Last fall I wrote about a scandal over restaurant wine list awards from Wine Spectator. Restaurants paid to apply for special awards from the magazine, and one entrant created a fake restaurant with a mediocre wine list containing wines for which Wine Spectator had previously given bad reviews – yet this restaurant received an award anyway. The magazine collected millions of dollars in contest entry fees that essentially turned into advertising fees instead. Now there’s another dust-up over wine competitions and why the results for the same wines at different competitions turn out so differently.
It’s funny to think of wines being judged like prize pigs or apple pies, but there are a lot of wine competitions here in the U.S. Not just at state and county fairs, but also sponsored by newspapers, magazines, wine associations, and other organizations. Some accept only wines made in that state, others accept wines from anywhere in the world, and most wineries pay a fee to enter. The appeal is that wineries can get a lot of exposure for winning a prize with very little outlay. It’s an inexpensive way to get their names out there, especially for small wineries with small advertising budgets.
Retired California statistics professor and winery owner Russell Hodgson decided to track the results of wine competitions after being puzzled at the reception that his wines received in different contests. The question he asked is whether a wine that scores highly in one competition should also do well in other competitions – after all, a good wine in one contest should also be good in another, right? And if that isn’t true, what does a competition medal mean for you the customer?
The answer was pretty surprising. Hodgson examined data from wine competitions in California and found that nearly every wine that won a gold medal in one competition was ranked average or below in another. And three-quarters of the wines entered in five or more competitions that won a gold in one also received no award in at least one contest. Hodgson concluded that winning a gold medal at one contest had no bearing on whether the same wine won a gold at another competition. The distribution of winners could have been predicted by chance alone, making the contest pretty much irrelevant other than the fact that the wine was entered in the contest in the first place.
Not surprisingly, some competition organizers aren’t happy with this conclusion. Each competition has its own format and different standards of judging, such as categories of competition, training of judges, number of times a wine is sampled, etc. Not all competitions are created equal, and lumping them all together like Hodgson does dilutes the results of the better-run contests. Of course, we consumers don’t know these things offhand and can’t necessarily judge which contest is better at predicting wines we’ll like. For one thing, the people who run the competitions don’t discuss the inner workings, and for another, we’re not likely to go try and find them out. The best advice I can give is to look for contests sponsored by publications or organizations that put out reviews you generally agree with or who pick winners you’ve enjoyed in the past. They may not steer you to the best of the best, but at least you’re less likely to be disappointed with the outcome.
Our customers may have noticed that we at first vine carry wines bearing medals from various French wine competitions too. It’s not something we publicize on our site because we don’t know much about these contests. Nearly every wine-producing village has an annual wine festival and competition, and wineries in the surrounding villages all compete with one another. There are also regional wine competitions, and a national competition each year at the Concours Générale Agricole (CGA) in Paris. In a small village, everyone at the festival probably knows the judges and so has a good idea of what a medal in that village’s competition means in terms of wines they’d like. The regional ones are probably more akin to the California state fair, where a lot of wineries enter the competition.
The CGA at first seemed unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S., based on a quick glance at some competition websites. One of its stated aims is to give consumers a quality reference for purchasing wine, as well as an opportunity for wine producers to see how their products compare to others. The judges also offer advice to non-winning entries about how to improve the quality of their products, which is a step beyond most competitions. I was beginning to think this might be the holy grail of wine competitions until I did a little math: out of 14,000 entries in 2009, 23%, or approximately 3,200 wines, received medals. If a gold, silver, and bronze medal were awarded in each category, that’s over 1,000 different categories of wines. The odds of winning still depend on the number of entries in each category (and you can’t win if you don’t enter), and not that it’s not a great thing to win a medal, but that many categories makes it seem like they don’t want to disappoint anyone too much.
So should you discount a medal win altogether? I’m inclined to say no, just take it with a grain of salt. After all, a group of people thought it was among the best things they tasted that day. Take it as a rough guide to something you might want to try first. Or try a medal winner against another similarly-priced wine from the same region and see what you think. You don’t find a Michael Phelps every day, but there’s something to be said for “best wine I’ve ever had with a burger,” or “best wine I’ve had on the front porch after a hard day.”
For this week’s recipe, I started looking through my Junior League cookbooks for blue-ribbon winning entries. Nothing seemed too exciting. Then I thought, what is it that every restaurant always brags about? It’s the macaroni and cheese. No matter where you eat, each server will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that his or her restaurant makes absolutely the best macaroni and cheese ever. Bar none. You can practically hear them say that if awards were given, this would be the gold medalist, the blue ribbon, the pig of all pigs…and then you try them. And, with very few exceptions, they’re disappointing. Curdled, separated, oily sauce, not terribly cheesy, overcooked noodles, and some unidentified hard pieces of crust here and there.
OMG, did I just sound like that cranky Christopher Kimball on America’s Test Kitchen or what? Before you send me off to the equipment corner to have Adam pummel me with some new device, let me say that my favorite mac and cheese, bar none, really is a recipe from a former Cook’s Illustrated writer and editor, Pam Anderson. Her book, The Perfect Recipe, is a compilation of some of her recipes from the time she was at the magazine, and is a nice collection of foods she likes. Her mac and cheese is thickened with eggs instead of a roux, and it’s creamy, cheesy, and delicious. I’ve changed her topping to add blue cheese and parmesan for a nice crust and a bit of bite. Try it with a medium-bodied red, like our Cave la Romaine Rouge Volupté ($12), 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, and it makes the mac and cheese stand out. By the way, it won a gold medal at the 2006 CGA — so you can pair one winner with another.
So-Good-It-Should-Win-a-Medal Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a side dish
Macaroni and Cheese
One-half pound elbow macaroni or penne pasta
4 tablespoons (one-half stick) butter
salt and pepper
2 large eggs
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk, heated to warm
One-quarter teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
10-12 ounces grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter
One-half cup crumbled blue cheese
One-quarter cup grated parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and set a one-and-a-half quart heatproof dish, like a souffle pan, in the oven to warm. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a good amount of salt and cook the macaroni or pasta about 2 minutes less than the package specifies. It should be a little firm to the bite since it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain the macaroni and transfer it to the preheated dish and stir in the butter to melt it.
While the macaroni is cooking, mix the eggs, 1 cup of the evaporated milk, the hot sauce, half a teaspoon of salt, some ground black pepper, and the mustard mixture in a small bowl. After the butter melts with the macaroni, pour the egg mixture over the macaroni along with about three-fourths of the cheese. Stir until thoroughly combined and the cheese starts to melt.
Put the pan in the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, add half the remaining evaporated milk and half the remaining cheese, stir well, and put back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Take it out, stir in the rest of the milk and the cheese, and put it in for another 5 minutes. During this last 5-minute period, mix the topping ingredients together. When the 5 minutes are up, spread the topping over the macaroni and cheese, and return it to the oven for 20 minutes. Serve it as quickly as possible.