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The reputation, expertise, and professionalism of the judges are ultimately what makes one drinks competition to stand out over another. You can have the best products in the world enter, but if you don’t have panels of judges with the know-how and ability to assess them then you are not going to have a drinks competition worth entering.
It’s why the USA Wine Ratings, that rewards wines for what they taste like, their value for money, and what they look like, only uses professional wine buyers that are involved in buying wines every day in their careers.
Wines are being analyzed in exactly the same way that a wine buyer would consider any new product that came across their desk, be it in a supermarket chain, liquor store chain, specialist wine store, or restaurant or bar group.
The USA Wine Ratings competition relies on buyers that have the commercial experience to quickly determine which wines have what it takes to not just win a medal, but appeal to a shopper walking down a drinks aisle or standing in front of a bar.
Buyers with the background of Bob Paulinski who as a Master of Wine is a qualified expert in his field with many years of experience buying wine, starting off his own wine shop, before working for a wide range of operators, from Sam’s Club, Walmart, BevMo! to being head of sourcing at the Coles Group. He now runs his own direct-to-consumer wine subscription website, Stellar Bottles, which specializes in finding family-owned, small-scale artisanal wineries from the world’s classic and most up-and-coming regions.
It means he is having to analyze 1000s of wines a year to pick the ones he knows are going to appeal the most to his customers, who are looking to him to send them a regular delivery of wine they can rely on.
Here Paulinksi explains what he is looking for in a wine, and why he is so pleased to be taking part in the USA Wine Ratings competition.
How did you get into the wine industry and why did you want to have a career in wine?
As a teen, I landed a job in a wine store, doing everything from stocking shelves to driving a truck. There, I became friends with a semi-retired night manager who was an uber wine geek. One day while he was having a late-night supper in the shop's office, he called me over to join him. He said, "Polish boy, I have a wine for you to try” and handed me a glass.
But when I tasted it, I nearly wretched. He knew that would be my reaction and burst out laughing. I was pissed off. When I settled down, he gave me a copy of Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wine, the go-to text of its day. He told me to read about what we had just tasted and we'd discuss it the next day.
I begrudgedly did what he asked. I slowly began to discover that wine was much more than a beverage. It covered a wide array of personal interests including, science, art, business, politics, even religion. Over the next few years, we tasted and discussed most of the wines in the shop. After five years, at the age 23, I opened my own wine shop that I had for 16 years. The business was sold in 2002, the year I became a Master of Wine.
Can you describe your current role and your main responsibilities?
I'm currently involved in several projects. I own Stellar Bottles, a B2C ecomm business. I also consult on five projects that primarily touch on supplier networking, brand building, and technical advising for final blends.
What do you find most rewarding about your role and what you can achieve?
My career and lifestyle are one. Over the years, I've built a network of business connections, some of whom have become good friends. My work has allowed me to live in many places in the US, along with Australia. It's also allowed me to travel broadly around the world.
What do you find the most challenging about being a wine buyer?
Staying current. The wine world is always changing. It keeps it interesting, but one is never fully up to speed on what's happening around the world.
How have the last 12 months been for you adapting to life with the pandemic - what changes have you made?
I was very ill with covid in early 2020. I was down for months. My health has recovered and now my work life is good. I've learned to effectively work remotely. Zoom has become a way of life. On a broader view, I appreciate little things more than ever.
What trends and changes in wine buying habits have you seen in the last year?
People are drinking more, mostly at home. I also believe there is a heightened interest in wines that are less manipulated.
What do you see as being the key trends for 2021 in terms of the styles of wine being bought and the countries and regions where they come from?
There is a huge pent-up demand for travel, eating out, and vacationing. In terms of styles and regions, it varies depending on where you are in the world. Here in the US, California will have struggles with the smallish 2020 harvest and wildfire issues. I see Spain, Portugal, and Italy as strong exporters to the US. Washington State also has great growth potential as volumes grow, along with land and production costs that lend to a strong COGS (cost of goods sold).
With so many competitions why do you want to be a judge in USA Wine Ratings?
I've known Sid Patel, the founder, for some years. I've judged at a couple of his competitions when I lived in Melbourne. The USA Wine Rating event is unique. The wine quality is being judged, but so is the packaging. This should add value and allow for feedback beyond other competitions.
What do you think about its judging criteria that judge wines on their quality, but also value for money and design and packaging?
It means we are able to provide broader, more actionable feedback for the wine producers entering their wines into the competition.
Do you think this way of judging is more in tune with how professional wine buyers decide which wines to list?
Buyers will all have their own approach. For me, I look for wines that represent their place of origin. I do not buy on personal preference.
Why would you encourage producers and distributors to enter the awards?
It's simple. This is a well-run event that provides useful feedback.
Is judging a good opportunity to see what styles of wine are being made that can help you in your day job?
Yes, it's one piece to the much larger puzzle.
* Early Bird Pricing for the 2021 USA Wine Ratings ends on April 30 (with a discounted price of $100 per wine) with the final date for entries being June 30 (entry price goes up to $120 between May 1 and June 30). For more information on entries click here.
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