June 11th, 2020–Some state winery trade association leaders have inquired about the feasibility of holding professional wine competitions while there are still certain restrictions due to the Covid crisis. I (Jim Trezise) have judged in about 300 competitions over the years, and created and oversaw the New York Wine & Food Classic competition for 30 years (open to New York wines only).
I know from long experience that wine competitions are complicated and time-consuming undertakings under the best of circumstances. This year, except for two competitions held in January, virtually all others have been postponed or cancelled due to complications from Covid-19.
Still, for those determined to go forward, I do believe that reasonable changes could be made to allow them to proceed safely and efficiently. Here are the very basic considerations, with “Covid Adjustments” indicated in some cases:
- Demand. You can’t have a wine competition without wine, so even if the competition has existed for years it would be worth polling previous entrants to see if they would enter again, since in most cases the entry fees pay for much or all of the competition’s costs.
Covid Adjustment: Send a blast email to prior entrants to see what percentage will commit, then determine economic feasibility. Losing money makes no sense (or cents).
- Venue. You need space for both the judges’ tables (usually large rounds) and the backroom tables (usually long rectangular), plus rooms to eat (lunch at least) with adequate spacing.
Covid Adjustment: Make sure there is plenty of space in all three areas for adequate social distancing relative to the activities that take place in them..
- Judges: Most large competitions have 40-80 judges from around the country and world, requiring major transportation, lodging, and meal costs, along with dealing with the attendant Covid risks. Having “name” judges is part of the “branding” of the competition, but at least during the Covid era it might be worth rethinking.
Covid Adjustment: To the extent possible, try to find QUALIFIED local judges, at least during this period, including ones who can commute daily rather than staying at a hotel. The key word is “qualified”, because otherwise you’re shooting yourself in the foot (or head) by losing credibility.
- Meals: For judges, the most enjoyable parts of competitions are the Welcome Dinner, another Judges’ Dinner, and often good breakfasts and lunches (depending on the competition). However, these are not at all conducive to basic social distancing–drinking, talking, laughing, etc..
Covid Adjustment: Cancel group meals, and provide a stipend or vouchers to individual judges to eat when and where they wish.
- Wine Sample Storage: Ideally, wine samples should arrive about a month before the actual competition and be responsibly stored (temperature control, security, etc.). The storage time should eliminate any possible viruses on the boxes and bottles prior to sorting for the competition.
Covid Adjustment: During sorting prior to the competition, wipe down the bottles as they’re put into their new boxes just as an additional precaution
- Back Room Operations: The back room crew does all the sorting, flighting, pouring, serving, and clearing of the samples for the judges.
Covid Adjustment: Have each two-person back room team assigned to the same panel for the whole competition, with one person doing the flighting and pouring in the staging room, and the other doing the serving and clearing in the judges’ room. Make sure that each crew table in the back room is at least six feet from any others.
- Judges’ Tables: Typically these already are large round tables with 3, 4 or 5 judges per table–3 is the best under any circumstances, but much better now. The judges are already about 6 feet apart, but could be spread out further.
Covid Adjustment: Have the judges leave the table when the back room crew brings the wines, and also make sure there is adequate space between judges, as well as between the judges’ tables.
- Scoring: Many competitions still use paper for notes and scores, but some are moving to electronic systems with tablets given to the judges and a centralized computer to do all the tallying.
Covid Adjustment: Use electronic if available.
- Publicity: Wineries spend money (and wine samples) in the hope that they will get a return on investment in the form of Gold, Silver or Bronze medals that they can promote and sell, so quick release of results is key.
Covid Adjustment: Get the results out immediately.
In addition to these “Covid Adjustments”, obviously you should follow any CDC or other health department guidelines.
Ironically, the Covid crisis may make a statewide wine competition a viable way to raise funds if there is adequate industry participation. The major cost items (out-of-state judge expenses, food costs, etc.) would be eliminated, and if a local hotel would host the event in exchange for a year-long publicity package, for example, and other out-of-pocket expenses pared back, it could work. A competition involves a limited number of people, and is a private event, unlike festivals which seek to draw hundreds or thousands of people. Competitions still require a lot of work, but they are definitely doable.
P.S. NEVER have a competition without Graber Olives as a palate cleanser.
Jim Trezise (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Wine Competitions in the Covid-Era: Best Practices and Considerations
- Covid-Era Competitions Best Practices: Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, held in mid-July, provides the most detailed and experience-verified information based on a real-life competition.
- Suggested Changes for Covid-Era Competitions, from Jim Trezise, WineAmerica President, longtime professional wine judge, and competition organizer
- Pre-Covid Guidelines for Judges in Any Competition, from Jim Trezise (2017)