Entering Wine Competitions

You’re not obligated to win. You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.” –Marian Wright Edelman

I’ve always liked Marian’s sentiment. There’s nothing that says you have to win, but there’s nothing better in life than trying your best — but when your efforts are rewarded, all the better! Of course, there are some other pretty good reasons to enter a winemaking competition. You can use the opportunity to find out how your winemaking skills compare on an international stage, and even get direct feedback from judges. Some wine kit manufacturers even offer a complimentary wine kit for people who win awards with their products at winemaking competitions — woo-hoo! — and there’s nothing like the feeling of being able to hold up your medal and say “I made this wine!”

So, noble sentiments aside, if you’re entering your wine in a competition, you should work as hard as possible to win — and there are some things you can do to maximize your chances.The first thing is to enter. I’ve heard from a lot of kitmakers over the years who say “I think I’ll put some of my Cabernet in next contest,” or “Someday I’ll send a bottle off to see what other people think of it.” Well, carpe vinum! Pick a competition that interests you, find out the entry deadline . . . and enter it! Someone once said that 90% of life consists of just showing up. Winning a wine competition is a little more than that, but you can’t get there until you enter.

Cellar assessment

The next thing you’ll need to do is a critical assessment of your cellar. Why assess your cellar? Well, if you’re planning to enter a contest and don’t have any wine ready to drink, you’re too late by at least a year. One of the great things about kit wines (how quick they are to make) is actually one of the drawbacks: they’re so fast and easy to get into the bottles that a lot of people don’t wait to drink them. Even the simplest white wines benefit from six months of age, and your super-premium reds need at least a year in the bottle before they can be properly evaluated, and two to three years before they begin to show well.

If you have trouble building up a stock of well-aged wines, try this: save six bottles from each batch you make and tuck them away in an aging-appropriate spot for at least a year. That’s 20% of your batch, and you’ll have both wines to drink, and wines to compete with — and a couple extra to try when they reach that ultimate peak.

Of course, the best strategy for building a cellar lies in doubling up the batches of each wine you make, putting one away for a year, and leaving the other in your “drinking rack.” That way you’ll eventually have a large supply of appropriately aged wines both for drinking and competitive purposes (this isn’t a bad idea even if you never enter a competition).

Wine evaluation

Next, assess your wines to see where they fit, tasting them critically to evaluate how they express their character. Competitions are divided into categories. The simplest have few (dry red, dry white, dessert and fruit wines) but major competitions have varietal categories for many common grapes (Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay, etc.) as well as blend categories (Bordeaux, Rhone, etc.). It might be that you have an excellent red Zinfandel that you think could place very highly in competition, but when you taste it, it doesn’t have a strongly identifiable varietal impact — good wine, but not overly “Zinny.” If you enter it into the Zinfandel category it will not score as well as a poorer tasting wine with more easily identifiable varietal character. In this case, it would be best to enter the wine into another category more suited to its character, probably “red vinifera blends,” or “other red grape.” This isn’t cheating, and isn’t even fibbing: it’s placing the wine in the category where it can show best.

If you’re having trouble critically assessing the wine, try enlisting the help of your winemaking/drinking friends. Do double-blind trials (i.e. enlist the help of someone else to pour the wines from a brown paper bag (ooh, stylish) so that neither you nor your helpers know what they are. Have everyone score the wines individually and then discuss them openly. Try to determine the best points of the wine — this will tell you how best to categorize it for competition.

Follow the rules!

Third, follow the entry regulations. Read them very, very carefully to make sure that you’ve covered your requirements. Some competitions require you to remove all identifying labels and capsules from the bottles. Skip this, and your wine may not be judged! Other rules include attaching an identifying tag to the bottles, and still others deal with packaging for shipment and the number and size of bottles needed. Going to the trouble of sending a wine to a competition only to have it disqualified because you haven’t followed the instructions is heartbreaking — trust me, I know from experience!

One of the most important entry requirements you need to pay attention to is the deadline. Don’t wait until the week before the contest to get your wine together and ship it. Contests are held annually and you’ll have a whole year to get ready for them. Over the years I’ve had literally dozens of wines arrive the day after the competition I was organizing, and that didn’t do much for their chances, although the free wine was nice.

Record, record, record

Fourth, make sure you keep good records. Some competitions require not only the varietal name and/or category, but also the starting gravity, alcohol content, dates, etc. Of course, as conscientious winemakers we all know that keeping good records allows us to repeat our successes and avoid repeating our failures, so it should be a snap to pull all the information you need from your winemaking book.

Fifth, enter as many wines as you can muster — more entries means more chances that the judges will recognize your brilliance, and for you to get a place on the podium. That isn’t to say that you should “spam” a contest with every wine in your cellar, hoping that some of them will stick — enter the wines you think have a good shot. However, in talking to the winemakers at several of the world’s largest wineries, they all have said the same thing: Enter as often as you’re allowed — hiding your light under a bushel won’t get you anywhere.

Sixth, make sure you’ve got your shipping mojo working. Don’t wait until the last moment to send the wine off — in fact, send it as early as the contest allows (some contests don’t have space to store the wines for a long period of time, so you can’t send it months early, but punctuality is good). Make sure to pack your wine extremely securely, and keep copies of all your entry forms and any check or money-order you send along with the entry. You want to make sure your wine gets there and that they have everything they need to be judged.

Packing tips

Double bag your bottles in heavy-duty plastic and seal tightly. If they break in transit, you may be liable for paying to have all of the other packages in the shipment cleaned — it costs at least $10.00 to launder the wine out of a single 8.5” x 11” page — so this is good insurance! Next, completely cover each bottle in bubble-wrap and tape it securely. You can buy rolls of bubble wrap at shipping service centers or stationery stores. This will help reduce impact shock if the box is dropped or mishandled. Then, pack the bottles tightly into sturdy cardboard boxes with packing peanuts or other shipping material and tape securely — but don’t forget to put your entry forms and payment inside the box before sealing!

There are specialized shipping boxes made with cast styrofoam inserts that coddle each bottle in a virtual safe of cuddly impact-resistance. However, these boxes are quite expensive — up to $20 each, so they may not be your first choice, especially if you’re entering a number of wines.

Finally if you have to provide a content-declaration for shipping purposes, make sure to indicate the contents as “flavor samples for analysis — not for resale.” Most shipping companies will not accept alcohol beverages for transhipment, regardless of the purpose, so if you write “wine,” it will almost certainly be refused.

This leads us to one more thing: second-guessing wine judges and wine competitions. If you did a judging assessment with your friends to help choose categories and analyze your wine, you should have used a formal judging protocol. There are a number of criteria judges take into account when tasting and judging wines. The following are the typical areas in which a wine is judged and how points may be scored. Scores are usually out of 20 points in total, but your contest may be different both in total score and in areas judged.

Appearance (clarity & color): The appearance of a wine gives the judge a good idea of the type of grape and the age of the wine. Appearance is assessed by tilting the glass of wine over a white background and looking at the edge of the wine to get a better idea of its color. Wine does not necessarily have to be clear as water, but a lot of cloudiness or floating material in the glass can indicate problems.
Scoring: 2 points

Aroma & bouquet: The aroma of the wine can tell the judge more about the wine than anything else. The bouquet of the wine would usually identify the characteristics of the grape used. The wine’s bouquet is released by swirling the wine in the glass before taking a deep sniff.
Scoring: 4 points

Balance: Balance is a wine’s blend of all its main components. This is the combination of the wine’s tannin, fruit, acid and sugar. A well-balanced wine should be harmonious and no single element should dominate.
Scoring: 2 points

Body/texture: The body is how a wine feels in the judge’s mouth; it is the tactile impression a wine makes. The body of a wine being judged should be typical to the class it is being judged in.
Scoring: 2 points

Taste/flavor: Judges look for a taste that is typical of the class and properly developed. To taste, the judge will take a small sip and suck the air between their teeth. Then hold the wine at the center of the tongue for a few seconds to allow the character of the wine to be apparent.
Scoring: 4 points

Finish: Your wine’s finish is the final impression of the wine on the back of the tongue while and after swallowing, particularly in terms of length and persistence of flavor. A good wine will have a rich, long, complex finish.
Scoring: 2 points

Overall quality: The overall quality is the combination of all of the above criteria and how well they work together and match the typical wine of the class it is being judged in.
Scoring: 4 points

Judging your wines before a contest has many benefits. First, you learn a lot about critically evaluating any wine when you do it in the company of others — shared opinions can open up your mind to other viewpoints (or start fist fights, but that’s another judging phenomenon) and help you pick out characteristics or flaws that you haven’t seen before.

Second, when you get your score-sheets back from the contest you’ll be able to see how your perception of the wine matched up to the judges — if nothing else you’ll learn more about how others evaluate wine. While all of the contests I’ve judged and organized over the years have been staffed by earnest, honest and dedicated judges, sometimes a certain bias can creep into the competitive arena, always unintentionally. Remember, if you don’t agree with the judging score, it’s never going to be personal — wines are always judged blind by folks who are trying their hardest to find things to like about your entry.

Third, you might figure out which wines to send and which ones to leave home for more aging. Just like a local sporting body choosing the best candidates to send off to the Olympics, you should send your best candidates to stand up for you at the wine competition.

Contests to enter

There are quite a few state fair competitions as well as club sponsored competitions. Some, like the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition, Indy International, and the California State Fair have substantial and prestigious contests. A quick internet search on your state and “amateur wine competition” will yield all the information you need.

Finally whether you bring home a medal or not, keep in perspective that no matter what, you’ve learned something and gained by trying. One of my favorite quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson is, “Win as if you were used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change,” which is a pretty swell philosophy. Good luck to everyone!