Wine accolades: How to use medals and scores to find the best bottles

For the average consumer, purchasing an unfamiliar wine can be confusing. There are so many regions, so many wine types, and so many wine awards—including medals and scores. Each of these involves its own processes and implications. Which of these accolades can actually help you pick a nice wine? To help you understand the difference, first let’s define what we mean by wine scores and wine medals. 

Wine scores are typically given by individual critics or publications using a numerical scale, most commonly the 100-point system. This system applies specific criteria such as appearance, aroma, flavor and finish. Scores provide a granular assessment of a wine’s quality. A score of 90 or above generally indicates exceptional quality. Some of the wine scores you may see include Robert Parker, James Suckling and Jancis Robinson. You will find these scores on wine shelf tags at the store, stickers on bottles, and in publications such as The Wine Advocate, Vinous, Wine Spectator and on many websites. These critics are renowned for their expertise and the impact of their reviews on the wine industry. Consumers, collectors and investors alike refer to their scores and tasting notes as essential resources. 

Wine medals are typically awarded at competitions like the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded based on the judges’ consensus on wines categorized by varietal, region, and style. If a wine is listed as a double gold, it means all the judges on the panel scored the wine a gold medal winner. The judges typically taste wines blind to ensure impartiality, and the panels include a cross section of wine experts such as sommeliers, oenologists (wine science experts), winemakers and importers. 

While both wine medals and scores serve to guide consumers in selecting quality wines, they do so through different mechanisms and with varying degrees of detail and subjectivity. Medals offer a broad endorsement from a panel, whereas scores provide a more nuanced evaluation from individual critics. 

We are lucky to have a renowned wine judge living right here in Reno. 

John Compisi grew up in western New York, became a commissioned officer in the United States Army, and spent nearly 30 years on various military bases around the world until his retirement in 2000. Compisi and his wife, who was also in the Army, developed their love of wine when they were stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco in the late 1980s. 

“Because my wife worked rotating shifts and nights at the Army Medical Center as a nurse, we frequently had days off in the middle of the week while our daughter was in school, so we used that free time to explore Napa first, and then we started exploring Sonoma and Apple Hill,” said Compisi.  

Twenty-six years after their initial excursions into wine country, they built a home near Cloverdale, California, close to three notable wine-producing regions—Mendocino, the Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. In 2012, Compisi started writing.  

“I started freelancing and posting my writing—mostly wine, food and travel—on various websites,” he said. “That lasted for a couple of years, then in 2019 we started our own website. Not only did I start writing, but I also started putting myself out there to the organizers for the San Francisco wine competition.” 

Compisi spent many years volunteering at that competition, unboxing and organizing bottles, pouring the blind samples for the judges, and keeping score and managing the judging process, before he became a judge himself. He also judges at the Foothill Wine Fest Competition held in Folsom in November. 

In 2020, Compisi and his wife sold their house in Cloverdale and moved to Truckee, then to Reno’s Somersett neighborhood in 2021. It only took a few months for them to become well connected in the local wine community, largely via Whispering Vine Wine Co. and the wine buyer there. “And by January of 2022, we started our own wine club here in Somerset,” he said. 

“If I would drink it, it is a bronze. If I would buy it, it is a silver, and if I would recommend it, it is a gold.” 

John Compisi, wine judge

I asked Compisi what the value of wine competitions is to the average wine drinker. “We, as judges on the panel, consider the consumer first,” he said. “Often, on the panels I am on, the judges will decide not to give any medal to a wine because we feel it would do a disservice to the consumer if they saw a wine out there in the marketplace that has an award next to it that might encourage them to buy it if we wouldn’t drink it.” 

Compisi’s judging standard for each level of medal: “If I would drink it, it is a bronze. If I would buy it, it is a silver, and if I would recommend it, it is a gold.” 

I think this is a great reference to think about when making a wine purchase. Remember, not all wineries enter their wines in wine competitions, so the lack of a medal does not indicate that a wine is undrinkable. However, a wine that does earn a medal is a wine that several wine experts have tasted and agreed that it’s worthy of your attention. As a wine expert, I enjoy seeing the detailed scoring of a wine critic, and it can help me understand the nuanced differences between high-end wines. Medals are more helpful when I’m purchasing a wine from a winery I am not familiar with. Buy a unanimously endorsed double gold if you can afford it. Cheers!