Wine competitions are not charities

People may call the South African wine industry all manner of things, but you could never accuse it of being boring! At least not within the small circle of seriaaas winos, writers and industry players.

But the past week has seen something of quiet spell between the publishers of pixels and controllers of column inches who seem to quite enjoy taking the mickey out of each other. Instead it’s been the chance of wine competitions to step into the limelight. It’s nothing new for competitions to bear the scrutiny of wine writers, producers and consumers. However this time it is not the results that are causing the rumpus. Lawyers letters are what is stirring the spittoon, even before a ball’s been bowled.

All the fuss has been about a new competition that was announced a few months back – The Top 100 SA Wines. I am not going to go into discussion on the merits of this competition or its format. It has been covered extensively by Neil Pendock as well as a number of South Africa’s wine media*.

This competition had received more press before a single entry was been received than most do when they award their trophies and glittery bottle stickers. However it has also raised the ire of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show’s Michael Fridjhon, along with Ramsay Media, the publishers of South Africa’s WINE Magazine.

Suffice to say, this story is likely to run. However, prompted by Mr Pendock’s latest poser on this topic, what I have been intrigued by has been the public response and opinions that have been shared as a result of this story.

There is a genuine sense of anger and disgust from the public that wine competitions are money-making initiatives. I don’t really understand this. They are privately run events that aim to attract brands who wish to create additional marketing and PR collateral. That’s it. They are a subjective opinion of a product, offered by a group of industry experts. There is risk in spending the money to enter due to this fact, as if your wines show badly you have effectively paid for nothing. If they perform, the producer has a few scraps that can be incorporated into their communications. If it does not, you can be paying to damage your brand.

A wine brand can advertise in a magazine, or pay a PR agent to create press releases. Does the public take the publishers and agencies to task for turning a profit? Nope.

But when it comes to wine competitions, we as consumers seem to feel that we are owed something by the organisers. There’s some sort of expectation of a righteousness crusade by an honest band of wine lovers to provide the great solution to the question of what wine we should be buying. Of course the difference to a paid advert is that there is trust in the legitimacy of the judging procedures, but how does the financial performance of the event have any bearing?

Some may claim that the high cost of entry is passed on to consumers. I would suspect that producers would treat the expense as a marketing cost which would simply mean a reduction in other promotional activities.

Producers and media may have justified concerns about the health of competitions, and I also agree that calling a competition ‘The Top 100’ is misleading given the details. But consumers need to be aware of the realities of what results represent. Perhaps more debate should be focussed on who is responsible for informing us.

*Cathy Marston

*Tim James on Grape

*Jan Laubscher of WineTimes

One Response to “Wine competitions are not charities”

  1. Nancy Grace Harris says:

    I totally agree – why on earth shouldn’t wine competitions make money to cover their costs/ profit those who organize them.

    You might be interested in an article on the Horse’s Mouth blog about competitions – is it true that there have been cases where a winery submits a wine for a competition but then puts something else in the bottle?!


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