Challenges for Australian wine shows

The ACI Australian Wine Show, conducted at NATEX last month, highlighted dilemmas faced by wine show committees Australia wide. Problems stem from a combination of a dramatically changed role of wine shows, the sheer numbers of wines being entered, and the absence of many top makers’ wines from some of the more important classes.

We should remember that Wine Shows are controlled by Agricultural Societies. They originally provided a far less technically competent industry than we know today with expert opinion. Shows were a source not just of awards but of sound technical advice for makers.

The growth of the market, and with it technical competency, means winemakers, mostly with batchelor-of-science degrees in oenology, need little advice from peers on the show-judging circuit. What they like to see is how their own wines scrub up against those of competitors across the continent.

But the biggest beneficiaries of show successes are owners of Gold and Trophy-winning labels and, in a broad sense, an often bewildered consumer looking for reliable, unbiased endorsement of the best wines.

The poser for Wine Show Committees is to create conditions that allow judges to deliver valid results to the consumer. In theory, under perfect conditions, results from any show would be exactly reproducible at another.

That never happens, of course. Odd wines pop up for golds show after show, but there seems little correlation of results from one event to the next – even with the same judges operating. Not only that but class definitions vary so much amongst shows as to virtually guarantee little continuity and, hence, great confusion for consumers over what the various classes mean.

Recognizing commercial benefits of winning show awards, a healthy rivalry exists amongst shows. The better ones, notably Adelaide and Canberra, strive for credibility and the prestige that goes with it (prestige seems the only reward organisers get).

Thus, Canberra accepts only wines already bottled. The organisers back this up with random winery and retail checks to ensure wines entered are the same as those available to the public. This overcomes the type of farce we see, for example, in Melbourne’s Jimmy Watson Trophy: quite simply the one year old barrel samples tasted by judges are not the finished wine the consumer sees several years after the event.

Adelaide introduced price categories (under and over $10) in many of its classes this year. This recognises the reality of the market place and the fact that for judging results to have any meaning, like must be compared with like.

Even in comparing like wines, I believe results grow less reliable in direct proportion to the size of the class. If the relative merits of all wines in a class were accurately pegged by judges, then, in theory, we could reshuffle the wines into a different order, recall the judges the next day, and the results would be same.

In truth, the results would not be exactly the same. Which is why when I look at the sheer size of some classes in Canberra, I wonder at the results. Class 18 featured 115 1991 and older Chardonnays; class 26 120 1990 and older Cabernets; and Class 38 85 1990 and older chardonnays. Nobody is good enough to meaningfully grade that many wines in one hit.

Perhaps the solution is to have smaller classes, divided by grape variety as well as price. Looking at Canberra’s Class 26 (115 1990 and older cabernets) the judges awarded points out of 20 to reds ranging in price from $6 to $30 a bottle and covering virtually the whole gamet of styles made in Australia and New Zealand. If we are to believe the judges, then a $10 Leasingham Cabernet Malbec 1990 (51 points) is better than a $30 Penfolds Bin 707 1989 (39 points). Nonsense! The whole class glares with anomalies and makes a poor form guide.

The sort of error that puts a very good cheap wine ahead of a clearly better dearer wines is common. But more often it’s the other way round as expensive wines win ‘cheap’ gold medals when they’re pitted against low priced products.

While our wine shows need overhauling to maintain credility for the consumer (and it may mean we end up with a string of regional shows and only one major national one), their value is immense in keeping our wines in the glare of public scrutiny.

Still, most wines continue to be bought for reasons other than a medal count. And, by the only objective measure we have of wine quality – auction prices – twenty of the thirty four wines identified by Langton’s Auctioneers as fetching the best prices seldom or never win medals.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007