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Medals can give a wine prestige, but the big test is if you like it

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The bling is everywhere in many winery tasting rooms. Colorful ribbons draped around bottlenecks, bronze, silver or gold athletic medals from a state, regional or even international competition. They’re noted on the tasting sheet next to the reserve wine, which is made in small batches – get it while you can, at a higher price.

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What do these medals tell us as consumers? At the very least, they show that several serious wine lovers who acted as judges considered these wines to be high quality wines. Wine competition judges typically come from within the industry – merchants, retailers, winemakers and writers. They may be master sommeliers, wine masters, or trained through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust or the American Wine Society.

I’ve heard several people dismiss competition medals as marketing gibberish. And the main point, of course, is marketing. Competitions provide recognition to wineries with medals, which wineries then use to attract consumers. But doing well in a competition can help cement the reputation of a little-known boutique winery.

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Mark and Maggie Malick, the couple behind Maggie Malick Wine Caves in Purcellville, Virginia, saw this effect a few years ago when their Tannat was named Best-in-Class at the 2017 San Francisco International Wine Competition. one of the most prestigious in the country. “Wine lovers will come to you specifically for this wine,” Mark Malick told me. “So wine competitions really bring consumers to our winery, as do points [on wine store shelf-talkers] influence wine purchasing decisions.”

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Doug Frost, who is a master sommelier and a master of wine, has a common perspective as a partner of Washington state’s Echolands Winery and as the organizer of the Jefferson Cup wine competition. Medals can help, but only up to a point, he said.

“How many do you really need?” Frost asked, sporting his winery hat. “It’s a financial decision whether or not you can get a marketing boost, and it’s also a waste of money.”

As the organizer of the Jefferson Cup competition, Frost hopes to draw attention to the growth of quality wines in the United States. “Wines from the better known American appellations provide a benchmark by which wines from the rest of America can be measured,” he explained. Competition results show that wines from Missouri, Michigan or Texas, for example, can coexist with more well-known labels from California.

State competitions such as the Governor’s Cup awards in Virginia, Maryland and other states have a similar goal of promoting native wines, albeit without benchmarks from more established states. The Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association holds an annual competition to highlight East Coast wines. Can you tell us “the best wines” in the federal state or region? No, because not every winery enters. But they show who’s among the best and can point us to new wineries we might want to explore.

The medal list for this year’s Virginia Governor’s Cup competition was released this month, and the cup winner will be announced at a public event in Richmond on February 23. I was a judge on this competition for several years, although I didn’t compete this year.

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The big knock against competitions is their resemblance to speed dating. Judges typically have multiple wines in a flight and must rate and rate them within seconds. That’s not how we normally enjoy our wines. The competition format is based on first impressions – albeit experienced ones – and favors bolder, larger wines over more subtle ones. Even the best wines can win a gold medal or best in class at one competition, but silver or bronze another day from a different jury.

So, with the wide variety of wines available to us, medals, like ratings, can be a guide to guide us towards quality wines. The final decision is of course up to you, the consumer.

“Use the competition results as a guide, but not an absolute value,” said Maggie Malick, who described herself as “very competitive” and lists her medal-winning wines on the winery’s website. “Trust your own taste buds. Medals may be boastfulness for the winemaker, but they mean nothing to you if you don’t like the product. You are the one buying it, so buy what you like.”

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