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17/11/2006

Why any old plonk can be a prize winner today

For the wine buyer confronted by shelves of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc, they provide an invaluable guide to the supposed bets buys. But the awards displayed in shops lauding their wines often do little more than dupe the customer, experts say.

The medals handed out in their thousands every year are a money-making ploy for the industry, according to a leading oenophile.

Martin Isark, a wine taster and writer, told The Times that wine competition gongs were being used to sell unsold stocks of ‘plonk’, while the best vintages do not allow their labels to be tainted by such industry baubles.

Several of the top wine competitions hand out several thousand types of award, rendering most accolades absolutely worthless, he said, adding that his view was shared by many experts. He said: “Who is benefiting from these awards? It has to be the wine houses who clear their stocks, the supermarkets who can drum up sales from promotions, and the companies which organise the competition. I am not convinced the consumer gets anything out of it.”

To support his case he examined two leading British competitions: the International Wine Challenge, organised by William Reed Publishing, and the Decanter World Wine Awards, organised by IPC magazines.

This year there were 9,081 entries for the international challenge , of which 5,792 won a prize. The competition entrance-fee is a price for an award that can be used to boost sales. Awards are mentioned on labels or used in sales promotions.

Similarly there were 6,3000 entries for the Decanter awards this year and 3,645 pick up an award.

Shoppers are attracted to the prizewinners and when Tesco won the best non-vintage Champagne category at last year’s international challenge, for example sales rose 600%. But the consumers may not realise that competitions are also money-spinners of the organizers. Isark says “Why do competitions give out so many medals? It is because it encourages wine houses, agents and retailers to enter their drinks and the more entries the more money for the organizers. But it is not likely to be any of the great wines or spirits on our retailers’ shelves, for these fine wines sell on their own merit.”

The awards were also confusing, Isark claims, because the same wine can win different grades in different competitions. If a wine is really good, it should consistently get the best marks.

“My advice to consumers is to ignore these awards and medals and instead buy a book or read a regular wine writer.

Rosemary George, Master of Wine, said the competitions should not be taken too seriously.

“Tasting wine with a producer or in a different environment can and will result in different scores. It can be the difference between getting a medal or not, the wine and the tasters have their good and bad days.”

She accepted that competitions gave good publicity to wine and prizes were a useful marketing tool, especially for new producers.

Valerie Elliot reports in The Times.