wine ratings

How Medals Convince Shoppers to Buy Wine

David BECK Academic - Economics, Society and Political science - Environment and Technologies (AI, blockchain)

Even if you are an experienced wine buyer, and know all the clues to look out for, seeing a Gold, Silver, or Bronze medal is going to reassure you even more – seven times more as it happens. Compared to most other products you might be buying whilst doing your supermarket shop, buying wine is more a game of re-assuring yourself that the bottle you put in your basket is something you are going to like when opening it later.

Buying a bottle of wine, even for an experienced wine drinker, can be a bit of a lottery. Looking at a wine label is a bit like trying to decipher some sort of code as all the bits of information add up to tell you different things about the wine and whether it is any good or not. Or at least deserves the price being asked for it.

The country or region will give you a clue as to what it might taste like. A wine made in a mainly hot country like Australia or Argentina is going to be much bigger and more alcoholic in the mouth than one made in a cool north European country like Germany or Austria. If a wine is made by a particular Chateau or wine estate, then the grapes will have come from their own vineyards and not bought in from all around.

The same wine might get a gold medal at one show, and no medals at another show.

Dr. Armando Corsi, associate professor of wine business at the University of Adelaide

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Then there is the grape variety, which, for so many wine drinkers is the main clue they look for. But even then a Chardonnay from Australia is going to taste a lot different to one from California, Burgundy, or New Zealand. When the wine is made can also give you a clue. The older the date on the bottle, the longer it has had to age and potentially the longer it has to improve and get better. But then that is not always the case.

Only by drinking, buying, and trying can you slowly but surely learn enough ways to pick out the clues that help you solve the wine label puzzle.

Going for Gold

So what about all those Gold, Silver, or Bronze medals you see on a bottle of wine – how confident can you be in them?

For a consumer, it is often the one thing that really stands out and re-assures them that the wine they are buying is of gold, silver, or bronze status. In fact, a poll conducted in the UK found that having a gold, silver, or bronze medal on a bottle of wine can increase the chances it will be picked off the shelf by seven times, compared to a bottle with no sticker or commendation on it all. The study was conducted at selected M&S and Co-op stores and was designed to gauge customer reaction to wines displaying medal stickers.

The results showed a strong customer bias in favour of the stickers. Sales of Co-op‘s gold medal winners grew by 200% where stickers were applied, while the retailer’s IWC Great Value Winner saw an increase in sales of 476%. The overall increase across all stickers when combined (gold, silver, bronze and commended) was 24.1%. Meanwhile, M&S saw 117.3% jump in sales of wine with gold stickers overall, with one winner seeing a 700% increase in sales for the period.

That makes a wine ratings competition for wine producers, brand owners, distributors, importers, and the supermarkets and restaurants trying to sell the wine on their shelves, and in their wine lists.

It’s fair to say that about 4% to 5% of wines submitted end up with a gold medal.

Angus Barnes, executive officer of the NSW Wine Industry Association

The proliferation and convolution of awards makes educated consumer decisions difficult. A 2014 social media survey conducted by independent consumer advocacy group Choice showed that while some wine drinkers find these stickers a helpful touchstone, many reported to be confused, unfazed or even skeptical of the award’s credibility.

Taste, quality, look, and cost

A competition that also goes much further than just judge the wine on how it tastes. What it tastes like is crucial, but what it looks like and how much it costs are arguably just as important, as they are what will determine whether you even pick it off the shelf in the first place. Let alone take it home and drink it.

How does that bottle of wine speak out to you on the shelf? Even if you are an experienced wine buyer, and know all the clues to look out for, seeing a Gold, Silver, or Bronze medal is going to reassure you even more – seven times more as it happens.

It’s not necessarily a guarantee of higher quality per se, it’s a guarantee that it’s performed well in a wine show.

Mike Bennie, wine critic, judge and founder of the Drink Easy Awards

In most shows, wines are categorized by style (like sparkling) or by grape, and are tasted blind and in a randomly-assigned order. The judges, a mixture of winemakers and vineyard workers, sommeliers and wine journalists, score the wine on appearance (color, clarity), aroma (fruit, oak, and the strength of those scents) and taste, and award medals based on points out of 100. A gold medal may suggest that wine won its race, but in fact there can be hundreds of medalists.

Professional judges and peer approval

What’s more the judges deciding what medal to give to a particular wine are also the same sort of judges deciding which wines should go on the supermarket shelves you shop in, or on the restaurant wine lists you choose from. Professional wine buyers whose job it is, every day, to assess, analyze, and then cherry-pick the right wine from potentially 100s of alternatives to put on sale in their business.

Winning producers have also used the medals on their bottles when presenting them at trade tastings, exhibitions, and consumer dinners. So really taking their success in the awards and putting it in the hands of their potential customers.

Lukasz Kolodziejczyk, a judge at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards and head of fine wines at Cult Wines, admits that with so many ‘flights’ of wines being tasted by judges it’s not possible to get it right 100% of the time.

He says: ‘Unfortunately, we simply cannot assume infallible accuracy’. Experience is crucial and goes a long way, but with so many wines being tasted and the first few invariably garnering the most attention, even the most experienced of judges are vulnerable to error.  We are certainly seeing disparity among wine critics, and this is likely to continue.’ 

Lukasz Kolodziejczyk is not the only wine expert to admit that chance can be a great factor in which wines win an award. Richard Ellison, founder of Wanderlust Wine says that even when tastings are done blind it’s sometimes contradictory. He explains: ‘They [judges] will have a specific idea in their head to be outstanding and there’s no real answer to that as it’s a sensory thing. I did a degree in food and wine technology and it [tasting] is completely open to interpretation. And that’s why these things are relatively pointless.’

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The death of the wine competition?

With some experts questioning the authenticity and consistency of wine judging and some wineries shirking participation in competitions, is it possible that the industry will do away with such competitions at some point? This is unlikely because, when faced with hundreds of wines to choose from, consumers are often still swayed by whether a wine has done well at a reputable wine competition.

This was evidenced in a survey conducted by the International Wine Challenge. It shows that wine awards are far too lucrative an undertaking for the industry and retailers alike to be a scrapped as it has been proven that consumers are influenced by a gold or silver award badge.

Eben Sadie a South African wine producer agrees that consumers should do their own research but believes that technology will soon have a greater role to play with choice. “I think the future of wine is not going to be competition driven but rather information driven – it’s one of the upsides of modern technology.

Ultimately the best approach is to simply ask the experts. Getting advice from sommeliers or those who work in independent retail, that’s the best place to try and ascertain what is the best wine for you.