Saturday, September 1, 2012

Show sophistry

Wine shows, and the Australian systems of them, seem to be somewhat topical at the moment. Some of the dullest wine topics imaginable ensue, front-running being whether to score wines out of 100 or 20, or perhaps 20 with small increments. The usual shibboleths trot their way out onto stage: shows are about 'improving the breed' of wines, shows are important for communicating to consumers about wines... I could go on.

But maybe there is a different kind of conversation available here. What if we started at the point of admitting the real reasons why the show system continues to function in Australia, and then went on to ask if there are other arrangements that could better meet those functions? What if we had no wine show system at all, but delivered the system's benefits (such as they are) in a different way?

Take 'improving the breed'. It's a fig leaf. The wines aren't the breed being improved. It is the people. That's the breed. The show system currently functions as a mechanism for 'training' wine people in wine opinion, including how to express those opinions and how to keep fitting in with shifting taste cultures. Some of this training function extends to people employed in wine but not currently judges or associate judges, through mechanisms such as stewarding and exhibitor's tastings.

The wines themselves are not the breed being 'improved'. What happens to the wines is a crapshoot. Assessments simply cannot be 'objective' or science-based under show judging conditions. Too many wines to taste, too little time, the absence of food, classed in muddles of different climates and styles, subject to the stylistic whims of un-published panel directions, taste assessments made about measurable attributes that then cannot be supported by measured evidence... It is an inherently-flawed process if the objective is to improve the breed of wines. It accelerates wine fads and style shifts, under the guise of vague rising-tide, all-boats-a-lifting metaphors. 'Elegant' cabernet, ripe shiraz from warm climes, rose that cannot be from bleeding juice, chardonnay full of bones or splinters... there is no linear trajectory of 'quality improvement' here, driven by the show system.

If we faced up to the function of the show system being to form and reform the people involved, to shape cultures of taste, then could we really say the show system is the best way to do it? Is it sensible trying to acquit what is really an educative and social-networking function by having wineries subsidise agricultural show societies who then subsidise wine people to drink together and learn from each other?

What would happen if every Australian wine producer put their budgets for samples, costs, staff time and travel related to wineshows into better education and training, including in local networks? More region-wide events for people in the wine game, buying in samples of wines for collaborative benchmarking exercises. More cross-region exchanges of information, including scientific and subjective information, could be funded through mechanisms more efficient and more proximate to the wine industry than outsourcing this to agricultural societies.

Would anyone in wine notice much of a difference in their sales and marketing from the absence of the shows, from the cursory or illusory marketing efforts of the show societies? I suspect the show societies would feel a loss from ripping up the current system and starting again, from scratch, at figuring out better ways to 'improve the breed' of wine knowledge and creativity. It might mean fewer exposures to the great and expensive wines of the world for some judges, subsidised by growers and wine businesses whose own people end up locked out of these experiences. But what if an alternative to the show system meant better, more capable people in Australian wine, leading to better wines as a result?

What do I come back to? The system does not do what it says it does. It accentuates faddish trends. It rips people off. It hides lifestyle subsidies for a privileged few. It is shockingly poor value for Australian wine businesses that send in samples. So tear it up. Boycott the shows. Let them wither and die. Face up to the hidden functions the system still serves, like improving the 'human breed' in Australian wine. And ask, squarely and clearly, if the real aim is people, their knowledge, networks and learning, then what is a better set of arrangements and institutions to get those benefits.

Australian wine, and those that drink it, deserve better.


  1. Nice post Paul. The only value I see in wine shows are for the judges who participate.

  2. Hi Paul,

    This is a piece by Dudley Brown -



    1. Thanks, James. Dudley's take on the show system differs a bit from mine, but there is a fair bit in common. Wonder what the shows would be like if run by growers?

  3. Interesting perspective and certainly a common one for many producers I suspect.

    My question is simple - aside from ditching wine shows all together, what do you propose we do to fix them?

    1. If I had to try and 'fix' parts of the system (and I'm not convinced it is fixable), I'd try and have a single show with an explicit consumer's focus. Don't try and retrofit a consumer focus as a token bolt-on to all shows.

      Keep some of the most local shows for local reasons if they have support and those with a specific purpose & specific support (such as the Aust.Alt.Varieties Wine Show). Come up with a show standard that shows need to meet if they are part of an accredited system.

      I'll draft something separate regarding standards for shows (I love writing a good standard), but a couple of things seem especially needed:
      - Transparency. Publish individual, named panelist scores and final panel scores together. Publish written directions to panels from panel chairs or show chairs.
      - Comparability & consistency. Support the show system, and its continuous improvement, with a common platform for all Australian wine show results. Any show needs to format results as per the national standard and export the results to a common platform. The combined show results should be publicly available and searchable, so any consumer or producer can see the full range of show performances of a given wine.
      - At least some shows should buy in some of the wines from the market (perhaps this is a focus for the consumer show?). Deal with the issue of the best wines of the region being missing from the show system by buying bottles in and testing them against peers.
      - Consider having an accredited lab (like AWRI) test report on key parameters (alcohol, residual sugar, pH/TA, brett?) as a condition of show entry. That would put some accurate spine into the public face of some wines, but more to the point it could help put judges on notice regarding some of their taste-judgements that can get made (eg brett claims on clean wines).
      - Standardise tasting temperatures for the wines & ditch ISO glasses.
      - Ask hard questions of the minimum-make requirements that exclude a lot of the best makers and wines.
      - Shows need to clearly state the number of bottles needed to be submitted and why they are needed. Magic requirements for 6 bottles, with no public tastings, where two bottles get opened in the show and 4 get kept by show societies to give as gifts to their mates or sold off as fund-raisers... that stuff needs to stop (or at least be out in the open).

      For the consumer-focussed show, use consumer + 'expert' juries/panels, across small, apples-to-apples brackets. Avoid the idiocy of trying to decide if an aged semillon is 'better' than a young shiraz as 'wine of show'. Perhaps even stagger the tasting across each year, with bigger reds more a focus in the cooler part of the year, whites in summer. Have a progressive series of results announced throughout the year, with locations of judging cycling around as well.