Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Friday Feature

Who Says an Award Winning Wine Has to Be Upscale and Expensive? Not The Judges at the Prestigious California State Fair Wine Competition
In the wine industry ratings mean as much as they do in the movie business. For a winery to receive a high rating for a particular brand, variety and vintage of wine from a wine guru like Robert Parker means marketing gold. Similarly winning one of the many wine competitions held throughout the U.S.and the world is equally translated into significantly increased sales for the award winning wine and winery. It's the industry's jackpot. Winning a Gold, Double-Gold or Best-of-Class award (just to name a few) at one or more of these competitions is for wineries what a thumbs-up five star rating from Roger Ebert is to a movie.

One of the most prestigious wine competitions in the U.S. is the annual California State Fair Wine Competition. The recently concluded competition is held during the state fair in Sacramento each year from late July to September 3. Upscale, boutique wineries enter their wines as do larger more mainstream wineries.

The fact that the competition is held in California, the center of the U.S. wine industry as well as a world leader in wine making, isn't lost on the many California wineries and others who enter their best, most expensive varieties and vintages in the competition. Winning a wine competition in Califonia--especially for the home state wineries--is similar to a baseball team winning the world series in their home town. It's the big enchilada.

The competition has many categories, featuring judging on nearly every variety of wine in existence. The judges are well know wine writers and editors and other wine experts. To say the least there's quite a bit of snob appeal associated with the competition and judging.

Most years the winning wines have similar characteristics: They generally (but not always) come from smaller, boutique wineries, were created in part with the wine competition in mind, and sell for much more than $2 dollars a bottle-- much, much more.

But not this year. The winner of the prestigious Double-Gold Medal in the Chardonnay category at this years (2007) California State Fair Wine Competition is a wine known around the country as "Two Buck Chuck," the discount wine sold around the country at Trader Joe's markets. It's a wine synonymous with cheap--the "peoples wine" if you will. It's also one of the best selling wines in the U.S. even though it can only be purchased at a Trader Joe's store.

In addition to being inexpensive "Two-Buck Chuck" Chardonnay, produced by Ceres,California-based Bronco Wine Co., is now also award winning. It's in a league of previous California State Fair Double-Gold award winners with names like Mondavi, Krug and Martini, and tiny upscale boutique wineries too small and exclusive to even be recognized by the reader. These are mostly varietal wines that retail for a minimum of $30 a bottle to well over a $100, not two bucks like Chuck.

Winning a Double-Gold in the California competition is the holy grail of wine awards. And the "Two-Buck Chuck" victory has the wine press and wine industry buzzing. The California judging was a "blind" competition like all other serious wine competitions. Judges have no idea the brand of wine they are tasting or it's retail price. They compare and contrast the wines using their educated palates and decide a winner without knowing anything about the wines origin or ownership.
No one is questioning if the California competition was on the up and up. Far from it. It's considered on of the most stringent competitions in the world. However the questions still abound. How could a $2 bottle of wine win the Double-Gold they are asking. Some are saying it's because the judges taste so many wines their palates become muddled. But why then isn't that also true when a $200 dollar bottle of wine is the winner? Others are questioning the entire concept of wine judging competitions. They're asking if such competitions are really meaningful, if such competitions actually judge a wine's quality, and similar questions. Lots of soul searching is going on with this group.
Meanwhile others are just rolling with it all--and even having a good time with the "Two-Buck Chuck" win. Chief among the people in this group are the Franzia brothers, the owners of Bronco Winery and creators and marketers of the $2 line of wines. For years Bronco Wine Co. has been telling the wine world and consumers that a great wine doesn't have to cost lots of money and pointing to their "Two Buck Chuck" as the example of a cheap but great wine. Perhaps they have been right all along. And now they have the prestigious Double-Gold Medal award to prove they were.

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