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Behind the Silver-Plated Curtain: Secrets of Wine Enthusiast’s “Starfish” Awards

Wed April 1 2009 2:44:00 ET

In typical self-inflating fashion, Wine Enthusiast magazine has established an annual tradition of trying to muster a modicum of attention to its so-called Wine Star Awards, which were first foisted upon the world back in 2001. Alas, the efforts have proven both vain and in vain.

For the most part, wine-industry players play along with the awards, dutifully purchasing tickets by the table, donning black-tie regalia and shlepping into Manhattan on a busy Monday night in January to schmooze with peers and pay respects to the cast of characters responsible for handing out the silver-plated trophies. The glittering evening is then written up exuberantly and posted online, where it goes practically unnoticed, despite editors flaunting their disregard for U.S. trademark law by referring to the soirée as “the Academy Awards” of the wine industry.

Why is it that these awards are so roundly dismissed, so soundly ignored, save for sporadic mockery? Dregs Report wants to know, so we did some deep thinking on the topic…

Perhaps the reason some industry folks refer to them as the “Starfish” awards is the fact that the danse célèbre begins over the summer, when Enthusiastic staffers (editorial and publishing sides alike) huddle up. They emerge not with awards per se, but rather a handful of “nominees” in each of ten or so categories, thus providing both a sense of hope—and a promotional opportunity—for various individuals, companies and, in the case of “Wine Region of the Year,” land masses. Dregs sez: Hey, these are tough decisions. Sometimes it takes a while to find the best…the best terroir. Yeah, that’s it: terroir.

Perhaps under-their-breath gigglers are skeptical of the uncanny correlation between magazine advertisers and Wine Star nominees. Well, co-inky-dinks happen! And to be fair, it should be duly noted that wineries fortunate enough to have had advertorials published in the magazine are also highly eligible; who could forget the nomination of Pinot Grigio specialist MezzaCorona back in 2005!

Perhaps the reason not all the trophy handoffs pass the sniff test has something to do with the Enthusiast’s curious sense of déjà vu (or amnesia, depending on how you look at it). Yes, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, Constellation, Paterno and Palm Bay have received multiple nominations/awards during the program’s relatively short lifespan; surely this is a statistical hiccup.

Perhaps the sparse recognition for the awards in general based on the fact that a specific category for restaurateurs was dropped without explanation several years ago. Well now, that’s mighty cynical. Dregs is thinking the omission is a gentle kick in the butt to the restaurant industry. Snap to, chefs! If you intend to be part of the glorious Wine Star tradition, you’re going to have to raise your standards!

Finally, perhaps the Starfish-mongers are reacting palpably to a precious few awards that have been bestowed upon wineries whose résumés fall, shall we say, below what most regular wine enthusiasts would call average. To wit, Central Coast behemoth Delicato took home a trophy in 2007, vaulting over hundreds of wineries in Napa and Sonoma. And the tuxedoed 2008 winners circle included the eyebrow-raising entries of Korbel as “American Winery of the Year” and Boutari as “European Winery of the Year.”

Again, Dregs can explain. You see, the Korbel award is in keeping with the Enthusiast’s charitable tradition of occasionally giving an award to a business-in-a-pickle. You may recall Sam’s of Chicago being named Retailer of the Year in 2005, at the same time the megastore was being investigated for a shelf-position kickback scheme (Sam’s wound up paying a $300,000 fine and closing for three days). This year, shortly after Korbel picked up its hardware in NYC, back in Sonoma the winery raised hackles by suing Comcast to get the identities of anonymous commenters who said some nasty things about the company on Craigslist. (If they complained about Korbel still calling its bubbly Champagne, Dregs thinks they should just get over it!)

But what to make of Boutari? Was the honor designed to have a halo effect on the entire Greek wine industry, to spur demand for grapes like Moschofilero and Xinomavro? Hmm, doubtful. Perhaps it was a gesture of goodwill to all the wineries out there who consistently make good wine but have yet to break the 90-point barrier (indeed, in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide database, the 20 Boutari bottlings rated by the magazine stretch seamlessly from 81 to 89 points). No, probably not that either.

We confess: we were stumped by the Boutari pick. Nice enough wine, don’t get us wrong. It’s not like the old days of Retsina and Windex! But still…

Then Dregs bumped into a valuable source when getting an oil change at the Speedy Lube overlooking the new Wine Enthusiast Companies headquarters in the industrial section of idyllic Bedford Hills, New York. Who else was getting an oil change that day? None other than Arthur Taylor, the former executive director of Wine Express, the proud retail wine division of WEC. Since Adam and Sybil Strum, the owners of the Enthusiast empire, brought in their blogtastic daughter to be their Internet maven, Arthur has been relegated to working in the regular catalog division. Instead of using his peripatetic palate (and marketing acumen) to manage a portfolio of no-name producers whose wines all rate 90 points or better on the home-cooked WEX scale, Arthur is now sweeping Styrofoam peanuts off the warehouse floor so they can be reused and applying shoe polish to distressed wine cellars so they can be sold at top dollar.

According to Taylor, there is a perfectly good—and top secret!—explanation for the Boutari award. “It’s all in the glass,” Arthur whispered. “The Enthusiast has been trying for years to develop its own lines of stemware, part of a plan to ditch Riedel. Well, they have finally hit the jackpot: they developed a Brown Noser’s Tasting Glass. Just as Riedel stems are designed to enhance the aroma and flavor of specific varietal and regional wines, the Enthusiast “BN” glass can make the wine from just about any advertiser—er, uh, winery—worthy of an award.”


©2009 Dregs Report