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At last night's Awards Reception for the Michigan Wine Competition, more than one winery owner and winemaker commented to me how "tough" or "stingy" we judges had been giving out medals. One of them said that it was easier to win Gold from a broader competition -- like the Eastern or Great Lakes or Tasters Guild -- than it was in our own state.

Funny, I was thinking just the opposite. Especially after seeing that over 60% (!) of the entries went home with a medal.

My views about this are on the record. But now that I've had a chance to participate in the judging process, I also see the source of the problem.

Let's back up a step. The reason for restraint in awarding medals isn't to damage the wine industry or those in it who are committed to quality. On the contrary, it's so that each medal level can make a credible affirmation about the quality inside the bottle, just as Parker or Spectator scores do for those who follow them.

These comments don't really apply to Gold and Double Gold medals. We handed out 39 of these at the Competition, to about 10% of the wines entered. I've tasted each of the 39 and, with few exceptions, they're extremely worthy wines.

But when it comes to Silver and, especially, Bronze medals -- well, we toss them out pretty indiscriminately. Or, as one long-time judge said to me, "Nobody brags about winning a Bronze medal. They just include them in their total medal count when they write their publicity."

That kind of cynicism, however justified, is unfortunate if you think the medals we award -- and wineries receive -- should mean something. Judges should be in the business of recognizing quality, not merely providing marketing fodder.

The flaw is in the process. As a judge, you're required to speed-taste your way through dozens of wines. Perhaps you take a few quick notes on each. But when you open your mouth to speak, you have just one of four things to say about a wine: Gold, Silver, Bronze, or No Medal.

And three of the four choices result in the wine receiving a medal.

Given this built-in bias, the differentiation process breaks down this way: wines with clear flaws, or those that are simply not very pleasant, get no medal. Palatable wines with no special redeeming qualities get a Bronze. Wines that slightly surpass the norm or stand out in some way receive Silver. Only at the Gold level do serious quality standards seem to kick in.

Frequently during the judging, I found myself scoring one level lower than my three tablemates. My logic was this: wines don't deserve medals simply for showing up and being drinkable. That's expected, not medal-worthy.

But the inevitable result of reserving the non-medal category for flawed and truly indifferent wines is that the merely average DO receive medals -- to the tune of 61% of this year's entries.

In this context, we'd do well to consider the words of Gilbert and Sullivan: "When everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody."

Tomorrow, I'll look at how we might improve the situation.

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