There is nothing quite like the glow of medals from wine competitions to give celebrity status to a winemaker. Mission Hill’s John Simes is British Columbia’s most celebrated winemaker after establishing his reputation with a 1992 Chardonnay made in his first vintage in the Okanagan.
Born in New Zealand in 1950, he was the senior winemaker at the country’s largest winery when he was recruited by Mission Hill owner Anthony von Mandl.
Arriving just in time for the 1992 vintage, he was so impressed by the Chardonnay grapes from one Mission Hill grower that he decided to make a premium barrel-fermented wine.
In 1994, the wine was entered into the prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition in London, England where it won the Avery Trophy for best Chardonnay in the show. In the hands of Mission Hill’s publicists, this became “the world’s best Chardonnay.”
The first significant international award ever won by a B.C. winery, the Avery Trophy, put Simes and Mission Hill on the map.
A constant stream of awards has continued ever since. In 2013 alone, Mission Hill’s Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011 was judged the best Pinot Noir under £15 (around $25) in the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.
And in the 2013 National Wine Awards of Canada, Mission Hill won so many medals that it was named Canadian winery of the year. It won a similar award twice before from the predecessor national wine competition.
Mission Hill is hardly unique in trumpeting its awards and its winemaker. These accolades are crucial for sales success. Consumers pay attention because the awards inform their buying decisions when they are choosing from thousands of available wines.
The challenge is weighing the awards because there are so very many wine competitions. Wine judging is hardly a perfect science.
Poor wines slip through marathon multi-day judging sessions. The recent All Canadian Wine Competition received 1,300 entries.
The annual Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Wine has more than 350 entries. Thousands of wines are entered in the big international competitions.
Typically, judges taste between 100 and 150 wines each day. It takes a very experienced judge to keep his tiring palate sharp enough to choose bronze, silver and gold medal wines and reject the others.
The only awards to ignore are the “people’s choice” awards typically handed out at tastings sponsored by service clubs. Popularity contests are less meaningful than wines judged blind by experienced judges.
You can usually rely on wines with silver, gold, double gold or platinum medals.
I tasted the 1992 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay several times.
Mission Hill has become a go-to producer for Chardonnay, whether for its entry-level Five Vineyards wine or its ultra-premium Perpetua Chardonnay.
And the award won by Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir tells us to pay much more attention to what Mission Hill is doing with Pinot Noir.
That’s the real purpose of wine awards. They have not only made Simes into a celebrity; they drawn consumers to his wines.