Last week, Alder Yarrow of Vinography posted a blog about wine competitions: Wine Competitions are One Big Racket.

Because Alder’s not in the wine business, and has never had to market wine in this very competitive business, there’s no way that he – or anyone else from the outside – could possibly understand the challenges that wine marketers must daily face. I’m not trivializing Alder’s role as a wine blogger. He’s definitely on a fast track to learning about this business from his passion for it.

So he threw some spaghetti against the wall to see if it would stick; in my opinion, it didn’t.

The wine business, unlike – say – the peanut butter industry where there are only about 10 other competing brands, is a fiercely competitive business… Hence wine “competitions” are a necessity to the competitiveness of it all.

Every single advantage that a wine can have it needs, for:

  • story line development
  • foot in the door against all odds
  • way to have a third party endorse the wine, for those who need to have others taste it first and get back to them with their thoughts

Now we have a new wine competition; and, I, who have to evaluate each competition’s relevance for the possible benefit of clients, have to go through the same mental gyrations of evaluating the competition’s importance for the client… Turn about fair play that is yet another layer of this entire process.

Appellation America has launched a competition so different, so analytical, so dealing with definitive minutia that this one may be the one to mark a new methodology for all evaluations.

As you can imagine, Appellation America is defining appellational characteristics, not only how the wine performs as a wine, but also with varietal benchmarks and expectations. If benchmarks are yet to be established for a region, then Appellation America is taking that on. Appellation America’s wine judging is geared toward tasting the flavors of each distinct, appellation’s terroir, in order to begin to understand the AVA’s uniqueness… No small task.

Sound like a bunch of gobbledy-gook? It’s not.

I spent a day with Appellation America to begin the process of defining Suisun Valley’s terrior flavor profiles for their wines, as that relates to all things which make up Suisun Valley’s terroir. I’m here to tell you how analytical and laborious the process was. Only 50 separate wines were tasted in a total of five flights.

It began at 9:00 a.m., and ended somewhere near 5:00 p.m. That’s about nine minutes per wine, with less than an hour for lunch. Think about that… Nine minutes to taste, evaluate, talk about, evaluate again, then give it a gold or silver medal, if the wine was award worthy, and not all were at this time.

The Judges and their credentials (image is above what they do for work):

Larry Langbehn: Graduate of UC Davis, with a degree in chemistry and advanced coursework in winemaking, consulting winemaker for Ledgewood Creek of Suisun Valley, as well as Napa and Sonoma wineries. Larry worked at Freemark Abbey years ago. (Each panel must have one distinguished person from that region, in order to quality the wine.)

Clark Smith: left M.I.T. in 1971, and has been in the California wine industry ever since. After graduating U.C. Davis in 1983, he became the founding winemaker for the R.H. Phillips Vineyard, taking it from 3,000 cases per year to 250,000. In 1990, he began WineSmith Consulting, and in 1992, patented VA reduction and alcohol adjustment applications of reverse osmosis and, with Rick Jones, established Vinovation to commercialize them. Clark leads Vinovation’s efforts to support winery clients in optimum use of their technologies and to develop new tools and products to address their needs. Clark served as President of the Trellis Alliance (wine industry support group for the Dept of Vit & Eno at Davis), instructs at Napa Valley College, U.C. Davis Extension, Fresno State University, and Missouri State University on Wine Chemistry Fundamentals, serves as a wine judge, and regularly contributes technical articles to trade periodicals and scientific journals. His research contributions to winemaking include night harvesting, strategies to minimize sulfites, control of Brettanomyces, cork aroma taint, and vineyard effects on wine quality. Clark is also the winemaker for Grapecraft Wines. Clark also writes his Grape Crafter blog.

Dan Berger, Vintage Experiences, is a wine writer syndicated nationally, and a judge at many wine competitions, including numerous shows in Australia, as well as competitions in Slovenia, Belgium and across the United States, judging in at least a dozen competitions each year. He also coordinates California’s Riverside International Wine Competition and the Grand Cru Wine Competition of Long Beach.

Roger Dial, Publisher for Along with son Adam Dial is the co-founder of Appellation America Inc. As a pioneering proprietor, he operated wineries on both the Pacific and Atlantic frontiers. As a winegrower he has cultivated most of the old world varieties and championed many new ones. As a winemaker he assembled a respectable collection of gold medals from the most challenging North American and European competitions. As a wine writer he “produced a substantial canon of scribblings, occasionally rising above the trivial and timely to inquiries aimed to effect more than good humor. As a wine educator his pedagogical line has remained consistently Hellenistic…it’s not “about” wine, it’s about humanity, and what this unique elixir does to compensate for the incomplete civility of our kind.” (Quoted from the Appellation America Website)

Roger King, wine grape grower, producer of King Andrews wine, and President of Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association, was present to shed light upon which quardrant of Suisun Valley (southeast, southwest, central, or northwestern) the grapes were crafted into wine – but NEVER – said which brand the panel was tasting.

The submission of variables that were regarded and analyzed – only after – the wine was awarded a medal:

  • Terroir (vineyard elevations, soils, seasonal variables)
  • Viticulture (philosophy, rootstock, water management, etc) – I’m not going to totally give away their process, because it’s their intellectual property, but you get the point.
  • Vinification (harvest, must, fermentation, cellar management, etc.)

This far exceed the UC Davis method of tasting. It exceeds anything I’ve witnessed in my short 15 years in this business; and, I have to thank Dan Berger and Juliann Savage for gifting me a Riverside Wine Competition experience in 2007, in order to fully understand a wine competition’s entire process for that particular week.

So, before anyone decides to launch another wine competition (to make Alder’s expected beaucoup bucks), I suggest you work with a few people to grasp the complexity of this process. I once read something that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, and I must paraphrase, because I didn’t write it down at the time: In order to fully understand the complexity of a job, one must start at the bottom.

Making assumptions outside of a business is easy. Making it happen successfully from within, takes knowledge, experience, resources, and inventing the right formula for succeess. I don’t know anyone totally rich from the process, yet; however, I do applaud what Appellation America is doing, because it’s not a new competition in order for the creators to line their pockets. It’s a new competition to begin to finally define terroir in the US from a core group of educated palates and wines being presented for evaluation. In these images, we don’t see anyone money hungry, but their thirst for knowledge is quite apparent, n’est pas?