Monday, April 11, 2011

California State Fair exploits wine judges

For the second year in a row I received an invitation to pay my own way to judge the California State Fair Home Winemaking Competition. Last year I sent the organizer a snarky response and he got defensive, but  he sent me an invitation again anyway. I'm going to run his email below; I'll bet I don't get invited by Tom Sawyer to pay to whitewash a fence again.

A little background: Wine competition judges are often unpaid, but are in every other case I know of  reimbursed for transportation, given a hotel room -- it's a safety issue, it's impossible to taste 65 wines without absorbing some alcohol -- and fed nice meals for the duration of the event. I'm judging at the Concours Mondial, Europe's most prestigious wine competition, again next month under those parameters. I enjoy judging, I get a free trip to Luxembourg, and I won't have to worry about driving anywhere after tasting.

Wine competitions make money on entry fees. Some competitions charge wineries more than $100 per wine entered. The California State Fair charges only $12 - $18 per wine to home winemakers, depending on how many wines are entered. Thus when the organizer claims more than 1000 wines were entered last year, the revenue was probably more than $15,000.

I'm not saying the competition organizers are getting rich. But I'd like to know where that $15,000 is going. Read the email: You'll see that it's not being spent on the judges; not even on reimbursing mileage. And while I've had some great homemade wines, particularly from the Contra Costa Wine Group, as a whole they aren't the easiest on the palate. You'll also note that Tom Sawyer isn't satisfied with the way you've been whitewashing, and expects you to improve.

I'd like to know if home winemakers would mind paying $1 more per entry to reimburse judges' expenses, considering the extensive notes expected; please comment below if you have an opinion. Also, since I'm not going to do this, if you read the email and think, 'That sounds like fun!" let me know and I'll put you in touch. Let that be my contribution to the state of home winemaking.

This is a request to ask if you would like to join me in judging the 2011 California State Fair HOME Winemaking Competition.  This competition has been in existence for over 20 years; this would be my sixth year. The date is Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 (one day only) from 8:30 a.m. till we finish in the afternoon.  (I will be bringing in more judges to help lower the amount of wines each judge has to judge).
It will be held in Lodi at the Wine and Roses Restaurant, Hotel and Spa.  Please put this date on your calendar!  and return this form!  

In case you are wondering — this is about 3 weeks AFTER the State Fair COMMERCIAL Competition.  The actual California State FAIR has moved its dates from the last two and half weeks of August to the last two and half weeks of July.  We had to take the HOME Wine competition out of the month of July.  

Because of your willingness to judge this competition and the high standards we have established, we are getting high marks from the Home winemaking community!  This is the only competition I know of that keeps increasing its numbers.  We had over 1,000 wines last year!

I am afraid that we will not be able to pay you a stipend, put you up overnight or pay for any travel expenses.  So I’m counting on your generosity and willingness to give back to the winemaking community by assisting the home winemakers of California.  This tasting is only one day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.  We will, however, have coffee, juice and rolls in the morning and an elegant box lunch provided by Wine & Roses Hotel, Restaurant & Spa.  

If you choose to judge, there is ONE important requirement:  it will be imperative for you to produce helpful (and readable) notes and comments for EVERY WINE YOU TASTE!  (Last year, judges averaged 60 to 65 wines.  I hope to bring this down to about 45 - 50 wines by having more judges).  I believe the best value we can offer home winemakers is positive and critical evaluations and, if possible, information on how to correct any problem(s) you may experience.  Your notes should be able to assist a home winemaker who garnered a Bronze medal this year, to be able to make it a Silver medal next year.  

In addition, I have a team of volunteers who have been evaluating your tasting notes to the home winemakers.  If you have judged for me in the last three years, you will see your rating on the attached form.  This rating system is based on your judging notes of the wines you tasted.  It is simply a guide to 1) assist you in your note taking, 2) help improve the competition overall and 3) help you understand how valuable your comments may be to home winemakers.  A score of “EE” is all I can ask of you.  If you scored a “G”, I’d like to see you raise that up.  

What makes this competition better than others is the feedback that we give every home winemaker.  If we can help you become a better wine judge, you will give better feedback.  Every wine you taste requires a tasting sheet that will be returned to the home winemaker.  We have a team of volunteers who rate your scoring sheets via this criteria:  
Rating Scale
EE — 1) you gave really positive notes, 2) and you attempted to identify the problem(s), 3) and you attempted to offer solutions to solve the problem.
E+ — 1) you were not quite awesome, but darn close.  
E   — 1) you gave really positive notes, 2) and you attempted to identify the problem.
G+ — 1) you rated between G & E.  
G  —  1) you gave okay notes, or 2) you used mostly circles, or 3) you faded in enthusiasm toward the end of the day, or 
4) we couldn’t read your writing (these will be returned to you for re-writing).
n/a — 1) not enough sample sheets viewed to determine a rating.  

One other feature that we do to assist all judges and bring the level of knowledge to the highest standards possible, is the use of a TECHNICAL ADVISORY  PANEL of Judges.  These Advisory Judges will roam the tasting room commenting, assisting and educating all judges on wines that are really good and/or wines that need further technical assistance.  Please use these judges to assist you in making comments.  

Here are the members of the 2011 TECHNICAL ADVISORY  PANEL:
o Darrell Corti, Grocer and Wine Merchant, Corti Bros. Stores
o Richard Peterson, PhD, Viticulture and Enology Consultant
o Scott Harvey, Owner/Winemaker, Scott Harvey Wines
o Ed Moody, Director of Winemaking Bronco Wine Company
o Kenneth Fugelsang, Winemaster, Professor of Enology, CSU Fresno
o Brad Alderson, retired General Manager/Winemaker, Woodbridge, CA
o Clark Smith,  Winemaker, Writer, Consultant, Inventor

Please join us this year by filling out any missing information on this form and returning it to me, no later than April 30, 2011.  Please note my new address and phone number.  Thank you.

G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski


Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Funny coincidence, the timing of your post...I'm working on a post of my own about a competition that I judged at this past weekend. Winemaker Magazine does an annual one here in VT at the Equinox resort...they took good care of us, yes we were expected to provide helpful analysis and notes. Food and lodging, no travel expenses ( for me it was s short drive, but other came from afar). The entry fees for this competition are $25/bottle...50 judges, rotating panels of three people, flights of six, five, or four wines, and get this...4,232 wines total. Fantastic handling of logistics, very smoothly run (Winemaker Staff were heroic).

If that is what a few extra dollars of entry fee leads to, and I've previously entered wines into this competition myself, then I'd say it is worth it for the betterment of the whole process.

SUAMW said...

As a home winegrower and winemaker I don't give a rip about any competitions.
I have little faith in most commercial wine competitions and am not pining for some hollow affirmation.
I'll spend my money on wine growing and wine making supplies.

Joe R. said...

As another home winegrower and winemaker, I was able to attend the awards ceremony last year, where they had the gold medal winners pour their wines. After talking with some of the other winemakers, the general consensus was that those wines that were tasted later in the day were unfairly judged (in the downward direction). While some judges were top notch (Mike Dunne, Scott Harvey), others were...questionable. I agree, they'd get more and higher quality judges if they kicked in for the expenses, and i'd pay another $5, maybe $10 to get that.

While I'm not anti-competition, my winemaking friends LIVE for it.

Anonymous said...

I'll give this to Pooch. He has a great cellar from all the wines he has skimmed from the Commercial Wine Competition. And there is no accountabiity on where the money goes from that either.

Aaron said...

While the organizers might be asking for a bit much here, not sure I see how anyone is being exploited?? This is after all, a completely voluntary exercise and the terms are pretty clear. Who's being taken advantage of exactly?

Anonymous said...

I can't believe they won't provide transportation and a hotel room. It is indeed an issue of safety. Short-sighted on their part.

Brian Miller said...

Gray, you are an elitist. I'm sure you'll agree and won't find that a criticism. You imply that pro-bono judges are poor judges. You even imply that it is the intent of Home Winemaking Competition organizers to assemble inexperienced judging panels to fluff up the awards ("whitewash").

A more accurate way to portray the Home Winemaking Competition is this: The entry fees are kept low to allow more amateur winemakers the ability to participate. The judges are hand-picked and experienced in the wine industry even if not all are professional judges. There are a high percentage of commercial winemakers in the pool so as to assist the entrants in improving their wine. They are there to "give back" to the industry. The panels are assembled so that on each there are always highly experienced judges, as well as winemakers with technical knowledge. If necessary, the judges have the ability to consult with technical experts to help advise the home winemakers on how to solve problems that have occurred.

W. Blake Gray said...

Miller: I didn't say or imply any of that.

I don't know what the average income of amateur winemakers is, but every home winemaker I have ever met in California is an upper-middle-class homeowner.

I am a freelance writer. I assume you know what that means economically.

Are you able to understand what I AM implying?

Tim Hanni MW said...

What a petty and mean-spirited post. I have known and worked with Pooch for years. If you don't like the terms and conditions of an invitation it is your perogative to decline. First you write a 'snarky' response, then you write a snarky blog. Do you think glassware, venues, supplies and are free? I think you owe Pooch a apology.

W. Blake Gray said...

Tim: Why is a venue not free? Because the owners choose not to donate its usage. Whereas judges' time and expenses, well ...

Anonymous said...

Looks like those eyeglasses were dipped in an inky glass of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon!

Anonymous said...

Or should I say Screaming Owl Cabernet Sauvignon? Hoot! Hoot! I'd say the lights are on but nobody's home with this silly wine reflection. This guy's probably named his first born Nebuchadnezzar!

Tim Hanni MW said...

"Tim: Why is a venue not free? Because the owners choose not to donate its usage. Whereas judges' time and expenses, well ..."

Why are judges willing to participate for 'free' for many events? Because they choose to donate their usage. Or not. If they choose to participate it is usually because they love the commaraderie, the sense of discovery and in this case to see what home winemakers are up to - what is new and exciting.

Here is why one person travelled to Lodi, completely on his own nickle, for our Consumer Wine Awards project (and we have many similar notes):

"Tim, I had so much fun. Wines were amazing. Indiana will never know what they are missing.
I never dreamed that me, a steelworker from Merrillville Indiana, would ever be a wine judge/evaluator at a major wine competition. I thought that was for the critics and pros.
Sunday, I drove around Lodi, tasting even more great wines. I got to go to the cellars and barrel taste at a few of them.
Thank you so much for choosing me and I hope I can do it again next year."

And here is a message form a Platinum winner in the competition (from Pennsylvania): "These awards mean so much more to us than the political, wine-snob-driven competitions we often enter. You have no idea how tough it is to prove that world class wine can be produced in Pennsylvania! Your recognition encourages us to go quietly about the process of making good, affordably priced wines every day. We will keep fighting the good fight."

Many people still love the participation in wine tasting events, both experts and consumers. AND they can manage to be safe and responsible on top of all of this.

So you get a free trip to Luxembourg for the Concours Mondial - have you demanded to see their books? "I'm not saying the competition organizers are getting rich. But I'd like to know where that $15,000 is going" How many wines, how many $?

I think the question about whether or not the extra $1 per entry is a good one, but how far do you actually think that would go?

W. Blake Gray said...

Tim: While I appreciate that you're defending your friend, I find it strange to see you complaining about someone exposing what they see as an injustice in the wine industry. Aren't you always writing about certain types of people being disregarded?

I chose the word "exploited" for a reason. You can look at any class of exploited laborers and find many who enter that type of arrangement willingly. That doesn't make it right.

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, and Tim ... no promoting of one's unrelated events or products in the comments, please. Thanks.

W. Blake Gray said...

Actually, unusually for me, I don't think I was direct enough. I've been trying to say delicately something that I now want to say straight out.

This is not a nonprofit. It's not a charitable event. The class of people I'm being asked to donate to are upper-middle-class people who in almost every case own a home with a cellar large enough to accommodate winemaking.

What are they going to do with their medals? Do they need medals, or are medals something they're going to display on their wall and brag about?

For this, I -- a freelance writer -- am supposed to donate my time? Wouldn't my volunteer time be better used on the underprivileged, the environment, or any number of other causes?

If anybody at all is making money on this event, judges should be compensated.

Tom said...

Hello Mr. Blake, a simple not interested or a polite "no thank you" to Pooch would be enough. It is a cheap shot to allege misdeeds or solicit criticism from your readers about a most prestigious event. The "State Fair" folks (including Pooch and participating judges) work very hard maintaining the integrity of the event. The results provide home winemakers with objective opinions about their hard work. I welcome the feedback.

BTW - Do you blog your complaints when a publisher "underpays" you (by your standard)? I doubt it!

W. Blake Gray said...

Tom: So what you're saying is that if somebody is exploiting wine judges, I should just be polite to them?

I'm curious if you think Pooch's letter is polite. Keep in mind I told him in no uncertain terms in previous years essentially what I said in this blog post. By "inviting" me again, he's showing how much he believes a day of my time is worth.

If this event is indeed "prestigious," why is that? Would it be because of the prestige of the judges who aren't being compensated?

As for whether I would blog my complaints about publishers who underpay; yes, I absolutely would, and so would many others. Have you followed the criticism of the Huffington Post, a for-profit which doesn't pay writers?

I don't know what you do for a living, but will you come to my house on your own expense and do it for me, for free, for an entire day, so that I might profit from your labor?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely I'd pay another $1 - $2 per entry to help defray judges expenses.

I have been entering home winemaking competitions for about 5 years, and the judges notes do help "sometimes" :)

Anonymous said...

A little late to the party but the comments reminded me of a post from

"Dear Simon

Actually, you were asking me to design a logotype which would have taken me a few hours and fifteen years experience. For free. With pie charts. Usually when people don't ask me to design them a logo, pie charts or website, I, in return, do not ask them to paint my apartment, drive me to the airport, represent me in court or whatever it is they do for a living. Unfortunately though, as your business model consists entirely of "Facebook is cool, I am going to make a website just like that", this non exchange of free services has no foundation as you offer nothing of which I wont ask for.

Regards, David."

As a competitive fencer and rated fencing director (referee), the best tournaments are the ones that pay their refs (from both the participants' and referee's perspective).

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: That link is absolutely hilarious. Thanks for sharing. And you're right, the best wine judges generally go to the competitions that treat them the best, and that includes compensation. Why wouldn't they?

Honestly, I'm surprised that so many people came here to take umbrage with my taking umbrage. People don't expect plumbers or carpenters to work for free.

SteveinOakland said...

As a home wine maker who has participated in the state fair for over 10 years, I applaud Blake's brave stance. Believe me it is much harder to offer tough love than to praise a sacred cow.

Those of you who love the fair are so sensitive that you attack Blake for offering a fair criticism?

I want to point out that some criticism from an independent perspective is a valuable input and should be taken as constructive. I know Blake and know he strongly supports home wine making. He is not elitist and those that actually read him regularly would know that he has published in the past, in public, that a home wine was better than any of the "ultra premium" wines he tasted on a particular day.

He doesn't pander though either. When a wine is average, he says so or says nothing.

I have complained in the past that the entry fees have gotten too high, but Blake has made me rethink that stance. If I knew that Pooch was spending an extra $1-5 to offer a hotel room our generous judges, I would gladly pay for a higher fee.

Knowing the history of the recent event a bit, I think some are over sensitive and Blake perhaps struck a more sensitive nerve than he thought without realizing it. Honestly, all he is saying is charge relatively wealthy people a bit more so that judges (who generally make significantly less than the participants) do not have to drive unsafely.