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Sunday, December 03, 2006

New Zealand Winery Caught in Judging Scandal

Although just about everyone involved is calling it an honest mistake, one of the top New Zealand wine brands finds itself in the middle of a controversy that caused a magazine to pull its top rating after it was discovered the wine submitted for judging was not the same as most of the wine available to consumers under the same label.

Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2006 received a five star rating and was named as one of the top 10 New Zealand sauvignon blancs by Cuisine magazine in a recent tasting. Then wine critic Michael Cooper thought he detected a difference between what he tasted in the entry bottle and a bottle he bought at a supermarket. Following a blind tasting comparing the two by Cooper and two other judges, along with a laboratory analysis by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research it was found that the wines were indeed different. The lab analysis showed that the competition sample and the supermarket wine had different levels of alcohol, sugar and acidity. In essence, these were very different wines.

Wither Hills, which is owned by New Zealand drink conglomerate Lion Nathan, has been quick to answer the charges. The company says that the wine sent to the publication for judging was from an early batch of the 2006 vintage. It says that 2,228 cases out of a total production run of 100,000 cases were from that batch. That means about 2.2 percent of the wine sold to the public was the same as what was sent to Cuisine. The wine sent to the magazine had already won several medals in other competitions.

In an open letter on its website Brent Marris, Wither Hills winemaker and director, wrote that "Wither Hills has never and will never create small batch blends for the express purpose of entering wine shows." It goes on to say that the Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc would not be featured in Cuisine because "the tasting bottles and those supplied to retail outlets were not sufficiently consistent with each other to meet the rules of CuisineƂ’s tasting review which specify they must be identical."

"There was absolutely no intention by me to deliberately present a wine to the Cuisine judges of a different quality to the wine you can buy off the shelf yourself. An independent audit of my winemaking process found no wrong-doing on my part and total consistency with world best-practice," Marris writes.

No matter what you think of the explanation, Cuisine's decision to pull the five stars was the right move. Consumers buying a wine that markets itself as one of the top 10 sauvignon blanc's in New Zealand, known for the quality of the varietal, have the right to expect they are drinking the very same world class wine that judges sipped.

It will be interesting to see if other major wine competitions verify the integrity of their awards programs by testing entry wines and retail samples. A high score from a major wine magazine or gold medals from key competitions can make a wine label. Prices for recognized wines often increase dramatically. Many wine stores will use signage to tell you which wines got a 90+ ranking or took home a medal. I have seen people going through a wine shop using the ratings in the Wine Spectator like a shopping list. Reputation is everything when it comes to the highly competitive wine world.

In the end, all of the competitions and ratings are subjective. Your taste buds need to tell you what you like. However, with the prices of many wines, these guides can help consumers decide how to spend their hard earned dollars. It would be nice to know that someone was policing the situation so we don't end up with a Yugo on our dinner table when we thought we were buying a Mercedes -- especially since we are paying for the luxury.

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