Why I Never Enter Wine Competitions & Pulled the Plug on Submitting My Wines for Scores:
Leah Jorgensen Jean
CULTIVATING A MARKETING PROGRAM THAT IGNORES THE “COMPETITION” OUT THERE
I have never entered my wine in a wine competition.
Perhaps simply because I’m a mostly under-the-radar woman winemaker and tiny winery owner – I just don’t have the ego attached with winning or even competing.
Beyond that, I have taken a more holistic, visionary-based and perhaps unorthodox approach to marketing and selling my wine without needing big-win accolades. I do not wish to undermine the hard-working wineries that actually need accolades to sell their wine. As wineries scale in size, they have more challenges in selling more wine. My business model does not include scaling – so I can afford to skip the competitions and scores.
When I started out making and selling my own wine, I had several mentors advise the standard business plan of getting to 3000 cases as soon as possible. That was the magic production number that supposedly shifted a business from barely breaking even to “profitability”. So, like many before me, I set out to eventually scale to 3000 cases. And even a small production size of 3000 cases gets challenging to sell through.
A few things hindered me along the way – namely raising enough capital. I made some big rookie mistakes like trying to work with a prospective investor/partner when neither side really knew what we were doing; I drew up a contract that was never signed and an ambiguous guessing game continued for a short term with a spoken agreement to help get my winery to 3000 case production. Suffice it to say, it never happened. I took the initial leap in production and found myself in over my head with bills I couldn’t pay and my business has suffered since. I could never find the working capital I needed to not only meet the terms of all of my debts, but, certainly fell far off the path to 3000 cases quite drastically.
Every small business has grand visions and even grander challenges and set backs – and they often won’t see the enormity of those challenges and set backs until years in. No small business owner, after putting in several years in business, goes without saying this: had I known how hard this was going to be, I wouldn’t have done it. If a small business owner in manufacturing has missed this rite of passage, well, I don’t believe it.
I have had to learn how to reframe and pivot long before the pandemic hit – and yet that colossal collective experience still had not really prepared me for the impact and fall out that would come to harm me and my business. I say this because me and my business are one and the same – it’s my name on the label. Aside from some part-time help, I am the only full time employee – so everything rests on my shoulders.
In 2018 my business plan swiftly re-evolved around smaller, hand-crafted focus at around 1500 cases. That number has fluctuated through the birth of a child, the pandemic, drought and lower and lower production numbers. I’ve been spinning around and around trying to reframe. But, with less and less production means scarcity – and with exceptional wine quality vintages providing lower and lower yields, I am producing bottles that are increasingly more and more collectible. I’ve had to relearn how to sell these wines, how to tell my story in a new and honest way, and hope that it all works out! Honestly, that sells more of my wine bottles than high scores ever did.
I used to work for prominent and pioneering wineries that needed scores and competitions to move through massive inventory – even if there was a reluctance to rely on scores, which have always been considered a shadow side of the business by many professionals.
As for the competitions – they don’t really make any sense to me. Lots of wineries will get assigned a bronze, silver, gold or double gold status. Best of show categories are offered out, which I guess assigns a “winner”. But at the heart of it, even as a former college athlete and high school varsity sports coach, I’m just not into stacking up wineries against each other in an already unbearably competitive industry. I have managed to skate past the super competitive ecosytem of the Oregon wine industry simply because I don’t make a drop of Pinot Noir. So, in many ways, there is very little competition in my category. And I don’t really compete with the few that make Cabernet Franc because our wines are so stylistically different. To be fair, I’m the only winemaker in Oregon dedicated to making Cabernet Franc with 6 of my 9 main skus being 100% Cabernet Franc and 1 being a blend with 60% Cabernet Franc.
I recognize that I am fortunate to be able to sell my wine in a unique way, not needing the old paradigm to keep me in business. But, it’s not without hard work, understanding the market, and making really smart forecasting, sourcing, and winemaking decisions. And rolling with the changes that come my way. I rarely pat myself on the back, so, this is one area where I am comfortable doing so. I have meticulously planned to dominate a category that has been underrepresented in my state.
While I mean to be sensitive to others who utilize competitions and scores to sell wine, I would be remiss, to not blow the whistle on the scoring side of the business. While I understand that some wine industry magazines mean well, they still follow outdated review models and scoring that are not really inclusive and are strictly subjective. All but a few of today’s reviews are centered on western, Caucasian senses, experiences, flavors, tastes and language. I have received many 90++ scores and, honestly, the process of submitting my wines for scores does not reflect my ethos about the wine business. So, I stopped.
When I talk about my ethos about the wine business, it’s multifaceted. But inclusion and evolution is very important to me, being part of a wave of winemakers and winery owners committed to change, and equality in representation, etc. I’m tired of people holding up signs but not really doing anything.
Washington winemaker/owner Ashley Trout recently took to Instagram to announce this women’s history month she would only submit her wines to female critics. That was a powerful statement.
And yet when a popular national wine magazine recently hired a replacement critic to review Oregon wineries, rather than diversify, amplify and hire a talented and qualified critic from a marginalized group, the magazine instead hired another older white male who loves baseball and rock and roll.
When I worked in communications at a very large winery portfolio group decades ago, the VP of Communications, who had a giant, blown-up black and white photograph of himself in the 70s in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert just inches from Mick Jagger, would regularly take the editor of Wine Spectator out to baseball games. That’s just business, right?
But when we’re talking about subjectivity versus cronyism, well, there’s a reason why some winery folks call the magazine Wine Speculator.
I’m not mad at larger wineries for needing favorable scores to sell their large wine inventory. It’s just business. But, when consumers take stock on scores as if they have some supreme meaning about a wine’s perceived value, well, that’s where I, and many wine industry folks, have a serious problem.
The final straw for me came when I submitted an older vintage Cabernet Franc to a prominent reviewer. I wasn’t thinking it through. I felt I needed the validation from certain critics to be relevant. The review was listed in a sea of Oregon Pinot Noir reviews – ALL with 92 points – and each and every review received one sentence sort of describing each wine with a level of thoughtlessness that it made me think maybe AI is a better option these days, after all. Anyway, after I paid my $350 to access my review, I was horrified by a number in the 80s and a sentence suggesting the wine was a Pinot Noir. #$%* that.
I choose not to participate because I don’t need to and I don’t want to. It’s my own kind of boycott.
I get way more mileage from editorial and other entities that actually take time to thoughtfully present my wine with paragraphs of storytelling and wine information – like SommSelect – which isn’t for everyone. I’m sure there are winemakers out there who are boycotting SommSelect. To each their own. But, at least SommSelect puts thoughtful editorial out there for their members and audience to fully appreciate the bottles they choose to include in their program.
The world of wine collecting has old roots, too, and they’re also beginning to crumble. Savvy millennials are using technology in meaningful ways to invest in wine while boomers are still stuck fighting it out over the auction blocks. Collecting is changing.
Savvy wine collectors today are recognizing that scores matter less and less. Instead, there’s more appreciation for real talent and serious, professionally crafted wines made with stylistic intention while showcasing a deep understanding and reflection of a place – and at miniscule production numbers. Scarcity and rarity drive value. Collectible wine today needs to have a passionate fan base willing to pay a larger sum for older, rare bottles. Scores, and certainly competitions, are more and more irrelevant to that end.