Berger: The fallacies of gold medal wines

The results of major wine competitions can help consumers determine which wines are worth trying, but newcomers often misinterpret the results.

They assume that all gold medal winners are better than all silver medal winners, but occasionally, the opposite is true.

I have been coordinating wine competitions for more than ?35 years and have witnessed this phenomenon often. This problem happens more frequently in competitions that aren’t carefully organized and where not all judges are professionals. It can occur for various reasons, some of which are related to the fallacies of blind tastings, or possibly to the type of wine being judged.

Maynard Amerine wrote the book on the subject with “Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation” (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1976), establishing scientific guidelines that aim to avoid some of the fallacies created when judging anything, from pastries to pigs.

Assume a panel of three persons judging cabernet sauvignons contains one judge who is a newcomer, for example. Amerine wrote that novice judges tend to be timid and often fall into the trap of the “Error of Central Tendency” in which their scores are cast more from timidity than on the basis of perceived quality.

Say the three votes are a gold (from the senior judge, based on evidence from the aroma and taste), a silver (from another skilled judge) and a bronze from the newcomer.

This wine probably deserves a gold medal but ends up with a silver.

Another wine in the same set is more powerful, loaded with oak and high alcohol, is made to be obvious and impressive, and has little subtlety. It isn’t as good as the silver medal winner, but it is impressive to the newcomer, who votes it a gold. Judge No. 2 agrees that the wine is impressive.

It may get a gold medal, but the first wine is probably a better wine.

Similarly, some white wines can get gold medals because of a dramatic floral aroma or a trace of sugar, even though the aftertaste may be lacking. A more subtle and food-friendly wine in the same category may be a better dinner companion but often winds up with a silver.

Many wineries send their wines to market sooner than they should because it makes economic sense, even though the wines are in an awkward state. Many young pinot noirs have suffered with judges who didn’t understand them.

Simple, fruity pinot noirs with no cellar potential often end up with gold medals, when far better wines that are just too young get silvers or bronzes. Given a little time in the bottle, they become far better than those that got gold medals.

I also have seen zinfandels with high volatility receive gold medals from less experienced judges who like the characteristic, even though it is technically a flaw.

And then there is the varietal prejudice that some judges bring to the table. This occurs when a wine is made from a grape variety they know little about.

In one case, the best gamay I ever tasted would have gotten no medal at all had I not become apoplectic.

I voted gold, while three other three judges gave it nothing. When asked, they revealed that none had ever tasted gamay.

So yes, gold medals can be great, but silvers can be their equal or even better.

And bronze medals? That’s an entirely different discussion.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills ($35): Terroir lives! There is a “Santa Barbara regional character” to this lovely pale-red, silky pinot noir, with hints of dried leaves, dried cherry and a subtle earthiness that works beautifully with rare roast beef. Those who would like a classic example of Central Coast herbalness will get it in this wine.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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