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Considering Value and Strategy When Entering Wine Competitions

By Dawn Dolan

For small and large wineries alike, entering wines in a competition is a tried and true marketing tool. Get a medal, push out an email to your direct-to-consumer base telling them about the award, and give the info to your sales reps, and let them sell the product with its new, improved standing.

However, new competitions continue to emerge, and wineries are increasingly faced with considerations about which competitions to participate in to get the most value out of their marketing budgets. Is a gold medal worth the same from any competition? And what additional value do individual competitions offer?

Daryl Groom, partner and chief judge of the Press Democrat’s North Coast Wine Challenge says that from the viewpoint of the newspaper, the desire is to provide a highly regarded competition platform, where wineries want to participate. A regional competition, this competition is drawing from well-known appellations north of the San Francisco Bay area like Mendocino County, Napa County, and Sonoma County, but also up-and-comers Lake County, Marin County, and parts of Solano County.

The North Coast Wine Challenge Only publishes gold medals and above and also provides points scores for those wines, which is very desirable from the a winery’s perspective. Diane Wilson, winemaker and owner of Wilson Winery in Dry Creek Valley appellation, says that this one of the reasons that the North Coast Wine Challenge is on their list of the four competitions they participate in. “We can use the point score they provide. Consumers relate to that.”

Another added value provided by the North Coast Wine Challenge is an event in June, called The North Coast Wine and Food Festival where wineries can showcase their winning wines to a thousand consumers and tradespeople, and the benefit to wineries doesn’t end there.

“The judges we choose to taste the wines are major buyers or writers or influencers in the wine industry. Quite a few wineries may never be able to get their wines in front of these people by other means. Buyers for United Airlines, HEB, Safeway, PF Changs, Sigels, Barons Markets, Ferry Plaza, Oxbow, Single Thread to name a few,” Groom notes.

Given the difficulty for most small wineries to get in front of these types of buyers, the benefit is tangible.

Another significant benefit which the consumer may not see, but is valuable to the wine industry, is education. “We pride ourselves on being a mentoring and training platform for young professionals in the wine industry with the introduction of associate judges”, Groom notes. “No other competition does this.”

Co-producer of the Experience Rosé competition, Craig Palmer is enthusiastic, and feels they are filling a niche by having a program dedicated exclusively to rosé wines. “We want rosé to be front and center, the priority, so it needed its own competition,” declares Palmer.

Their motto is “Every Day Pairs Better with Rosé,” so to that end, Palmer notes that there are events that show the versatility and approachability of rosé. “This [program] gives extended value throughout the year.”

Draxton Rose, Best of Show at Experience Rose 2018

With two curated tasting events for the public, Palmer says plans are in place for a daily promotion of rosé, looking to the winners for content each week. A featured release, recipe pairing, or inside information about a brand or winemakers may be offered up, providing opportunities for the winey to utilize this with their clients. Palmer says, “When you enter [Experience Rose competition], you join a year-long opportunity to tell your story about rosé.”

Soda Rock Winery, one of the Wilson Artisan Wine brands, is a sponsor of this event, and Wilson says they decided on the sponsorship to help the trend. “Rosé is the new hot wine,” says Wilson. “I think’s it’s overcome the sweet white zin stigma, now being made in the more French and Italian style. We wanted to help promote this trend and corroborate people’s choice of it.”

The unbiased judgements from competitions is not only a tool for winery marketing, they also provide consumers help. “Wine can be intimidating,” says Chris O’Gorman, Director of Communications at Rodney Strong Winery, and he believes in the value of wine competitions. “A consumer goes to a shelf, and there are thousands of wines to choose from. If he sees something under $20 that won ten gold medals, it points the consumer in the right direction.” 

O’Gorman feels the competitions they choose to enter give good value for the winery. He cites the San Francisco Chronicle Competition as doing a great job, both by providing an event at which the consumer can taste the winning wines, and by excelling at their publicizing, which helps sell wine. He points out that wineries need to hold competitions accountable, making sure they have quick turn-around in publicizing the results and follow-up events, or the public loses interest.

However, he also cautions that wineries need have skin in the game as well, and must do their part to publicize the results and get out the information to their direct-to-consumer and wholesale consumer base.

Groom elaborates on the value to the consumer, “…the competition becomes a guide and tool for their wine drinking and buying. We have done all the work to let them know what the best wines are and where the best values are. It would cost them a huge amount of time and money to taste and evaluate all the wines we do.”  Wilson agrees, “Scores and awards help by validating the consumers’ choice.”

Rodney Strong Rose gold medal at both Experience Rose and the North Coast Wine Challenge.

So what strategies do wineries use to select which competitions they will enter? It can be quite a pricey endeavor, with a chunky fee per entry, sending 2-5 bottles of each, plus the delivery or transportation fee. Depending on the per-bottle price and entry fee, wineries lose the production cost of the bottle, at minimum, and at maximum, lose the profit from a full retail sale. Thus an average cost to a winery per wine entered probably starts at $125 and ends upwards of $250 per entry. Clearly this represents real money to small wineries, but can be a worthwhile investment, both to those running larger quantities, and those with a primarily DTC base.

O’Gorman says Rodney Strong’s strategy is primarily based on helping their wholesale platform. “As we move up the price-point scale and lower on the production numbers, we have to think about whether it is a good fit. Is it a new wine that we want in front of judges? What is the quality of the judges?”

They are careful to think through the end result, and how the results will be used. For a wine marketed across the country, they get the news out quickly to their sales reps, and use social media and press releases to push out the information as soon as they get it.

Wilson says they participate in four competitions, with small-lot wines not being sent in. “Wines that are limited we don’t want to put in,” she says. Timing plays a role for Wilson too, as she noted that the San Francisco Wine Competition is first in the year. “If a wine doesn’t show well there in January, we might try later in the year at another competition. It’s nice to have accolades, which help sell the wine.”

Also, playing a role in the decision of which competition to enroll in is location. If a large enough client base is concentrated in one state, entering a competition there can make sense. For Wilson Winery, with a mainly DTC base, Wilson notes that one of their choices is the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ International Wine Competition. “We want exposure in Texas, which is one of our biggest wine markets,” states Wilson.

For wineries choosing the right competitions to enter means evaluating how the benefits a competition offers matches the brand’s needs and market strategy, which pushes the competitions to continue to innovate and develop additional ways to reach consumer  with events, content, and providing year-round value to get wineries to continue to sign up with them.

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