The Myth of the Gold Medal Wine

Who doesn't have one?

At tastings at some wineries, the host (whoever is pouring) will make a point of mentioning that this or that wine has won several gold medals or silver medals at tasting events, and so forth. I find this to be a singularly unreliable measure of the quality of a wine. In fact, I'm tempted to say that it is a feint to make you feel that you ought to like the wine. I mean, after all, it won all these medals. That means it has to be good, doesn't it? And if you think that it is swill, well, then it must be your taste buds that are the problem today.

Bull. Gold medals are not a reliable indicator of quality. Some wineries have the medals lying about the tasting room, on shelves or in cabinets, but don't talk much about them. Some wineries tout the medals. A lot. When you hear that, beware!

The worst experience I ever had with this behavior -- the widest gap between the promise of the gold medals and the taste actually delivered by the wine -- was at Pat Paulsen's in Sonoma. (This was some years ago, more than ten, so I doubt that the gentleman is still there.) The person pouring that day had an incredibly bold, blatant, if-you-don't-love-this-wine-then-you-have-no-taste attitude that we couldn't believe. He recounted for us the accomplishments of each wine as he poured it: "This wine won two golds and three silvers." And the wines were absolutely the worst that we had tasted that week. We jokingly wondered if the wines would be capable of dissolving their medals. Had Pat been there, he would have made a much funnier joke. Sorry, Pat.

My brother Dave has a theory that seems to explain this phenomenon. There are so many wine-tasting events, and at each event so many categories in which medals might be awarded, that there are enough gold medals to go around: eventually everyone will get one. Seriously. If you look closely at many of the medals, you find that they are given in categories such as "Best Cabernet Sauvignon between $10 and $12.50." I am not making this up. Given these fine distinctions, a single tasting event might give out forty or fifty gold medals, and probably some silver ones, too. But only one of those medals says "Best of Show" on it and that's the only one that counts. Well, okay, "Best Cabernet," "Best Chardonnay," "Best Sauvignon Blanc" and such all count. But not "Best White Zinfandel between $5 and $6 picked on a Tuesday and intended to be served chilled." Get real.

This is like the participation trophies that some schools hand out to all the kids so that no one's feelings will be hurt. Good for self-esteem; not useful for measuring competition.

Comments and flames to the author:  "Why use logic when there's a flamethrower handy?" Hey, go ahead. I didn't exactly leave the gloves on when I wrote this.

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Revised: 1997/03/18