An Open Letter to the 10th Anniversary of the Len Evans Tutorial
by Dudley Brown
I understand from a few of you that there is to be a conversation at your 10th Anniversary of the Len Evans Tutorials about whether wine shows are “relevant or irrelevant.” It’s a good bit of fun to discuss but perhaps not the right question. Were the question “what is the purpose of wine shows and are Australian wine shows fit for that purpose?” the answers would be revealing.
As a blogger about the formal and informal rules of the wine industry, this topic is of great interest. Len Evans “was equally scathing about complacency and mediocrity, which he saw as the greatest danger to the Australian wine industry” according to your website. So should you be. Writer’s warning – if any of the following causes you instant agita, keep reading, it will get worse.
The standard answer for why wine shows exist is “to improve the breed.” It is a noble and worthy goal.
However, by this purpose, one would need to conclude that they are not fit for purpose for many reasons and, are potentially “the greatest danger to the Australian wine industry.” As a bottom up viewer of the world and not a wine show judge or organizer, a simple exercise in history leads us to the reasons they are not fit for purpose and even a great danger.
Agricultural fairs are a fact of life in many countries going back millennia. In the beginning it was about who had the best carrots or apples or spuds. Everyone chose their own produce, arguments ensued, beer flowed and revelry broke out in an important rite of community celebration.
Somewhere along the line someone finally decided that there needed to be some standards and / or categories and a bit of independence of judging.
In Australia, this took shape in the form of the Royal Agricultural Societies and their shows. These in turn took an interest in wine shows early on and today still put on the biggest shows. The word is that, on a combined basis, the capital city wine shows now generate about $1 million dollars per year in net income for these bodies.
Culturally, these bodies are relics with little connection to the grape and wine industry beyond their shows. As everyone knows, crud accumulates gradually and usually because we forget to ask the purpose of the thing accumulating it. Eventually, you have to choose between cleaning up or throwing out the cruddy thing. This choice seems closer to the question to be answered than that of relevance.
The following are a few observations that may spark some thought in this discussion. Some are a bit flip and some quite serious. But, most need answering if wine shows are to have leadership relevance.
1) Judging 18-month-old wine with 20-30 year ageing potential is like judging a kiddy beauty pageant to me. Just weird. And, a bit wrong. Many great wines are (at least) unapproachable at 18 months of age.
While the 18-month timeline is suited to getting most wines to market, how many great wines are looking their best at that age? Many less age-worthy wines would look much better. While there are truly great palates that can discern these prepubescent differences – the often maligned Robert Parker and Bordeaux come to mind – they are very few in number. Also, how many wines that can be considered truly great even enter wine shows?
As Peter Drucker famously observed, “businesses are not defined by their customers but their non-customers.” Wine shows need to ponder this. The depressing result is that wine shows are frequently assessing what I call the “cream of the middle” as their data set.
I remember a tasting in California of first and second growth 1995 Bordeaux when they were released. I’m pretty good on this subject but I didn’t much care for the wines. I bought them anyhow and I’m glad I did. But on release they simply were not approachable in any way. At the tasting, I also bought some Australian Cab / Shiraz for about $15 p/b that simply ran rings around these wines on that day. But, I trusted my merchant who had 17 years of en primeur experience.
The point is – do all judges really have this level of experience? Do I or should I trust their assessment the way I trusted my merchant? Would Lafitte or Cheval Blanc ever enter a show? And, can we ever be objective, descriptive or even honest about beauty? Can anyone confront real beauty or greatness without being changed by it? (if you answered no to all of these questions or have read either The Symposium or the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, read on…)
2) Wine shows discourage risk taking both for winemaker / entrants and (worse), young judges (only speak when spoken to) due to the hierarchical and paternal nature of the judging system. For less experienced judges, wine shows are an exercise in conformity if they ever want to be invited to judge again. For winemaker entrants, getting good scores is important.
The prized “objectivity” of shows is illusory. Because shows must try to be objective and compare like for like, wines that are not alike must suffer exclusion from serious consideration. To extend the beauty pageant analogy, the more we try to be objective about beauty, the sooner we end up with standard issue busty blonds (Shiraz and Chardonnay) or 16 year-old models that look like 12 year-old boys (Pinot, cool climate whatever).
This logically reductive inability to acknowledge or reward difference in wine making or appreciation is culturally disastrous for the future of the industry.
3) Wine shows have been proven to have no statistical validity for consistent assessment by a number of serious academics. The research shows that there are a few tasters / judges that are very consistent but they are a very small minority of judges. But, as with driving, 90% of respondents would, no doubt, rate themselves “above average.” This makes entrants, from a scientific point of view, little more than lottery ticket buyers.
4) I have many boxes of wine that, if I were a judge who followed “the rules,” would knock it out for “faults” (see #1 above). However, if were a critic, I would score these same wines between 94 and 100 points. For example, Lynch Bages in particular, has a house style of bret that never seems to develop beyond a hint but its there. And, I love it. How can it be that it would be knocked off the bench at a show but praised by judges over dinner that evening? This simply makes no sense and has no credibility.
5) 20 point scoring? It’s like defending rods, chains, leagues and fathoms in a metric world. “Adjusting” 20 point scoring by multiplying by 5 and adjusting? Python-esque. Discuss amongst yourselves.
6) Fault picking obsession – trained monkeys and dogs can pick faults (seriously) and often with greater precision than humans. Picking great wines seems a bit harder in a committee. Lots of un-faulty wine is seriously un-great. Lots of faulty wine is seriously great. I understand that fault elimination was a core part of the “improving the breed” mission. But with hundreds of Uni degree’d winemakers now working as cellar hands, I’m pretty sure we’ve largely mostly addressed the original problem that was being solved with fault reduction and education.
Funny story – as I enjoy a bit of mischief, I once submitted three wines in the same class. Two were components. The third was an equal blend of the first two. The first two got “faulty” comments for the same fault. The third was well received. Does the associative principle of addition have “quantum effects” in wine chemistry? Or, does wine judging have ‘quantum effects”? What would Heisenberg say?
7) There are so many shows, the media could care less about wine shows beyond their advertising potential with retailers. The only ones really interested are the folks that entered, the judge / critic community and lazy retailers. We’re talking to ourselves (mostly). We need to instead find ways to engage consumers in our passion and share it.
8) Having said all this, the harried punter at Dan’s (or insert any other low service chain here) could do worse than pick the bottle with gold stickers. It will likely be free of faults and be reasonable table wine.
Medal stickers have more to do with cheap retailers with no sales staff to educate customers than good wine. Big stores love those shiny things. Less work for them and it shifts product.
But, what happens when that brand doesn’t win any stickers the next year and has ramped up production based on the big order from Dan’s in the prior year? Poooft!
Should they just enter more shows until they win some more stickers? Lower their price and beg? Not good.
This process is definitely not brand or category building….but Dan’s brand wins. As producer’s, we all lose for playing Dan’s brand game instead of our own game. And, ultimately, the consumer’s interest dies the slow death of boredom. Is there any correlation to exports declining by $1.2 billion and our import share increasing rapidly? Or, do we dismiss these facts by citing the strong Aussie dollar and learn nothing?
Multiply this scenario by hundreds of times, year after year. Each time it happens, the Australian brand gets another chink in it. What responsibility do shows have for this? Are the producers just “mugs?” that got what was coming to them?
9) State shows – the best wine at the Royal Adelaide Show was Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz a couple years back. Really? Who entered?
Either that wasn’t a real commercial wine or the judges should have been barred from judging again or the show system simply breeds out the recognition of greatness. (Writer’s note – this was the year Dr. Jay Miller was the international judge….) Take your pick – there are no other serious possibilities.
By the way, the winner was a perfectly good wine. Just not a great wine – how many of you stocked up on it based on this prize? What a sad day for exceptional Australian wine and winemakers. The Royal Adelaide Show pocketed about $100k. What did they put back?
10) The truly big winners in shows are not the consumers or the entrants but the judges especially the winemaker judges who get to spend several days and nights with influential retail buyers and critics. Most winemakers would give nearly anything to get five minutes with these folks. It is inevitable that an advantage accrues to these winemaker judges through familiarity. This is also human nature. Life isn’t fair, it’s ok. But, this does make one wonder about “purpose” a bit more. Whose purpose? For what purpose?
While not usually paid, judges are usually treated like royalty during shows. The dinners are extraordinary. The wines served with meals are eye popping (and sometimes “faulty”). Does the entrant know how much of their entry fee goes to pay for this hospitality? Is this lack of transparency a desirable trait for shows?
While no one in the judging system seems to have a problem with any of this, its just not what I care to underwrite financially as an entrant. As a judge or as a consumer, do you care? And, if not, why not?
So, we’re left with the real question of “purpose.” What is it? The breed improvement purpose seems to have lead to more uniformity and less diversity. As any parent or boss knows, its pretty hard to get positive results through discouragement.
A head judge giving “lower alcohol” or “cool climate only” instructions to judges (but not the entrants in advance) is not only applying their subjective filter to a process meant to be objective but is also dunning the entrants for their money. In high school we called people like this “seriously un-cool.” Now we call them Head Judge.
Should shows’ purpose be about regional expression or benchmarked against another region country or style? For example, comparing Canberra vs. Barossa in Shiraz is pointless – both can be excellent – why does one have to be “better?”
Shouldn’t diversity of expression and recognition be the goal of judging and wine education? Isn’t the joy of wine also the joy of discovery and difference? Why aren’t shows about spreading that joy and love? What are they afraid of?
I honestly don’t think anyone has bad intentions in judging or holding shows. It is just that the reward system(s) of shows suffer from ACIS (anal cranial inversion syndrome). And as any student of business or psychology knows, behavior follows compensation. Whose compensation? The wine show owners? The judges? The show lottery winners who get stickers?
The one great advantage shows have is this: anyone familiar with B.F. Skinner’s work, or anyone who plays the pokies or plays golf, irregular reward is an amazing motivator. The sheer randomness of the results of shows keeps the entrants interested for quite a while. But, not forever.
The result is that mediocre wines without faults or futures tend to do well, many great wines don’t enter or win, entrants and young judges who should be pushing boundaries are intimidated into conformity (that conformity expresses itself in medals and wines that we export with shiny stickers), diversity and greatness suffer and the world thinks that we not only like this stuff, that we’re proud of it.
I read a lot of blogs and tweets by people who judge – they never seem to mention Jacobs Creek Reserve Shiraz or any other show winners in what they are drinking. Why is that?
I think it is very unclear what shows are meant to achieve in a nation of 2000+ wineries in 61 regions with maybe a hundred varieties, plus blends, aside from making it easy for Dan’s to buy and sell wine. I appreciate what shows were set up to do and think we are way past where that is what shows are about anymore. The communal anarchy and joy of the medieval fair has been subsumed by a system that deters innovation and encourages conformity.
There should far more experimentation with formats, classes, criteria, judges’ cultural relationships (e.g. Junior vs. Head judge rules), locations, crowd sourcing, transparent compensation vs. lavish hospitality (it worked in tennis), etc. In short, the cure for ACIS is to invert the balance of order and anarchy, objectivity and subjectivity, in shows. Given the nature of the condition, a mere colonic won’t get the job done.
Embrace the market for ideas other than those of your elders or forefathers by doing things like explicitly telling the entrants your implicit or subjective / implicit criteria or passion (and your hospitality budget) in advance and see who shows up. The results would be extraordinary.
Does any wine show have classes like “Beautiful” or “Elegant” or “Soulful” or “Destined for Greatness (but not there just yet)” or anything that emotionally or even intellectually connects with the consumer?
Maybe this approach would improve the breed.
Maybe we could win back, even surprise and delight, the only person that matters in the industry – the worldwide consumer.