Marketing Matters


Wine Competitions That Help You Sell

October 2007
by Tina Caputo
Wine Competitions That Help You Sell

  • Winning gold medals in influential wine competitions can help boost sales and brand awareness for wineries of all sizes.
  • With dozens of competitions held around the country each year, wineries need to pick and choose the ones they decide to enter.
  • Entering wine competitions isn't about choosing the biggest or most famous contests, but about finding the ones that will help your winery achieve its goals.
Each year, dozens of regional, national and international wine competitions offer wineries the chance to win fame and fortune for their brands. Get a gold medal in an influential competition and your wine could soon be flying off store shelves. For many wineries, however, it's just not feasible--or even desirable--to enter more than a couple of competitions each year. With all the different contests out there, what's the best selection strategy?

According to wine writer and competition organizer Dan Berger, one of the most important criteria in evaluating wine competitions is the quality of the judges. Before agreeing to enter, he advises, be sure to check the competition's website for a list of participating judges. "They should be skilled tasters--professionals, not wine collectors," he says. "People who taste wine on a regular basis."

Berger serves as a judge in several wine competitions each year and runs the well-regarded Riverside International and Long Beach Grand Cru wine competitions. He also teaches an eight-week course on wine competitions at Santa Rosa Junior College, in Sonoma County, designed for event organizers and winery personnel. (For class dates, visit

Having organized wine competitions for many years, Berger emphasizes the importance of format. Blind tastings are a must, he says, and wines should not be divided into price categories.

"That sort of information is inappropriate," he says. "Both the high-priced panel and the low-priced panel are prejudiced against their own wines. If you know you're judging the low-priced wines, you say to yourself, 'Well, there can't be anything worth a gold in here.' If you're judging the $30-and-above wines, that panel's going say, 'I wouldn't pay $30 for any of this crap.' So the end result is that you get a smaller percentage of gold medals for both high- and low-priced wines."

Wine Competitions That Help You Sell
Wine writer, wine judge and competition organizer Dan Berger doesn't want to know the price range of the wines he's tasting, and prefers panels with even numbers.
The number of judges on each tasting panel can also influence the results of a competition. With an odd number of judges, a majority vote determines how the wines are scored. Berger believes this approach is problematic, and prefers to see an even number of judges on each panel.

"You impose this arbitrary rule that says that three people outvote two, when in fact the two represent 40% of your total votes," he explains. An even number "forces discussion" among panelists so they can reach some sort of agreement about the wine.

Berger acknowledges, however, that there are different schools of thought on the subject. Bob Fraser, who organizes the San Francisco Chronicle's wine competition and teaches the wine competitions course at the Santa Rosa JC along with Berger, prefers to have an odd number of judges on each panel, in order to avoid deadlock situations. "The problem with a four-person panel is that you don't have the swing vote," Fraser says. "There will always be discussion" regardless of the number of panelists.

Benefits for boutiques

Though some people view wine competitions as the domain of large-production brands, Berger points out that they can help boutique wineries make a name for themselves. "You may have a bronze-medal wine that manages to really impress one member of the panel," he says. "If that person happens to be Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee, or Laurie Daniel, or me, that person might go back home and write about their favorites from the competition. I find a lot of wines that way."

Bill Canihan, of Canihan Family Cellars (annual production: 600 cases), confirms Berger's assertion. Canihan's 2004 Estate Syrah--the winery's first vintage--won "Best in Show/Red" honors in this year's San Francisco International Wine Competition.

"I'm new at this, so I didn't really know which competitions to enter," Canihan says. "But looking at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, I saw that there were about 50 judges, and most of them had restaurant connections in San Francisco. My marketing strategy has been just going from restaurant to restaurant and selling the wine myself. So I thought that entering that competition might be a foot in the door for later in the summer when I go calling on those restaurants."

Wine Competitions That Help You Sell
Jim Trezise
Regional competitions

When evaluating wine competitions, regionally focused events should not be overlooked, notes Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation (NYWGF) and chairman of the New York Wine & Food Classic (held this year at Napa's Copia,).

"The regional competitions, to me, are a complement to the international ones like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Riverside," Trezise says. "Since (our competition) includes a larger range of New York wines than is usually entered in the international competitions, it really gives a good s napshot of who's doing the best job with certain types of wine in New York. It gives us a standard, and it obviously gives us a great shopping list that we can put on our website."

Bedell Cellars (production: 10,000 cases), located in Cutchogue, N.Y., has participated in the New York Wine & Food Classic since the competition began 21 years ago. In fact, it's the only competition that the winery enters.

Wine Competitions That Help You Sell
Trent Preszler
"I think it serves as a great benchmark for us, because we're tasted solely against other New York wines," says Bedell COO Trent Preszler. "It helps us see where we're at in the state with respect to our neighbors, and helps us understand what everyone else is doing in the industry. We think this is probably the most important competition."

When the winery scores well, Preszler says, the information becomes a valuable sales tool--both locally and nationally. "We're definitely going to promote it through our media contacts, but I think more importantly, we use that in our sales and distribution network. We get our distributors involved, we get our tasting room staff and wine club members involved, and it almost always results in increased sales--it's a big deal and people respond well to it."

John Martini, president of Anthony Road Wine Co. (production: 14,000 cases), in New York's Finger Lakes region, agrees that entering regional competitions is a valuable exercise. "For a region to develop, you need to keep pushing that envelope and see how you do against your peers in the region," he says.

In addition to sending out press releases, Anthony Road promotes its gold medals with shelf-talkers and stickers that are placed on the award-winning bottles.

Filling a niche

Regional competitions with a unique spin can also be useful in helping wineries target their sales efforts. Though Dry Creek Vineyard (production: 100,000 cases), in Healdsburg, Calif., enters several high-profile competitions each year, one of the most beneficial is the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.

"For our winery, the power of the oyster competition is immeasurable," says Dry Creek Vineyard communications director Bill Smart. "Our consistent performance in that competition has arguably been one of the primary drivers in the increased sales of our Chenin Blanc. Not only that, but we've been able to spin off other marketing-related opportunities such as partnerships with seafood companies and other cross-promotional ideas."

Though he is unable to give an exact figure, Smart says the competition "affects sales in a very positive way."

When deciding which competitions to enter, Smart looks at several factors: the competition's reputation, the caliber of the brands entered in previous years, whether his distributors feel that entering the competition will generate additional sales in the marketplace, and whether the competition is tied to a charitable cause.

"Based on how we perform at the competition, there are several ways that we promote our performance," he says. "If we win a gold medal, a Best of Class or even Best of Show, our graphic designer will create a flyer that is sent to our distributors. If we perform exceptionally well, i.e., best winery of the show, I will issue a press release."

Wineries should avoid bombarding the media with notices about lesser awards, such as bronze medals.

In the end, entering wine competitions isn't really a matter of choosing the biggest or most famous contests, but about finding the ones that will help your winery achieve its goals--whether that means getting your wines in front of influential writers and sommeliers, gauging your winery's performance against local competitors, or breaking into new accounts.

Featured Wine Competitions
Riverside Int'l
Wine Comp.
six bottles required; 2008 fee TBD
Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition
$50 per wine; six bottles per entry
San Francisco Chronicle Int'l Wine Competition
$25 per brand, plus $55 per wine; six bottles per entry
San Francisco Int'l Wine Competition $75 per wine; five bottles per entry
New York Wine & Food Classic
$50 per wine  four bottles per entry
LA Int'l Wine & Spirits Competition
$75 per wine: six bottles per entry 
Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition
$100 per wine; two bottles per entry
Additional Competition Contacts
California State Fair Wine Competition:
Dallas Morning News World Wine Competition:
Finger Lakes International Wine Competition:
Florida State Fair International Wine Competition:
Indy International Wine Competition:
International Eastern Wine Competition/West Coast Wine Competition:
Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition:
For more information, visit
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