Race to the Bottom

Paul Blow

Two Buck Chuck, best California Chardonnay. That’s right: The 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay got a double-gold rating, plus “Best of California” and “Best of Class,” at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in Sacramento a few weeks ago.

The wine retails at Trader Joe’s for $1.99 (in California; it may be more elsewhere). The story made headlines across the country and in the blogosphere, where one heavyweight critic, James Laube of Wine Spectator, weighed in (registration required): “Glad I was sitting down,” he said, when he heard the news.

Other reactions treated Charles Shaw as the Carl Lewis of the wine world, triumphing over adversity (“Low-Price Wine Brings Home Gold” and “A Blow to Wine Snobs”). But this is less a story about the quality of $1.99 wine and more about the incredible mediocrity of wine competitions.

The operating scheme of wine competitions is more akin to the “every child is a winner” approach to child rearing than to the Olympics. Wines are rated on a four-point scale. Theoretically, it’s possible that every wine in the competition could win a gold medal. (Three years ago, Charles Shaw Shiraz won a double gold in an East Coast competition, though not “Best of Class.”) Wineries pay an entry fee; in the case of the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition it’s $45 (others charge as much as $75). These competitions make money.

The judges can’t be blamed for the mediocrity (and I say that as someone who judges one or two competitions a year). They must pass a qualification exam and are some of the most experienced tasters in the state, people like Dr. Richard Peterson. In fact, the main reason I continue to judge in these competitions is the quality of the judges and the ability to rub elbows with professionals I respect.

No, the problem in these competitions is that a diverse group of people often has such wildly different views, opinions, and aesthetics that the outcome tends to lean toward the lowest common denominator.

Because so many wines are submitted, the 50 or so judges are divided into panels of three or four. Each panel sees between 125 and 200 wines a day. Most of the wines are dismissed with no medal. But still, even if there’s one wine that one judge finds gold-worthy, another judge may not share his or her taste, and the wine will get a bronze or silver. It’s all about compromise. Wines that are deemed double gold by an individual panel can be sent to the sweepstakes round, where they are evaluated by all the judges in a giant taste-off.

The field gathered at these competitions is not always so great either. Wines that get high scores from critics or have their own buzz have no need to enter a cattle-call competition. The vast majority of wines entered hope to receive a respectable medal to help market a wine that might otherwise be difficult to sell. The ultimate prize is to hit a home run, like Two Buck Chuck. While there are many, many winemakers who will hold up this result and question whether they will submit their $25 Chardonnay to this competition again, there are even more who are waving their fists in the air and saying, “Next year that could be our cheap wine getting the headlines.”

When I see a wine advertising that it won a medal in a major competition, what it really tells me is that the wine probably doesn’t have any major flaws. It will probably be an adequate, if uninteresting, table wine. And that is exactly how Tina Caputo, managing editor for the trade publication Wines & Vines, found the Charles Shaw, writing on her blog that it was “soft, not-at-all oaky (a bonus in my book) and generally inoffensive. I wouldn’t say it’s a great wine (not enough complexity there), but it’s simple, balanced and easy to drink. What more could you ask from a $1.99 wine?”

Indeed. Not a condemnation, nor a thrilling recommendation. Yet that’s what amounts to the “best” when the top wine tasters in the industry get together.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.