What's the Deal with Wine Competitions?

Every year, wine judges and industry experts gather at dozens of competitions around the world, some internationally prestigious, others quite local in scope, to taste and evaluate wines that have been submitted for competition. For the vintners, winning a popular or prestigious competition can bring valuable exposure and increase sales. And the list of winners can be a helpful resource for consumers looking to find direction in the crowded and complicated wine marketplace.

Of course, just because a particular wine wins a competition doesn’t mean that an individual consumer will enjoy that wine. We all have different tastes and preferences, and they may not conform to those of the judging panel at a particular event. In fact, some scientists performed an experiment to determine the subjectivity of these competitions. They had the same panel of experts taste the same wines on different occasions, in different orders, and each time, the wines were awarded different scores. How one perceives a wine, including experts, can depend on how that person is feeling on a particular day, the temperature of the wine, the wine that was tasted before and after, etc.

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While wine competitions can give the average consumer a starting point for judging whether to invest in a particular bottle or not, the results should always be taken with a grain of salt, and with thoughts for one’s own preferences. (Don’t take your actual wine with a grain of salt, though. Salt isn’t good for wine.)

Typically, though certainly not always, judges award medals to wines in specific categories. Since each judge can award medals, some competitions produce multiple award winners in each category. Bronze, silver, and gold medals are usually awarded for the top three places. In some events, the gold medal winners are pitted against each other, the top score-getter receiving a double-gold medal. Other matchups simply award point totals, or place all the wines in order from first place to last place.

The Judgment of Paris

In 1976, a British wine merchant organized a wine competition in Paris, judged by nine French wine experts. The merchant, who only carried French wines, was looking to generate some publicity. At the time, it was the general consensus that only French wines were of a superior, “fine” quality, all the rest of the world’s wine being thought of as “bulk” or “discount” table wine. The competition pitted six American cabernet sauvignons against four French bordeaux, and six American chardonnays against four French chardonnays.

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To the shock of the entire wine world, with the possible exception of California winemakers in the know, the judgment was won by the Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon and the Chateau Montelena chardonnay, both from California.

The result announced to the world that the California wine industry had truly established itself on a par with the centuries-old French tradition, and was producing world-class wines. This inspired wine makers in other countries, and across America, to seriously consider investing in establishing quality wine-making facilities. Within a year of the competition, four new wineries had opened in Texas, and the industry really started to come into its own during the 1980s. There are now more than 450 wineries in production across Texas, with plenty more to come.

American wine competitions

The largest, most influential international (meaning wines can be submitted from anywhere) wine competition in America is the San Francisco International Wine Competition, started in 1981. In the last 10 years, a number of Texas wines have begun winning medals somewhat regularly at San Francisco. The most recent judgment, in November 2018, produced double gold awards for seven Texas wineries. You can see the list of winners here.

The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, unlike the New York City competition, is open to the entire wine world, not just industry insiders. The first event was in 2001, and they accept more than 3800 entries from around the world and all 50 states. Fewer Texas wineries ship their wines to New York for this event, but the March 2018 competition did yield gold medals for four Texas wineries, including one double gold.


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Texas wine competitions

In 1984 the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association began the Lone Star Wine Competition in, appropriately enough, Grapevine, Texas. Initially, this was a local event to showcase Texas wines. Since then, it has expanded to a limited international compass, and almost all of America, excluding the four states that produce more wine than Texas: California, New York, Washington, & Oregon.

Some of the wineries we visit regularly that won double gold medals at the 2018 Lone Star Competition include Barons Creek Vineyards, Bingham Family Vineyards, and Messina Hof Winery.


Two of the more fun local wine competitions are those that are held in conjunction with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Although both events rank wines according to the traditional awards of bronze, silver, gold, and double gold medals, the winners actually get to take home saddles and belt buckles to display in their tasting rooms. Keep a look-out for these status symbols when you visit a Hill Country winery on your next tour. And ask your server which wines are the award-winners. Then you can determine for yourself if you agree with the experts.