Wine, beer, and liquor awards
Hustles, lazy marketing, or occasionally legit?
Lenn Thompson from the New York Cork Report
Photo of Lenn Thompson by Mikhail Lipyanskiy
Recommended award programs:
New York World Wine & Spirits Competition
New York Wine & Food Classic/Governor’s Cup
New York International Wine Competition
New York State Craft Beer Competition/Governor’s Excelsior Cup
TAP New York Craft Beer Awards
New York World Wine & Spirits Competition
New York International Spirits Competition
Whether you’re navigating the aisles of a megaplex liquor store with a shopping cart full o’ booze or stopping into your favorite boutique wine store for a single bottle to enjoy with dinner, selecting what you’ll take home is never easy. Which may be why so many Americans shop for alcoholic beverages based on price, brand name, packaging, or all three. If you don’t have a relationship with a salesperson or the store’s owner, someone who understands the product and your taste preferences (a situation I highly recommend sorting out for yourself), what other criteria could you employ to differentiate between the myriad varieties of vodka, Nebbiolo, or saison available?
The only thing a consumer can rely on is reviews, or—because most of us don’t read reviews or even have a wine or spirits reviewer whom we trust—ratings and awards, informative marketing that’s often found on both labels and shelves. From “staff picks” to Robert Parker and Wine Spectator scores, from Imbibe Magazine’s Spirited Awards to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, from the Golden Tap Awards to the Pensacola Canned Beer Awards (OK, I made that one up), there are dozens—nay, hundreds—of competitions and awards for alcoholic beverages on a regional, national, and global scale held every year. Hosted by publications, guilds, festivals, or associations, some appear more credible than others. But for every competition, respected or otherwise, you don’t have to look far to find a former participant or industry pro who will cast aspersions on the motive, process, or facilitators attached to each and every one.
As a former food editor, sorting through the constant influx of press releases announcing winners for local and national awards became a harrowing task. In 2017 alone, newyorkwines.org lists over thirty possible wine competitions. With a focus on legitimacy and assisting consumers, it was always challenging to locate information about the judges, criteria, or any compromises that might exist based on the awards’ organizer and its agenda. When trying to make comparisons across the board, who’s to say that the winner of a double gold at the New York State Governor’s Cup is better than a wine that took the bronze at the New York Wine & Food Classic? I mean, what even is double gold? In many instances, I found that not even the professionals who had submitted their beverage to various competitions for judging could answer these questions.
Asking professionals to speak on or off the record, I found equal amounts of enthusiasm and disgust for awards within the beer, wine, and spirits industry. Each professional speaks from their unique experience and prejudice, so finding a single illuminating answer is impossible. Over the course of three months, I interviewed several distillers, a bunch of winemakers, and a handful of brewers. Some were owners, others just workers. Additionally, a few professionals who work in adjacent industries had strong opinions as well.
Only a few people wanted to speak on the record—an interesting commentary in and of itself—and I’ve included their names below when applicable.
Lenn Thompson, owner of the Cork Report for the last fifteen years and a freelance wine critic whose articles have appeared in Wine Enthusiast and Beverage Media, was happy to speak with me openly. He recognizes that winning awards makes good sense for wineries, but that isn’t particularly helpful for wine drinkers.
“I think [awards] are legit if you can use the medals you win to sell wine,” says Thompson. “That’s the goal, and wine competitions do that. Pay your fee, send a couple bottles of wine, and get a medal back. Then use that medal to sell more wine, because it "proves" your wine is good. It’s not complicated. It’s easy—if lazy—marketing.
“From the consumer point of view, I think it’s much more problematic. If you walk into a winery and hear about a wine that just won a gold medal, you really have no idea: no idea if it really did, no idea who judged the competition, no idea how many dozens of other wines also won gold. Best wines are winning platinum medals now, so gold isn’t even the top level. Is anyone going to know that? A winery certainly isn’t going to let you know they didn’t win platinum in those cases.”
A distiller who preferred to speak anonymously chimes in, “There are tons and tons of awards, many are bullshit revenue vehicles for small publications or festivals. It costs a couple hundred bucks to enter and, when you win, they sell you the licensing rights to use the ’seal of approval’ from the event in your marketing. They have a financial incentive to give out as many awards as possible.
“Ever wonder why huge brands that make garbage products win some of the top awards annually? A $10–20 thousand advertising contract with any of the periodicals attached to the competition pretty much guarantees you top medals; I’ve even heard this to be negotiable. That said, you can also win if you have a really good product and don’t pay.”
One brewer spoke at length with me about the judging process. Even organizations trying to do things right weren’t necessarily hitting the mark, he contends, stating, “I don’t believe [redacted organization] awards are fully blind, and they’re not judged based on style, just the subjective preferences of the judges who are beer enthusiasts and knowledgeable, but not necessarily objective.”
Brian McKenzie, the president of Finger Lakes Distilling wrote to me via email: “I’ve been part of competitions where there are judges who also have interest in the products being tasted. I don’t think that is proper. [A legitimate competition would include] double-blind tasting, no bias among judges, and all judges should taste all products (I’ve seen situations where they split products up first and then have subsequent rounds of judging).”
But Thompson, known for his outspoken manner, disagrees, “I’ve judged competitions, and I know a lot of people who do. I completely trust that they did their best job tasting wines and deciding which wines are the best of what is in front of them. It’s hard, exhausting work, really it is. I think the entire system is broken. We don’t need to award wines in this way. We don’t buy gold medal-winning porterhouse steaks. You have no idea what style of wine a judge at a competition prefers. I’ve scored wines "no medal" that other judges have scored double gold. It happens at every single wine competition at every single table.”
Zack Klug, the winemaker at Liten Buffel, a newly launched natural winery in Middleport, suggests that awards should always include “judges who are not anonymous and who have the credibility to be a wine judge. Clearly defined quality metrics. A set number of gold, silver, bronze awards per number of applicants—including some applicants who receive no reward. Maybe offer a participation trophy instead of giving everyone who didn’t make the cut a bronze.”
I found this to be an oft-repeated sentiment among wine professionals: competitions awarding bronze (or other low-level awards) to every single entrant regardless of quality. “The judges don’t necessarily know anything,” an unnamed distiller says. “Read through the judges’ lists on some of these things. Sometimes it’s just people who have Instagram accounts with big followings.”
So, if advertisers influence awards in publications large and small, and organizers have a financial incentive, and the winery-, brewery-, and distillery-participants can guarantee higher sales with any kind of award noted on their product’s packaging, regardless of its legitimacy, who is looking out for consumers?
“I’m absolutely biased because I’m a writer and critic,” says Thompson, “but I think if you get to know the palate of a few people you trust, that’s a far better way to buy wine.
With a little effort, you can easily figure out if a writer likes what you like. The only solution to this problem is better-educated, more confident wine drinkers who trust their palates instead of a panel of unknown and unseen wine judges from halfway around the world.”
“Look for authenticity,” McKenzie urges. “Don’t buy into marketing hype. A lot of these ’craft’ products are being manufactured on an industrial scale. I don’t want to bad-mouth the products because, in many cases, they are perfectly good spirits. That being said, they shouldn’t be passed off as small-batch spirits. Do the research and ask questions as to where your beverages are coming from.”
In the end, the whole house of cards may cave in on itself. One distiller notes, “The more award competitions there are dilutes the value of the most competitive medals. As a distiller, if you enter enough competitions, you will find your gold medal. It may just come from the 2017 Central New York Backyard BBQ Spirit Tasting and Beer Pong Competition. The average consumer (and the average liquor store owner) doesn’t know the difference between any of these competitions. So, if you win big as a distiller, you don’t get the celebration you should.”
Could the largest and most capable members of the industry demand change by refusing to enter competitions at all? Since sales are at stake, that’s unlikely. Thompson explains, “In New York, there are myriad examples of the Governor’s Cup-winning wine selling out almost immediately. If your Niagara Escarpment Pinot Noir wins best red in the state, it’s going to sell faster than if it hadn’t. We can talk about the romantic notions around owning a winery all we want, but if the wine doesn’t sell, the winery may not survive.”
In the meantime, an ad-hoc and very unscientific poll conducted during the interviews with wine-, beer-, and spirits-makers for this article resulted in a list of recommended NYS awards for wine, beer, and spirits considered (at least relatively) legitimate by our panel. Perhaps you can use the winners to make choices the next time you visit a local liquor, wine, or beer purveyor.
Christa Glennie Seychew is the former food editor of Buffalo Spree.