The Scoop on Wine Competitions and Ratings

Here in Sonoma County, you know that fall is near when the majestic trees and foliage start to change colors, the days start to get shorter, there is a slight chill in the air and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair comes to town!

This year marks the 42nd year that the Sonoma County Harvest Fair has showcased the bounty that the county has to offer. Coming as no surprise, wine and food are the two major stars of the fair, with all of the major winners just having been announced.

Sweepstakes, Best of Class, Double Gold, Gold…the type of award/medal a wine can win is a lengthy one. But, have you ever stopped and wondered what each of those classifications means? Here we’ll explore how a wine competition works, how each wine earns the award/medal it is given, as well as how the 100 point wine rating scale works.

Sonoma County Harvest Fair Professional Wine Competition

The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the largest regional wine competition in the United States. For a wine to be eligible for this competition, the grapes must be grown in Sonoma County and the label must carry a Sonoma County AVA (American Viticulture Area) as the only region listed on the bottle.

The wines are judged blind, meaning that the judges only know the varietal and price category that the wine falls into (under $25, $25-$40, $40 and over, etc).  They are not able to see the bottle at all, just the wine glasses with the wine placed in front of them.  The judges come from different areas of the wine industry such as media, restaurants, retail wine buyers, and the winemakers themselves.

Awards are given on a merit basis. The judges are instructed to grant no awards when, in their opinion, wines are unworthy, and they are empowered to grant duplicate awards if the quality of the wines so merit. According to the Sonoma County Harvest Fair judging guidelines, Gold Medal awards must be wines which define the varietal character in a manner only rarely encountered. Silver awards must show superior varietal character. Bronze awards must show significant, above average definition. Double Gold indicates a unanimous decision by the panel of judges. Best of Class will be selected by the judges from all Gold Medal and Double Gold Medal winners in every class—choosing their favorite wines among those medals in each category of wine. All Best of Class winners advance to the Sweepstakes round. A Sweepstakes is awarded to one white wine, one red wine and one specialty wine. That means that all Best of Class white wines (be it Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, etc) are judged against each other to determine the Sweepstakes winner. The same goes for red and specialty wines.

100 Point Wine Rating Scale

When thumbing through your favorite wine publication, or even looking at promotional materials in a tasting room, you’re bound to notice a review stating that a certain wine was rated 92 points by a certain publication, wine reviewer, etc. Here, we take a closer look at the 100 point scale and how it works.

The 100 point rating scale was introduced by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate in 1978. It is based off of the 100 point scale used in US high school grading. Generally speaking, it means that a wine rated 60 or above is acceptable, however a rating under 80 can make a wine unsellable. It is important to keep in mind that there is no single accepted system to rank wines, however the three “big guys” (Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast) all use the 100 point scale. Here is how to better interpret what the numbers mean:

50-59 points: A wine deemed to be unacceptable

60-69 points: A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies.

70-79 points: An average wine with little distinction.

80-89 points: A barely above average to very good wine.

90-95 points: An outstanding wine.

96-100 points: An extraordinary wine.

It is also important to remember that each person/publication has a slightly different way that they review wines than the others, which is why the exact same wine can get a 92 point rating in the Wine Enthusiast and a 90 point rating in the Wine Advocate.

The most important rating scale, however, is your own.  Try different wines, come up with your own rating system, and most importantly—drink what you like.  As always, the Oliver’s wine staff is ready to help you explore some new wines or share their favorite picks with you.

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