In February, a select assembly of wine professionals congregated in Dallas to participate in the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, one of the largest and longest-running wine competitions in the country. Originally founded by Dallas Morning News columnist Rebecca Murphy in 1985, the competition came under the ownership of TEXSOM, one of the world’s most renowned wine service and education conferences, in 2014.
This year featured the most diverse selection of wines in the history of the competition with more than 3,200 wines, representing 30 countries and 21 U.S. states. Over the course of four days, over 85 volunteers poured, washed, and polished more than 10,000 wine glasses, serving panels of wine judges and industry leaders. It’s a feat that requires months of planning and a substantial, well-chilled warehouse to house myriad wines shipped in from around the world.
A few weeks ago, the results for the winning wines were announced. (Texas Monthly is a presenting sponsor of the awards.) Gold, silver, and bronze medals will carry particular distinctions for the winning wines, many of which are from Texas. Here are some takeaways to help understand what the awards indicate about the wines.
Medals That Matter
Not all wine awards are created equal. There are nearly 100 active wine competitions in the United States alone, with new ones popping up almost every year. Faced with the wide span of wine medals and accolades across the world, it’s hard to know which shiny medals indicate truly superior wines.
Organizations build their judging panels differently based on various criteria, from wine writers, retailers, and sommeliers to enthusiasts, public figures, and members of the general public. Often, a wider selection of judges from different occupations makes it difficult to compare apples to apples—or in this case wine to wine.
In the case of TIWA, a team of 63 judges from six different countries judged the wines. More than half of the panel included Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, and the remainder consisted of longtime industry professionals including wine-makers, journalists, educators, buyers, and importers.
“In [the American] wine industry everybody knows everybody,” says Dallas-based Leon Cikota, the Vice President of Fine Wine for the Republic National Distributing Company, who has judged wines intermittently for TIWA for twenty years as well as for other organizations such as the San Francisco International Wine Competition. “I appreciate the fact that TIWA brings in judges from different countries with different perspectives and who have worked in the wine industry in a number of different fields.”
TIWA is known for its effective differentiation between various qualities of wine. In November, the Journal of Wine Economics published an article singling out TIWA, proposing that the competition’s evaluative methods are far more detailed and rigorous than is typical for other competitions. “A 1-point difference may not have great practical importance to the consumer, but selecting a gold medal winner from [TIWA] does appear to improve the odds of obtaining a high quality wine,” the article states.
The Proof is in the Medal Pudding
TIWA’s assembly of high-caliber judges found that gold medals aren’t easy to come by. Of the more than 3,200 wines entered this year, only 285 wines, or 9 percent of the total entries, received a gold medal. That’s a very small percentage compared to the nine other competitions evaluated by the Journal of Wine Economics, which found that most competitions award gold medals to over 20 percent of overall entries.
For James Tidwell, Master Sommelier and co-founder of TEXSOM, gold medals are intended to be distinctive and “represent a classic style that rate among the best in the world for typicality and character.”
More wines missed the gold but still made it to the podium, with 760 silver (24%) and 1,178 bronze (37%) medal winners. As Tidwell points out, there’s not much point in having silver and bronze medals if they don’t actually mean something. Silver medals represent outstanding wines with superior character; bronze medal wines exhibit unique character and distinction.
“Just because someone put effort into making a wine, doesn’t mean it gets a bronze medal,” says Tidwell. “It should have style and depth.”
Regarding the notable finds from this year’s award winners, Tidwell noticed consistencies with specific wines and wine producers who are medaling each year. The Vasse Felix winery from Margaret River in Australia has received many medals from TIWA; this year, it earned additional praise with two Judge’s Selection Awards: Best Australian Red and Best Bordeaux or Bordeaux-Style Red Blend. Casa Silva Carménère Los Lingues Vineyard from Chile has consistently won a gold medal, and also earned a Judges’ Selection Award for best Chilean wine in 2018.
“It’s pretty remarkable considering the more than 3,200 wines entered this year,” says Tidwell. “It’s an impressive streak for a wine to consistently win a gold medal over time.”
Education is Key
TIWA doesn’t just evaluate wines—it also supports education within the industry. As an extension of the annual TEXSOM conference, TIWA hosts an educational retreat for sommeliers. This year, 39 sommeliers from across the country (including sixteen from Texas), all of whom are studying for wine certifications, attended special education seminars such as “Comparing and Contrasting Cabernet-based Wines and Bordeaux Communes” with Master of Wine Mary Gorman McAdams and Master Sommelier Thomas Burke; ran through mock blind wine tasting exams with Master Sommelier Melissa Monosoff; and composed written reviews of gold medal wines as they were awarded by the judges.
“Being a part of the Sommelier Retreat has been an invaluable part of my wine education over the years,” says Julie Dalton of Houston’s Mastro’s Steakhouse, who is working towards her Master Sommelier certificate. “Not only has it improved my writing and blind tasting abilities, but the mentorship I’ve received and the professional connections I’ve made are priceless.”
TIWA also invites new wine professionals to join as judges each year. In 2018, Jason Centanni of Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock judged at TIWA for the first time, after submitting his wines to the competition for several years.
“From a producer’s perspective, actually receiving an award for a wine at TIWA is very prestigious—and frustrating when you don’t medal! But having the opportunity to sit at the judge’s table this year really confirmed this for me,” says Centanni. “Every judge I sat with would professionally review, thoughtfully discuss, and thoroughly examine the wine flights as a panel. It was really eye-opening.”
For Centanni, whose panel evaluated wines from regions including New Zealand and Italy, evaluating wines from parts of the world he doesn’t normally sample was an informative exercise.
He was particularly impressed with the “improvement of quality of Pinot Noir coming out of New Zealand’s Marlborough region from the 2016 vintage as well as with Montepulciano from the Abruzzo region of Italy,” a grape he regularly works with in the Texas High Plains vineyards.
Texas Holds Its Own
Texan wines received quite a bit of praise at the competition. In particular, Enoch’s Stomp, from Longview, was a breakout winner in 2018, earning medals for all six of its submitted wines, including a Judges’ Selection nomination for its fortified 2011 Light Portejas of Blanc du Bois.
In total, out of more than 200 Texas wines competing, the submissions from the state earned twelve gold, 35 silver, and 74 bronze medals. Two Texas wines took home Judges’ Selection Awards: Best Texas Red (2015 Becker Vineyards Cabernet Franc) and Best Texas White (2016 Hilmy Cellars Albariño). In addition to the Enoch’s Stomp Judges’ Selection nomination, Brennan Vineyards was also nominated for its 2016 Lily, a white wine blend.
For judges, the selection of Texas wines signaled the state’s promise within the industry. “It was fascinating to get to judge around 200 Texas wines,” says Francis Percival, a London-based food editor and columnist for The World of Fine Wine magazine. “What really stood out was how the wines that were most exciting were those where the winemaker had made a deliberate decision to step back and let the wine speak for itself: there were some thrilling wines of great purity of fruit.” Percival was also impressed by the flights of fortified wines. “Some of the hybrids, such as Blanc du Bois, were utterly unique and entirely different from anything I had tasted before,” he said. “The Seville orange flavors of Blanc du Bois left me thoroughly intrigued, and I am going to chase down those wines next time I am in Texas.”
Each year, the TIWA competition reveals a long list of wines that appeal to every palate preference. When wandering the aisles of wine stores and staring blankly at restaurant wine lists may leave you feeling a little helpless, it’s reassuring to know there are helpful guides to lead you. Between sommelier, wine reviews, or award medals, you just have to know where to look. Fortunately for Texas—and the rest of the world—TIWA is a well-vetted resource for wine professional, enthusiast, or amateur alike.