely unable to have a chance at winning a Sweepstakes. This strikes me as weird

8 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - July 20, 2015

    The answer to a question of ethics is inherent in the asking.

    In any case, seems to me there is a better way to handle the so-called Sweepstakes Award, which is known by many names (in NY it’s called the Governor’s Cup), That better way is to send up unanimous winners and top winners in each category.

    No wine should be excluded because of any judges prejudice or desire. It is interesting, however, that an ethical situation strikes you as weird.

  2. Dwight Furrow - July 20, 2015

    “The absolutely ethical thing to do would have been to send up both wines, rendering them both completely unable to have a chance at winning a Sweepstakes. This strikes me as weird”.

    It is weird. Certainly the consequences of an action must be one factor in determining whether an action is ethical or not..It is not obvious that sending up both wines would have been the “absolutely” right thing to do since the consequences of doing so would have been bad. From an ethical point of view wine competitions must judge wines based only on their merits and that requires a fair procedure to arrive at conclusions. Flipping a coin is a fair procedure. Since both wines were equally meritorious I think I would have flipped a coin.

  3. Blake Gray - July 20, 2015

    You are totally overthinking a minor regional wine competition. If you want to worry about ethics, ask the organizers to have judges taste less than 100 wines a day.

    • Thomas Pellechia - July 20, 2015

      Right on.

  4. David Vergari - July 20, 2015

    To: All Readers
    From: David Vergari
    Re: BG Post

    Do NOT reply, Mr. Foster. This applies to everyone else too!!!

  5. Tom Wark - July 20, 2015


    I’d have to go back and count, but I’m pretty sure it was just under 100 wines per day. That said, the issue of how many wines judges taste is an important one. One thing to note is that it is possible to effectively evaluate more than 100 in a day IF you are evaluating certain kinds of wines. Not so easy with other types of wines.

  6. Mark Fisher - July 20, 2015

    Yep, you’re overthinking the bejeezis out of that one, Tom. Why should members of a panel angle to get one of “their” wines into a position to have a better shot at the Sweepstakes award? That’s not the panel’s charge, and it certainly shouldn’t enter into its deliberations. Send ’em both up, and move onto the next flight.

  7. Bob Henry - July 20, 2015


    I have served as a California county fair judge, assessing “Central Coast” wines.

    So let me turn to you and ask:

    Was there no precedent for this “Double Gold” medal tie?

    Was there no protocol for the judges to follow?

    I would surmise that some of your fellow Long Beach judges have served at multiple competitions. In the experience of those judges in the room, what were the protocols followed at those other competitions?

    The organizers should have anticipated that situation, and provided you with proper guidance. You shouldn’t have to have improvised in the moment.


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