Sunday, 6 September 2009

The International Wine Challenge - what is the point of it(?) and other rants!

It was during the late 1980's when I first set out on my journey of discovery of the great big world of wine. That was around the time that Diane and I began enjoying the odd bottle or two of Bulgarian Cabernet, Romanian Pinot, various Aussie blends and the like with our meals. Well, everybody has to start somewhere - and some of those wines were, I seem to recall, very enjoyable. But it wasn't until I began to discover such delights as Chateau Musar 1979 and Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz 1987 that I began to suspect that there may be so much more out there to discover.

I can't remember who pointed me in the direction of Chateau Musar, but I am eternally grateful, because various vintages have given me so much pleasure over the years. And I still have a few 1991's, 1996's (much underrated, but gaining weight all the time) and 2001's tucked away. Not that Musar is cheap anymore (my first bottle cost around a fiver) but, at around £15 a bottle for the current vintage, it is still a relative bargain. As for Penfolds Bin 28, I can remember exactly where I first heard about it - from the results of the much-publicised International Wine Challenge (IWC), where it won a gold medal and was named "red wine of the year". And a beautiful wine it was too - so much so that it really fired my imagination and got me really interested in Aussie wines. Oh, how times have changed...... Is it my palate that has changed/evolved, or are Australian wines so different, these days? If truth be told, perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. However, I digress...........

Perhaps it was always the case that wines entered into the IWC were mainly from the supermarkets and high street chains such as Oddbins, Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms-Up and Majestic. But then again, 20 years ago, the supermarkets and the afore-mentioned high street chains genuinely were pushing the boundaries and unleashing countless interesting (and often brilliant) wines onto the market, thereby introducing a whole new audience to the delights of good wine.

But fast-forward 20 years, and the scene is much more depressing. Oddbins is a mere shadow of its former self (although some brave soul is attempting to revive its fortunes - with very mixed results, it would seem), whilst Thresher is reduced to selling predominantly "brand" wines at vastly over-inflated "normal" prices, but thinks it is clever to offer "buy 2 bottles and get a 3rd bottle free" - or (a variation on the same tired theme) "40% off", by way of cheap viral marketing. Perhaps they should stick to selling fags and Special Brew. Majestic is still trying (a bit) although its ever-increasing size means that more and more mass market wines are finding their way onto its shelves, at the expense of the more interesting wines from smaller, independent growers. I guess it won't be long before they are as "interesting" as the various arms of the giant Laithwaites empire. As for the supermarkets, they have mostly become deserts for thirsty wine drinkers on the lookout for interesting and unusual wines. In fact, the less said about them the better.

Which (finally!) brings me back to the International Wine Challenge. I had a look through some of the results yesterday and they made for depressing reading. Or, at least, the French ones did. Obviously, the first sections I headed for (using the "Find me an award winning wine" search facility, on the right hand side of the page) were red and white Languedoc and Roussillon and Vins de Pays. And virtually all I found were pages and pages of generic wines churned out mostly by village co-operatives, negociants and multi-national concerns - exactly the sort of boring stuff to be found on supermarket shelves. The odd "bronze", here and there - perhaps even a few "silver", but mostly just "commended". There even seemed to be several pages-worth of "awards" for the giant Skalli/Fortant de France outfit - they make a few decent(ish) and technically correct wines, but nothing to get excited about. I then headed to the Burgundy section and found much the same - mostly generic bottlings and wines from a few negociant firms and bottom-end growers (i.e. mostly supermarket wines again).

A quick look at the California section revealed yet more branded wines, along with, it has to be said, a few top-end and icon wines as well. What really caught my eye, though were the various Australian sections - countless pages of awarded wines, ranging from the usual generic stuff, through to some of the top icon wines, and all points inbeween. Which only serves to illustrate just how aggressive the Australian growers (or more likely their regional and national marketing boards) are in promoting their wines. It doesn't necessarily mean that Australian wines are better - although judging by the results of this competition, you'd think Australia was by far and away the greatest wine producing country in the world! Of course, you have to admire the Aussies for their marketing efforts. After all, they haven't become the number one exporter of wines to the UK market by sitting on their backsides and waiting for it to happen - which is what the French (or, at least, their regional maketing bodies) seem to do.

The problem is that France - as a whole - sees itself as the greatest wine-producing country in the world. Which, in my opinion (and, I would venture, that of a decent majority of the world's wine lovers) it is. But that is beside the point. The pre-eminence and reputation of the top wines from France's greatest regions means that they will always sell. But what of the thousands upon thousands of small, independent growers throughout the country who are producing brilliant wines, but struggle to find a market for them? Other than small merchants such as myself, together with the more adventurous agents/importers, there appear to be few routes into the main markets such as the UK, Europe, the Americas and the Far East.

It is easy for people like me to blame the French marketing boards for this (and I frequently do!) but there is another equally plausible explanation; that the sheer diversity of France's wine regions, styles and number of quality-minded growers - which is undoubtedly its greatest asset - also happens to be its greatest problem. Vive La France - Vive la Difference, as it were.

So what is the solution? I only wish I knew. Perhaps, in our world of homogenous products and homogenous food and wines, there is no big solution. But (and I know I've said this many times before, but I'm going to say it again) if a marketing body with the apparent clout of Les Maisons de la Régions Languedoc-Roussillon cannot even provide funding assistance for the publication of the first major book on the region's wines written in at least 6 or 7 years (by my friend Peter Gorley), then what hope is there?

I must say, this blog entry began as a bit of a rant about the futility of the International Wine Challenge and all it stands for. And don't get me started on the fact that it would cost me in the region of 100 quid (plus several sample bottles) simply to enter one single wine into this competition. If I wanted to enter (say) 20 of my wines, I would immediately be 2 Grand (plus goodness-knows-how-many cases of wine) worse off. And for what? I've seen more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that "serious" wine drinkers (the ones I want to drink my wines) are not the slightest bit interested in whether a wine has some or other award ticket draped around its neck. Call it snobbery, but I avoid such wines like the plague. Problem is, 95% of the UK's wine drinkers see an IWC medal on a bottle and immediately assume that it is better than all of the other bottles on the shelf.

So, to round off what has become a bit of a lengthy post(!) and to answer my own question; What is the IWC all about? Well its about marketing, of course. And on that score, the supermarkets (and the Australians) win hands down.


Graham said...

Interesting reading. The IWC already had advanced symptoms of the same problem 15+ years ago when I last looked at the results (Wine Magazine in those days).
If it's any comfort I'm not sure the internal French "competitions" (Paris, Macon and the like) are any more satisfactory - everyone seems to win something.

Leon Stolarski said...

Indeed, Graham. Although some of my growers enter wines into the Paris competition (with a good few golds and silvers as a result) I am no fan of these type of competitions.

I like the Guide Hachette - indeed, I owe a lot of my "finds" to that publication. I know it's not perfect, but its coverage is much more comprehensive and (seemingly) equitable than these silly, self-serving competitions.

Best of all, of course, are the specialist/regional books, by writers such as JLL, Strang, George, Jefford, etc. Let us hope that Peter Gorley can eventually find some joy in getting his latest book published. Goodness knows, the Languedoc and Roussillon wine industry (especially the quality end) could do with a bit of a boost.

Anonymous said...

I too hope that the Languedoc book finds a publisher. Great things happening there, we all need more insight!

Bob from Alberta.

Robert Joseph said...

As founder of the IWC and, until their sale 5 years ago, its co-Chairman and publishing editor of the now defunct Wine Intl Magazine, I guess I should make a comment... Leon is right about the excitement of the Aussie wines of 20 years ago. But he's also right about the unwillingness / inability of the French to promote their wines. And twas ever thus. We had great difficulties getting the French to play in the early 1990s - before they faced such serious competition from the New World.
I still believe that good competitions have competitions a valuable role to play (I'm about to chair the third India Wine Challenge) as an alternative to individual critics. Books are a poor substitute (I write as former editor of the Good Wine Guide) because they tend to be out of date and the specific vintages out of stock by the time they hit the bookshops.
And the fact that the IWC reflects the supermarkets - though depressing - is hardly surprising. Supermarkets are where most Brits buy their wines. Much the same can be said for France, but French supermarkets are able to sell premium wines that cheapskate British wine drinkers would not dream of buying. It was once said that the American public gets the president they deserve. I'd respond that the UK public get the magazines, books - and competitions they deserve. It's no accident that Wine Intl magazine no longer exists, that Decanter is increasingly US-focused or that wine books find it hard to get UK publishers these days. It's called the law of supply and demand...

Jem said...


I noted your comments re lack of recognition for small french independent wine growers.

If you are in the Toulouse/Cahors region at some point, David and Sarah Meakin at Domaine du Merchien would welcome a visit. I beleive Paul Strang's forthcoming book gives them a v.good 'write up'; they are regularly in the Guide Hachette and they 'won' best bargain south west wine in Wine Report 2009 and that has since won a gold medal at Castelleran? I think. They are exactly the sort of Domaine that needs local/regional marketing support but for some reason that support decided that USA was a better bet!


I'd have PM'd you on wine pages but your mailbox is full!

Robert Joseph said...

I often question the logic behind French regional promotional spending, but on this occasion would have to say that I think they're right to focus on the US. the market for small-producer regional French wines (apart from the evidently desirable Burgundies, Bordeaux and Rhones) is simply more interesting on the Anglo Saxon western shores of the Atlantic than the East

Leon Stolarski said...

Robert - I'm not sure how you discovered my Blog, but it is nice to see that people from all corners of the wine world (and trade) are reading it.

Although I don't necessarily agree with everything you say in defence of the IWC, your points about the public getting what it deserves and about the dominance of the supermarkets are very pertinent. Having said that, I still see the recent IWC results as very depressing and a sad reflection on the demise of the supermarkets as a source of interesting wines. The high street chains also seem to be (slowly but surely) heading down the same route towards homogenisation.

The problem for the independents, of course (especially the smaller ones like my own company, Leon Stolarski Fine Wines) is the cost of entering wines into competitions. To enter just 10 of my wines (from a list of up to 150) at a cost of around £100 a go would far exceed whatever "marketing budget" I might in theory allow for a whole year. And the brutal fact of the matter is that the IWC appears no longer to be of interest to the sort of customer I am looking for - i.e. people who are seriously interested in wine.

On the subject of competitions versus books, I must say I stongly disagree with you. Admittedly, the advent of the Internet has had a serious effect on sales of good wine books. And this has had a serious knock-on effect of greatly reducing the number of quality books actually being published. But - for the serious wine lover - specialist books (for example JLL on Rhone, Rosemary George on Languedoc and Roussillon, Jefford on France) remain the real points of reference. And although you have a point about the elapsed time between completion and publication of wine books, the same can also be said (perhaps even more so) about the time lapse between the deadline for submitting wines for the IWC and the results actually being published - 6 months is a long time!

Ultimately, though, there is one *key* difference, and something that you surely cannot disagree with. Good growers make the best of each vintage - so grower is far, far more important than vintage. If I want to check out how a grower is fairing through the years, I can always check my older copies of the Guide Hachette. But if I want to know who the best growers are, year-in, year-out, then I'll refer to Jefford, George, JLL etc. Or, as is more often the case with me, I'll find them myself!

Leon Stolarski said...


Thanks for the tip on Domaine du Merchien. When I am next in the Dordogne region (or perhaps they might be at Vinisud in February?) I will check them out.

By the way, the name Jem doesn't give much away - do I know you from wine-pages by a different name?


Oh, and Bob from Alberta - thanks for looking-in and please keep on doing so!

Robert Joseph said...

Leon, you're basically right. Ideally you shouldn't be paying to enter the competition(s); the costs should be covered by the producers who, after all will potentially benefit far more than you will.
As author of some 28 books, I'd love to agree with you about their importance. I rely on them myself and totally concur about the reliability of better producers, but a visit to bookshops across the globe or a look at Amazon sales reveals how far their sales have dropped. Most are pubished in runs of 2-3,000 at most, so their influence is perforce limited.
The supermarkets are supplying what Brits want to buy. Just as, I imagine, you are doing with your customers. I suspect one major chain may be about to acknowledge this by reducing its in-store range even further - and hugely expanding its online offer, effectively giving you even less competition in the former and a whole lot more in the latter...

Jem said...


Thanks for your interest. They are about 30 mins south of Cahors. I will let them know about Vinisud as they are very interested in fairs/events. The next local one is too early for them as they have only just finished a v.good harvest and wont have pruned the vines by then.

I do have some taster cases over here at present but I would prefer it if you were able to taste the 2006's which they havent yet bottled as its a bit more attuned to the english palate - but I may get a few in early Nov. Having said that the others are all very distinctive and have recd some very favourable feedback from one well known online editor who visited in the summer. It certainly isnt the international gloop that Brits buy. As RJ says in the post above the supermarkets only buy what the UK market wants, so small independents like you are a saviour to the smaller producers but it is reaching you that is the problem! So thanks for your interest

Keith Prothero's report and pictures on wine pages about his recent jaunt was interesting too as Victor Paris's cave ressembles Merchien's.

On wine pages Jem is Jem Netley

Sarah said...

Words from the Horses Mouth, David ,Domaine du Merchien, great discussion, just finished in the chai /winery , tired and still got to load my van for market tomorrow, but I've just got to say you are all correct to a point but not seeing the small winemakers side in detail, perhaps you should talk to us more often, Robert? on GH we have been in it many times and have even been to Paris for our Coup de Coeur, but times are changing and 15 years ago we had to submit our samples in late April last year it was 16th Jan ,far to early for those of us who make wine naturally ! Competitions have become far to expensive and we from less fashionable appellations have to write to you or rely on such great wine writers as Paul Strang who take the trouble to visit wine producers like me!! Perhaps some of the big boys should get back to grass roots?? I could go on and on but I haven’t the time , wine needs to be made.