I just read an interesting article on JOY of Wine, Should Cheap Wines Win Medals?, and thought it was worth sharing my two cents.
Value brand Charles Shaw has once again picked up some serious awards at a prestigious wine competition, the Orange County Fair Wine Competition. 2011 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 Charles Shaw Merlot, and 2012 Charles Shaw White Zinfandel all won golds. Bronco Wine Company produces Charles Shaw, which earned the moniker 'Two Buck Chuck' for their low retail prices (it originally retailed for $1.99 a bottle). It immediately fell into the category of 'cheap = low quality'. When it's 2007 Chardonnay won Best of Class at this same competition six years ago, the wine industry was nearly turned upside down. How can cheap wine perform so well in competitions?
To start, cheap doesn't mean low quality! Companies like Bronco operate on economies of scale; they are able to retail wine at low price-points because they are able to keep production costs low by buying grapes and producing wine in bulk. The fact is that just because a winery is big, doesn't mean they can't produce great wine. I have worked at some seriously big wineries where we made amazing wine across the board, from $3-50 a bottle.
Judges in major wine competitions are required to taste and score a daunting number of wines in a short period of time. Despite being professionals, this inevitably results in the muddling of sensory evaluation. How wines are grouped and lined up for tasting can have a huge effect on what wines will perform well, regardless of whether or not the competition is blind or double-blind (this means the judges do not know what wines they are drinking when they taste and score them, like at the OC Wine Fair Competition).
As Joy mentioned in her article, "the wines were judged for what they were at the time of judging". This doesn't mean they would perform well in a competition one year later, or even two months later. There are indeed many wineries that produce wines specifically to perform well in specific competitions, hoping that winning medals will equate to better sales. Some wineries (and in no way am I accusing Bronco of any wrongdoing) are rumored to enter a wine into competition that is not a representation of what they actually retail. Since wineries send their wine entries directly to the competitions, it is hard to ensure that the wine arriving is indeed the same wine as it's claimed.
Assuming that the latter is not the case, Charles Shaw took down three gold medals and should be congratulated. Some wine industry members look down on these results, and believe low price-point wines shouldn't win medals. I don't understand why. The wine market is competitive, and consumers want quality for money (the nature of ANY supply-and-demand market). Will smaller producers be affected by these medals? Maybe, but why is that unfair?
Consumer education is really the problem. Medals, awards, and reviews don't mean everything. We all have different tastes. As I have stated countless number of times (read What Wine Should I Drink?), my favorite part of Joy's article was her statement that "in the end, you should drink what YOU like, regardless of the hype, the awards, or the reviews".