The Buyer
IWSC Debate: Making the most of international wine competitions

IWSC Debate: Making the most of international wine competitions

You only have to walk down any aisle at a major international wine fair to see producer after producer showing the medals they have won in different wine competitions. But how important are they to wine buyers tasting their wines? Do they make a difference in what wines they list? What makes one wine competition stand out over another? To help find out The Buyer teamed up with the IWSC to ask major wine buyers, who also invest a lot of time judging competitions themselves, why it is they take part, what they are looking for in a medal winning wine and what producers should be doing with any medal they do win.

Richard Siddle
13th March 2023by Richard Siddle
posted in Debates,

“It really bolsters your knowledge as a wine buyer and puts you in touch with a lot of what is going on…” That is just one reason put forward by our panel for why leading wine figures give up so much of their time to take part in judging major wine competitions.

You can watch the full recording of the debate here.

Our thanks go to our panel of leading wine figures who were willing to share their expertise and insights on the role they think wine competitions have in the wine industry.

  • Rebecca Palmer, head of wine buying at Corney & Barrow, with extensive buying and judging experience assessing wines from all over the world.
  • Cat Lomax, wine consultant and award-winning wine buyer who has held senior buying roles at Laithwaites, Waitrose, Majestic and most recently Marks & Spencer and is a former former ‘Drinks Business Retail Buyer of the Year’.
  • Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, international wine consultant who sits on the senior judging committee of the IWSC that oversees the judging process and helps decide the trophies awarded.
  • David Kermode, broadcaster, writer and critic, who hosts The Drinking Hour podcast on Food FM and is a regular contributor to The Buyer and is a judge and ambassador for the IWSC.

“I think competitions are really important as a measure of excellence and progress,” is how Rebecca Palmer kicks off the debate.

Cat Lomax agrees: “I have always found [competitions] extremely useful.”

Not only taking part herself as a judge, but as part of the vital research process that every senior buyer has to go through when looking at a new region to buy wine from.

Picking out the producers and the wines that have scored well in major wine competitions can be very useful in helping her determine what the trends and styles of wine are she needs to understand are being made, she explains. “It’s an external endorsement of quality.”

“Competitions have been a really great way of accelerating my research process. If you find a producer that is year-on-year getting golds and silvers and trophies that says to you these guys are doing something amazing in terms of their quality and are producing wines full of personality and are benchmark for their region and are absolutely worthy of an international audience. It’s also a really quick way of whittling down from the 1,000s of producers in a region that these are the ones worth focusing on.”

Palmer says she also sees competitions and medals as a key part of her work as a buyer: “I absolutely do take into account awards and the award history, as one of a number of key criteria at the R&D stage, when evaluating producers to take on to our portfolio. I always look at results from key competitions, to see who has garnered awards – it can be a real help and throw up some important leads.”

It has also helps identify those producers that are picking up high scoring medals on a consistent basis over a number of years, she stresses. That demonstrates they are a quality wine producer “worth pursuing” and really helps a busy buyer weigh up which producers to concentrate on.

Key for buyers

(Click here for Cat Lomax on why medal winning wine producers can be ideal as own label partners for supermarkets)

A producer that is making consistently high quality wines, vintage after vintageis exactly what a multiple wine buyer is looking for, says Lomax. It indicates they are capable of “meeting quite stringent technical” standards and have the necessary accreditations for a major supermarket to do business with.

“Having a stamp from a competition that is judged internationally by very senior and respected trade professionals you know the quality in the glass is going to be consistent and that’s a really big tick,” she says.

Producers with high scoring medals from respected competitions can also be a very good way for multiple buyers to identify potential partners to work with on long term own label and exclusive label projects.

These are crucial decisions as any own label needs to be a “shining endorsement of what you as a supermarket stand for, so the quality has to be there”.

“If they are trophy winning, medal winning and recognised as the producer to work with from that particular region then that is an extra reason why you as a wine buyer would want to go and talk to them about producing an own label product for you. So if any producer has aspirations towards working with supermarkets on own label then absolutely be thinking about how can you get to the top of your game in terms of year in year out performance at these type of competitions.

It’s why they, and so many other senior buyers, are so keen to take part in the judging of major wine competitions. It’s an opportunity, adds Lomax, to really “immerse” yourself in the wines from a particular region and really get to understand them.

She explains: “It’s a good way as a judge, and as a buyer, to be exposed to a load of wines you would not necessarily ever taste, or regions you would ever consider. It’s a fantastic way to broaden my own repertoire, my own understanding of what is going in the winemaking world and to see really in advance of anyone else where the trends are and what to keep your eye on.

“It really bolsters your knowledge as a wine buyer and puts you in touch with a lot of what is going on and can really keep you sharp and quick and ahead of the game which is where you want to be if you want your range as a retailer to stand out.”

Palmer loves the fact that through the judging buyers are able to take a “deep dive” into an area like Ningxia in China, or get to really understand Koshu from Japan, or taste wines from Bolivia and Columbia. Opportunities they would not get in their day to day roles.

(Click here for Cat Lomax on why are wine competitions are so important to major retail wine buyers)

Collaborative judging

What really comes across during the debate is the level of team work, and collaboration that goes on in the judging process. Yes, it is down to every judge to assess each wine using their own tasting skills and experience, but when it comes to scoring the wine and deciding what medal it should receive that then becomes an collective affair where the judges are all working to the same criteria and rules in terms of how a wine is assessed.

At least that’s the way this panel – and the IWSC – believes the judging and scoring system should be applied.

David Kermode says he was surprised at quite how “collegiate” the IWSC judging process is and also just how “humbling” it is to judge alongside “these amazing”professionals and experts in the industry who have so much knowledge and experience. But also how quickly you are welcomed and feel very much part of the team.

“I consider myself to be very fortunate to be [judging]. I live and breathe wine but I don’t have the background that the others on this panel have. To sit with these people and to assess wines with them and bring my perspective to their perspective and to learn from them is such a brilliant experience,” he explains.

He particularly likes the fact everyone who is on a panel at the IWSC has equal weight and prominence and all views are respected in coming up with a final decision and there is no “dominant” chair.

“I have learnt so much about wine, but also the way that buyers choose wine. It is truly fascinating.”

(Click here for Corney & Barrow’s Rebecca Palmer on why wine buyers take so much notice of wine medals)

Palmer says credibility in the judging process is crucially important to her: “When I am involved in the judging process I know when I have a flight of wines in front of me we have quite clear cut standards and a points system that we are going to apply when we are putting the wines through their paces. I know the wines achieve whatever points they have done so according to a certain standard and there is a sense of integrity around that and you can use it as a measure to judge other wines that have met that standard.”

Lomax says it is key all panel judges respect each other and their backgrounds and areas of expertise. “There are always very different levels of experience but what is consistent is that everyone on those panels, absolutely has the experience to be there and to be judging.”

It means that no matter how long you have been in the trade and buying wine for in every session “your own understanding gets stretched”.

So, for example, in last year’s competition she was asked to judge some South African wines even though she has not visited the country. But other panelists were very experienced in South African wine and together they could “stretch” their own understandings and ensure “every wine is given their fair chance to sing and impress and people are not there with very narrow visions” that a particular wine has to taste in a certain way.

Palmer says you have to quickly “get to know each other” and “find a common ground” with a judging panel and decide between you the pace and the “modus operandi” within which that particular group is comfortable.

“You have got to have a process as a judge and as a team of judges where you are getting beyond the fruit and getting into the structure and the BLIC (balance, length, intensity, complexity) where you are judging a wine with a set of criteria that goes beyond the fruit. That comes with experience and you sometimes have to help junior judges get beyond that initial fruit hit which can be quite confusing.”

She adds: “There is absolutely a team ethos. It is very humbling because you will always learn something.”

Effective judging panels

(Dirceu Vianna Junior MW on how to run a good judging panel in international wine competition)

Interestingly Dirceu Vianna Junior says a good day of judging should not be how many gold medals were awarded, but more how happy he and his fellow judges are about how well the panels performed together and the collective decisions they all took.

“There is nothing worse than coming home and thinking that third wine in the second flight should have been a silver. That’s not a good day for me.”

It’s why the IWSC only judges a maximum 65 wines per judge a day as it gives them the time to consider each wine on its own merits, and crucially, stresses Junior gives the panels the time to debate and talk about each wine in turn.

“Everything is done with utter respect for the producer and one of the skills I learnt from one of the best – Mr Steven Spurrier – is always put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and the producer and have I fair to be both and that is what I really try and do as senior judge is to make sure all the judges are aligned and they are making the right decisions and not rushing,” he explains.

He also encourages “them to be brave and if you really like a wine then talk about it and fight for it”.

What makes a good judge

Junior says it is great to hear all the talk about the open, collaborative approach of the IWSC judging process as that is very much what he looks for when looking to bring a new judge into the fold. “If the judges have this mindset of coming to exchange knowledge, coming to learn something and bring their humility with them, that’s some of the most important things they can bring,” he says. “That makes my job very easy.”

Which is why the IWSC has worked hard to ensure the majority of its judges are professional buyers with direct buying experience and responsibilities.

It is up to Junior and the rest of the senior judging team to quietly monitor the junior judges to assess their scoring patterns as well as picking out gold and silver medal wines to make sure the panels are keeping to the scoring criteria required.

Defining medals

Each wine competition will have its own scoring system that dictates which medals they receive, but in the IWSC to get a gold you have to score 95 and above, silver it is 90 to 94 points and bronze it is 85 to 89

To get a gold medal it has to be a wine “you would like to have a case of in your cellar,” says Junior. “That is the easiest way for me to explain to the judges.”

A wine, he adds, “with its own personality that stands out”.

To get a silver it also has to have “great personality, a sense of place and a varietal definition that you could use in a wine tasting as a benchmark” for that variety. A wine that reflects the “personality” of that varietal style from that country, be it a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, or Chile, for example.

A bronze is a wine that is “clean, correct and well made” but not worthy of much more attention than that, he adds.

Even with such clear definitions it will often lead to lengthy debate as to which category a particular wine falls into, which Kermode sees a big positive of a competition like the IWSC. As judges are only asked to assess up to a maximum 65 wines a day there is usually plenty of time for that discussion to take place and ensure each wine is truly put “through its paces”. “That is something to be trumpeted,” he says.

Consistency of wines is one thing, but it is also important for buyers to keep judging the same competition as you then really get to know how it works and what the value of each medal is, stresses Palmer.

She explains: “In the IWSC you absolutely know what it means if a wine got a bronze, what it is that got it a silver and what it is that got it a gold.”

She also tends to take more notice of the silver and gold producers as they are the ones “who are on the up”. “I would consider them very seriously if they did have a medal like that as I simply know what goes into the process. It has had to sing for its supper and it has had to work out in front of some serious people.”

Why enter?

It is understandable that producers might question the investment needed to enter a wine competition considering all the rising costs and pressures they face just to keep their heads above water, but Junior believes it is one of the wisest and most investments they can make in any trading year.

By entering a competition like the IWSC you are also getting an independent, professional “external analysis” of your wines and it is an “excellent way to take stock of where you are versus your competitors”.

So, yes, winning a medal is important in itself, but the judging process will also help a producer better understand where they sit in their own region, country or category of wine they are in. “It’s like having a very inexpensive consultant,” adds Junior. “It can be crucially important for a business.”

How medals cut through to consumers

(Click here for Cat Lomax on how major retailers want to work with medal winning producers)

The panel was united in urging producers who do win medals in a wine competition to make the most of it as they can have a big impact in cutting through to consumers. The fact you have stood out from your peers and been awarded a bronze, silver or gold needs to be celebrated and promoted to the consumer, but also your customers and partners in the market.

Lomax says if you are already listed in a major retailer it is vital you tell them you have won a medal as it will help them promote and sell your wine on shelf and online. That should be the first thing you do, she adds.

Every retailer’s PR team want stories that can help them push certain products to their customers be it on shelf talkers, emails, or across social media and a medal winning wine is a great story to tell, she stresses.

“They are definitely going to want to see your medal on the bottle. People are like magpies and are only in front of a wine aisle for a matter of seconds and if you can put a gold IWSC sticker on your label their eyes will be attracted to it and one of the things that will push a consumer over the edge in terms of making a purchase,” she explains.

She also believes successful wine competitions can play an important role in simplifying what can be a very complex and confusing sector for consumers to navigate through. A competition like the IWSC can present a “single voice” to the consumer and tell them that out of the 1,000s of wines from around the world it has picked out these few that are trophy and gold and silver medal winners.

“Where you have a medal where a wine has been assessed by a global panel of experts, it has been judged within an international context, that is a real ringing endorsement and it is much easier message for a customer to get hold of. That is something which is unique about competitions. They do have this global, collegiate voice. This is the combined wine trade telling you this is a great wine. That is something to really get across to the customer and is really powerful.”

Which is why Kermode says it makes complete sense to use medals to help consumers get past the “blizzard of choices” they are faced with walking down a supermarket wine aisle. “Those medals can be seriously important when making quite a quick choice,” he says.

“The IWSC can help but the producer has to think how am I going to use this and what am I going to do with it,” he adds.

Lomax also urges producers who don’t have listings in a particular country or sales channel to use any opportunities a competition may offer you to exhibit your wines as part of a display of medal winners at wine fairs and trade tastings as that is where buyers often go to track down new wines.

“They are great for buyers to go along to. I have done some purchasing from those types of tastings and if you have the opportunity to do that then definitely get involved,” she says.

Finding out which retailers are also looking to buy parcels of wine can be a very good way for a medal winner to get a short listing in order to promote their success and give that retailer an exciting new wine to sell, she adds. “It helps them add that a bit of sparkle and magic to their range. A medal winning wine is brilliant for a parcel purchase. It’s a great story and adds extra excitement to the range and is a real quality endorsement.

Medals in the on-trade

It is a slightly different story in the on-trade where there is not an actual shelf to sell off and most restaurants don’t like to see medals on the front label of any wines they are listing as “off-trade concept”, explains Palmer. “But they are fine if it is on the back label and it is more of a supporting act rather than shouting about it on the front label. As there is still that sensitivity between the on and off-trade in the market. We have to be mindful of that.”

Having a medal winning in the on-trade does, though, adds Junior, give a chance for sales teams to “re-ignite sales” as it is a “massive endorsement”. “The number one message is don’t waste time and make the most of it.”

He also urges producers that have won medals to use the feedback they receive from the IWSC in any marketing they do as a further endorsement of the wine.

Adding value

(Click here for how competitions like the IWSC need to evolve beyond judging wines & add value to producers)

The IWSC works hard to do what it can to give producers the support they need to make the most of any successes they may have in the competition, says David Kermode. And rightly so. Just running the competition and accepting producers entries and not offering them any follow up support just “does not cut it,” he says.

It is, for example, now looking at how it can help unlisted producers in the UK find a potential importer.

Feedback advice

One of the new initiatives introduced by the IWSC is to offer detailed feedback to all producers who enter their wines into the competition whether you receive a medal or not. It is also a way of capturing the detail of the debates the judges are having over each wine in any case so that it can be then documented and given back to producers as invaluable advice from the judges involved.

Each judging panel is asked to assign one member who is responsible for collating the judges comments so they can be fed back on every wine to the relevant producer.

“If you have not got a medal then hopefully you have got some useful feedback to take away. The IWSC is working really hard on it,” adds Kermode.

It is an initiative that judges and buyers have welcomed, says Palmer, as it is a way for them to explain why a particular wine got, say, a bronze and “what a producer needed to do make it a silver” or what they “wanted to see” in order to turn a wine from a silver to a gold. “We want to help producers on that path to improvement. It is about positive criticism and helping people move forward. It’s so important. It also helps feed the way you judge and how you going to give that feedback afterwards.”

Lomax adds: “It is the only competition I have judged in where as a panel you spend as much time discussing the wines that did not win a medal as you did the ones that do. It is all too easy in other competitions where if you all agree a wine should not get a medal it is just knocked out and that’s it and you move on.

“The fact you all have to sit there and intellectualise why have you not given this a medal actually makes you much rigorous in terms of awarding medals. You are being very self aware of what you are doing and it means every single wine gets input, thought and genuine consideration no matter what level it is.”

Junior describes the new feedback service as a “revolution” in wine competitions and makes entering an event even more valuable for a producer. “I think it is amazing.”

He singles out Christelle Guibert, chief executive of the IWSC, for particular praise in introducing the new feedback service and describes her as having a “magnet effect” since joining the IWSC in 2018 as she has been able to attract so many high level professional judges. “She is adding amazing value to this competition,” he adds.

It is also how a competition, like the IWSC, has to evolve. It has to keep on “adding value” to the producers who enter, adds Junior. “Any competition worth its salt in five years time will have to think about adding value.”

Which is why the IWSC is now looking at how it can play a role in helping producers without distribution in the UK find partners to work with, says Junior. So it becomes more than just a competition awarding medals.

The fact some panels are also taking place in the countries where they are judging the wines, like in South Africa, Argentina, Austria and Italy, is also a big step forward, says Junior. “It is massively important for the producers to have the judges, but also buyers there. It is another way to bring producers and buyers together. I think that is genius.”

Palmer says there is a real opportunity here for wine competitions to bring the whole value and supply chain of the wine industry together in ways they did not look to do. Taking buyers out to countries to judge means “genuinely important relationships can result from that process,” says Palmer. “It’s pushing boundaries, changing things, examining the status quo and disrupting it and Christelle definitely paved the way for new thinking and new ground.”

Kermode says if competitions “don’t evolve” they will “wither on the vine”. Simple as that. “Competitions can’t just assess wines they have to do a lot more than that.