Do medals matter?

WORTH THE WORK: Director of Wine Competition Ltd Belinda Jackson among the many entries at the Marlborough Wine Show in Blenheim last year.
WORTH THE WORK: Director of Wine Competition Ltd Belinda Jackson among the many entries at the Marlborough Wine Show in Blenheim last year.

Thousands of medals are awarded each year in wine shows throughout the world. But what do these medals really mean - do they make a difference or do they just attract the consumer to something bright and sparkly? Wine reporter Chloe Winter investigates.

You walk into the supermarket and head straight for the wine. You want to take a lovely bottle to the dinner party you are late for, but you don't know which one to choose.

You spot a bottle with a shiny gold sticker. You think to yourself, "If it's got a gold sticker, it's got to be good."

But what do these stickers - whether gold, silver or bronze - really mean and do they make a difference?

"Yes they do make a difference, a huge difference," says Belinda Jackson, director of Wine Competition Ltd.

Jackson, who runs both the Marlborough Wine Show and the Spiegelau International Wine Competition, has been involved in the wine industry for more than 25 years.

She believes medals have an impact both for the wine company and the consumer.

They guide the consumer, especially if they do not know what they are looking for, or do not know the brand, she says.

"People look for independent guidance and they don't necessarily have the time to read reviews in the Cuisine magazine or look online. But to see the shiny thing on the bottle at the exact time they have to make that purchasing decision can help them enormously.

"It gives the consumer some security when they are making that purchase, which then has a flow-on effect to their credibility, because usually if people buy a bottle of wine they are not Nigel-no-mates at home. It's a bottle to share with somebody," Jackson says.

But the awards hold no promises, she says.

"It doesn't guarantee that they [consumers] will like the wine. It's just that it has been through an independent judging system that has resulted in this wine being a great example.

"We provide the platform for a wine to succeed but it's what they [wine companies] choose to do with it as to how much mileage they get out of it," says Jackson.

"Medals aren't handed out, they have to be achieved . . . it's not a lottery, they have been judged to be worthy of that level of acknowledgement."

For a wine company, a medal means sales and good publicity. It also reassures them that their wine is a great example.

"A lot of wineries and wine producers can make their wine all these years and they work in their own little world every day, and by entering a wine competition they are opening [their] eyes wider. They are looking at how their wine stacks up amongst its peers.

"When it comes back with a medal, it's reward for the work and the passion and the commitment that have gone into creating that wine. It's like an endorsement of everything you've done. There's a huge feel-good factor in that," she says.

Jackson admits the market is competitive and recognises that some wine companies base their entire marketing pitch on wine show success.

"The best thing is to have wines that already have a compelling reason to be bought because they already have a great story behind them . . . and then if, or when, a medal comes that's like the cream on the top."

Something that does hit a nerve with Jackson is the half a dozen or so wine companies who put gold stickers on their wine bottles when the sticker has no association to the wine in that bottle.

"Not to say it is not a valid accolade - it's just not relating to what's in that bottle at all and it's that bit that I think is very hard on the consumer . . .

"That to me is misleading the consumer that that's a gold medal wine . . . don't try and trick consumers by putting a gold sticker on."

Each of Jackson's shows has panels made up of three judges and two associates. The associates are people who want to become judges - they participate in the same way but their scores are not counted.

Judges are chosen from experience. Many have studied wine and some hold a Master of Wine qualification. Each panel is allocated a class; each class is then judged and each wine awarded accordingly.

One of New Zealand's best-known judges, wine expert and Master of Wine Bob Campbell, says a day in the life of a judge is not easy going.

Campbell is the chairman of the New Zealand International Wine Competition and the New Zealand section of the Decanter Wine Awards in London.

He has judged competitions in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, England, Belgium, France, Slovenia, and China - just to name a few. He was also the Royal Easter Wine Show chairman for 21 years.

A judge's day starts at 8.30am. A typical daily workload is 180 wines - Campbell's personal best is 400 wines a day for 10 days, when he chaired the International Wine Challenge in London.

When tasting and awarding medals, three things tick over in the back of Campbell's mind, he says.

"Bronze medal - I'd be happy to drink it; silver medal - I'd recommend it to friends; gold medal - I'd like to buy a case."

In short, medals do make a difference, he says.

"Medals are an independent measure of quality and they do help to sell wine.

"Consumers look for bottle stickers or medal claims on shelf talkers and are certainly influenced by these."

Whether wine companies chose to enter wine competitions depended on how important the winery thought shows and show results were to their marketing programme, Campbell says. "Some place a great emphasis on show results, enter many competitions and heavily publicise the results. Others boycott wine shows, or selectively boycott certain shows, and use other methods to promote and position their brand.

"I have to say that there is little point in going to the trouble and expense of entering wine shows if a winery doesn't aggressively promote any positive results."

Pernod Ricard New Zealand Marlborough regional winemaker Patrick Materman says a medal is a great acknowledgement.

"From the winemaker's point of view it's an endorsement and it shows that we are on the right track with our competitors."

Wine shows are not always in the forefront of their minds when working through the wine making process, Materman says. "To be honest it's a secondary thought. The focus is on our consumer . . . we don't tailor wine to wine shows."

"You need to stay true to your brand. To me, it's about stylistic consistency. Your consumers expect consistency."

From a marketing point of view, medals are about media coverage and being able to leverage those results on the market, he says.

The company enters wine shows for two specific reasons: "One, to see what is standing out in the wine shows and two, to see where you sit with your competitors."

Yealands Estate chief wine maker Tamra Kelly-Washington agrees that medals make a difference, especially when bottles are laden with them.

She says one Yealands Estate wine has done so well they could not put all the medals on the bottle. "Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc has won quite a lot of medals and we put the stickers on, but we have had to condense them down to the most important. Sales have rocketed."

Medals and trophies are used to promote the wine and the brand.

"It's great to promote that you have done well," Kelly-Washington says.

"I rely on sales, so if the sales are going well, I'm really, really happy . . . [but] winemakers are more realistic that the shows aren't the be all and end all. You can't rely on them."

It is a bigger compliment - better than a gold medal - when you are out in a restaurant and someone is drinking your wine, she says.

"I take the shows and medals with a grain of salt. If you are awarded one it is just the icing on the cake. It makes everyone that works for the company feel good."

However, if a wine wins a medal or a trophy at an awards show, Yealands always tries to match it the following year, she says.

"We try to make the best wine year in, year out.

"You want to make that wine as consistent as possible so the consumer knows what to look for.

"Consumers are always in the forefront of our minds."

The Marlborough Express