Wine judge PJ Charteris believes consumers can, in general, judge a wine by its bling.
Wine judge PJ Charteris believes consumers can, in general, judge a wine by its bling. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

The well-worn maxim "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover" could equally apply to the label on a bottle of wine.

But what if that label is covered with medals?

With the average wine drinker spending just four minutes in a wine store and with a greater than ever volume being produced, as well as an increase in unfamiliar varietals, the gold, silver or bronze medals stamped on a label can be an attractive purchasing shortcut.

But how reliable are they? Does their presence correlate to a quality offering or are they just a pretty but ultimately meaningless marketing tool?

And then there's what most of us are really concerned with: will buying a special bottle to take to a dinner party based on medals result in accolades for our astute choice or social humiliation?

A decade or so ago, consumer confidence in wine shows and medals seemed to be at a low. In 2004, wine writer and judge of (then) 15 years, Huon Hooke said he believed wine shows had become “little more than medal factories to be exploited for commercial gain".

Shows were accused of everything from lack of judicial impartiality and inconsistency to ignoring show protocols. Wineries didn't help with instances of displaying medals on wines of different vintages to those that had actually been awarded them, or, on occasion, displaying marketing stamps designed to look like medals.

Fellow judge and wine writer Nick Stock says another issue, still relevant today, was the sheer number of shows.

“It's unnecessarily large. There are so many gold medals, people don't really know what to make of them,” he says.

Indeed there are more shows than weeks in the year, from the big-name metro shows to small and often obscure regional ones.

Stock, who has been particularly critical of the larger wine shows, says that while everything changed around them, in the wine show world, time stood still.

“The organisers didn't seem to understand that the world of wine is becoming more diverse in style. Particularly in the last five or six years, it has been dramatic, with a move away from everyone making the same style because it seemed to be the most popular or the same chardonnay because that's what everyone's dad bought.

"Now many winemakers are trying to make very distinctive, unique wines that speak of providence, not unlike the direction food has taken. Shows though are generally still stuck promoting a system where the big style statements are being enforced.”

Change has been gradual but definite and Stock says that recently there has been a genuine effort by the bigger shows to acknowledge the excellence in diversity and to try to connect more with consumers. Part of this has been employing a broader range of judges.

“There were always too many winemaker judges. These days there is a lot of talent, with younger people, normal people judging wine, not just crusty old guys with cheese on their tie. The shows are now able to excite consumers, to reassure them that what's happening is quite up to speed.”

So how do wines actually get awarded those medals?

In each show, wine is entered into specific classes, such as "dry whites, two years and older" or "dry red, shiraz dominant blend".

A panel of judges tastes the wine blind and assesses it for colour, condition, bouquet and flavour, awarding it a score out of 20. (The Royal Queensland Wine Show now uses the 100-point system, deeming it more easily understood by consumers.)

The scoring criteria are that a bronze medal is awarded for a wine scoring 15.5 to 17 points (85-89), a silver medal wine must score 17 to 18.5 (90-95) and a gold medal wine above 18.5 (96 points or over). Trophies are awarded to wines judged to be the best in their class.

So ultimately have wine shows done enough to win back consumer trust in those medals on bottles? Winemaker and judge PJ Charteris, who has been judging for 20 years, reckons the consumer can be confident in the relevance and reliability of wine medals.

“If they can't then we're not doing our job properly, because the wine being awarded medals and trophies is being judged by people who are respected for their depth of knowledge," he says.

He has a caveat though: not all wineries choose to display their medals on their bottles and sometimes there can be more than one gold, silver and bronze in a class, so he also recommends looking at the score given should wineries choose to display it on the bottle.

Ultimately it seems wine buyers have two choices; either we extend that four minutes in the bottle shop doing research or we cross our fingers and hope that the fresh-out-of-school 18-year-old manning the wine store actually knows what he's talking about. Joy or humiliation await.