The wine show system has undergone many changes over the years. Originally the show system was developed as a tool for winemakers to benchmark their wines against peers. This had a major impact on improving wine quality throughout the industry by providing winemakers with critical feedback. I remember attending my first exhibitors tasting and the variance in quality was enormous with most of the wine falling into the mediocre category. There were many faulty wines and only a handful that were worthy of recognition.
Early Days and recently
In the early days, winemakers were the predominant source of judges at these shows and their clinical appraisal reflected a desire to clean up basic winemaking faults and provide feedback as to what those faults were and potential methods for eliminating them. Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of the early show days was the impact of the medal system being used as a marketing tool for the consumer. A gold medal sticker on a bottle almost guaranteed that your wine would sell.
The value of the show system as a marketing tool was embraced by many producers and consumers and consequently, the number of regional and national shows blossomed.
The success of these early shows is clear. Today, it is rare to see a faulty wine and the challenge for judges to be more discerning in selecting winning wines is greater than ever.
I attended the Melbourne Wine Show exhibitors tasting last year and it was staggering to see the sheer number of exhibits. Some 3200 entries were received in total and not that I tasted all 3200 entries, but I do not recall tasting one faulty wine.
There has been a shift away from the ‘gold medal sticker’ philosophy, which consumers held in high regard for many years. With such a competitive market in terms of both quality and affordability, consumers are spoilt for choice. They have a greater appetite for wine knowledge and tend now to search out wines based on regions, producers, varietals, and styles. Much of this information is disseminated through the media.
This is particularly relevant for the show system today and the increased involvement of sommeliers and media in the judging circuit reflects this change. Equally, the involvement of sommeliers and media in the show system has opened new pathways for producers to generate exposure to a wider audience.
It is a given nowadays that your wine will be fault-free, of high quality and affordable in order to compete in the market. One of the challenges we face is to ensure that our wines do not all look the same. The early years of the show system forged a path of fault-free, balanced and commercially sound wines which put us on the world stage.
The challenge now is to go beyond that and evolve from making ‘safe’ wines into making wines with personality and complexity. Winemakers who go the extra yard and take additional risks seem to be shaping style development and building interest and complexity in their wines. I think this message is being conveyed in the show circuit - successful exhibits typically stand out from the crowd due to an X-factor in quality. The influx of regional shows around the country and a strong emphasis on single vineyard classes is further testament to the industry maturing and challenging itself.