VINARIUM – International Wine Contest 2023 – interview Cătălin Păduraru

VINARIUM – International Wine Contest 2023 – interview Cătălin Păduraru

On June 2nd, the results of the 20th edition of the VINARIUM International Wine Contest 2023 were published. The contest took place in Ploiești over several days at the end of May, with several foreign and Romanian jurors participating.

I spoke with Cătălin Păduraru, the organizer of the contest, and he was very generous in telling me about this year's contest, as well as about the beginnings of the contest and other important details that every wine lover should know.

Do we need medal wines? How are medaled wines different and what role do medals play in wine sales? Find out in the interview below.

Carmina Nițescu: Hello Cătălin, thank you very much for accepting to tell us something about Vinarium contest in order to pass on the information to the users of the mobile application dedicated to wine lovers, the Winesday App.

Cătălin Păduraru: Thank you for the opportunity and I am glad that the users of the application want to know more about Vinarium.

Carmina: Please tell me more about Vinarium. I know that it is the most famous wine competition in Romania, that it is an international competition and that this year the 20th edition just took place, for which I congratulate you!

Cătălin: Vinarium is 20 years old, it is the only truly international competition, the only one of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). Although it is at the extreme limit of the east from the European perspective, it is bigger than many other contests in Europe including France, Hungary. We are doing very well, not necessarily because we are the smartest in the world, but because it is an extremely powerful, emerging, growing market, at the moment this part of Central Europe cannot be compared to any other market, our market being the only one open. Moldovan wines are drunk in Moldova, in Bulgaria they only drink Bulgarian wines, in Hungary only Hungarian wines, in the ex-Yugoslav area only wines from there. We are the only country that is an open market and here you can find wines from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and so on. The strength of this contest is based on that and the fact that, yes, it is rigorously organized, unlike other contests that are organized in Romania. I have also supported other contests, but they are edutainment in the happiest case, those contests have no monitoring, there is no one to control them. Vinarium is double monitored by OIV and VINOFED, which makes it by far the most serious evaluation tool on this market beyond bloggers, vloggers who give their opinion.

Carmina: 20 years is a long time. How has Vinarium evolved during this time? The world of wine has also changed in these 20 years and this year's edition was very different from how it was at the beginning. Please tell us a little about how Vinarium started: was it an international competition from the beginning? From which countries did the wines in the competition come? How has the portfolio of participating countries changed over the years?

Cătălin: Originally called "International Wine Contest of Bucharest" (IWCB), the contest was founded by Mr. Professor Cotea who later delegated the National Board of Vine and Wine (PNVV) to take care of it and brought it in several stages to a minor stage of under 200 samples, no mention of the mandatory 40% representativeness from abroad, no mention by majority jurors from abroad as stipulated by the OIV regulation and through 2009 – 2010 they had a 1-year break. From there I took it from 197 samples and I did one of the major competitions of the OIV and of which the OIV is proud because we also had a lot of inventions: we were the second country to judge on tablets with our own software, we were the only ones during the pandemic who, on the scheduled date, in the midst of the pandemic, managed to do that online formula and after that a hybrid formula, while all other contests were postponed indefinitely; we held the contest on the scheduled date and was of great help to the winemakers that spring.

Related to the course of the contest, it is not related to my history but to the beginning of the contest. In the beginning some wines were brought from the Republic of Moldova, some wines from the former Yugoslavia and some from Hungary. These were the wines from abroad. We called 1-2 foreign jurors who were related to Romania, either because they were ethnic Romanians, or because they studied in Romania; they brought a wine in their bag on the plane and we consider that we still had one more country in the competition. From here to seeing in these years that companies that I have not heard of, that I have not targeted from Spain, Italy, Portugal more recently, from Chile (they are very present) are sending samples to the competition; for this I know that the Romanian market is good and that this competition is an extremely serious competition with international visibility, I would dare to say better than the visibility in Romania on a large scale. People who are interested in fine wines know about Vinarium.

Related to the protofolio of the countries participating in the contest, the main country from outside our borders is the Republic of Moldova, but on the other hand, the Republic of Moldova has the same cultural and identity space. Of course we make use of the fact that in the statistics it is a foreign country that sends many wines through the care of the ONVV from Chisinau, which is very active, unlike the Romanian ONVPV, which is ineffective and totally inactive.

Then there are the Italians who are looking for markets, always open to new things, they don't judge certain markets from above like the French did and now regret. Romania is an important market for any wine producer in the world; there is no way to expand the Paris market, I guarantee this, on the contrary, the mature Western markets are shrinking, while the Romanian market is growing and sometimes growing by 2 digits.

Yes, there is that variation between Spain and now Portugal, but in the past they were more active until they prevailed and even the new world wines were more present. There will probably be a comeback after this exploring period after the pandemic. I am convinced that the Romanian market will be more and more crowded and Vinarium will have to make a ranking that does not depend on the subjective or the opinion of one or the other.

I am amused by different influencers who say "oh, contest". The contest uses math, statistics, removes imbalances from the scheme (highest grade and lowest grade), there are many things that a serious contest does that has control. We're there, plus we've been doing that neurofeedback monitoring for several years, which I'll tell you about a little later.

Carmina: You have the experience of many international competitions, both as an organizer and as a juror. How does Vinarium differ from other international wine competitions organized in other countries?

Yes, I have the experience of international contests and we are better than many other contests with very strong names in Romania. Unfortunately, the Romanians are still looking over the fence to get certified, they don't understand that it is good to form a powerful tool here. I've been to major competitions considered in this world that had red wines that looked like they came off the ice bucket, a bad series order and many, many other shortcomings. Some of them are not even in the OIV anymore, but the world continues to look at them like "the praised tree". From the point of view of rigor, innovation, Vinarium is in the top 5 even if it still doesn't have a very large number of samples, like in Berlin - Berliner Wine Trophy - which has some thousands of samples, but there the trade provides a good part of samples because they want an outside evaluation and sometimes they find it's cheaper. I mean, it's better to pay 5000 - 6000 - 10,000 euros once to enter the competition with all the off-the-shelf samples they have than to pay an internal employee who, if he has 2,000 - 3,000 euros net, in a few months exceeds this entry budget competition. We [Romania] did not understand this matter, but in time it will be seen that the corporations will not be able to leave things as they are because it is a matter of yield.

Carmina: I know that at last year's edition of the Vinarium, the jurors were monitored using the Neurofeedback method, which is an innovative thing. Please tell me what this method is and how the perception of the judged wines was rendered. Has this method been used in other wine competitions?

Neurofeedback - this method is obviously in the research stage, but essentially we got the clear answer if there is a difference between conscious scoring and brain perception, respectively the point of satisfaction and the point of attention and if they are always correlated with what we put in the evaluation sheet. There are some interesting differences, but to be statistically relevant we would need a much larger research base. All these researches, which are extremely expensive (from the equipment, to the software, to the people who work with it), are particularly supported by the Păduraru family, which is very complicated. Such an idea had to be supported with government funds, with all kinds of other allocations or even the support of the Vinarium foundation, of the wine institute, by private forces, but in a decisive manner, not one to "tick off" that we also help the research.

We are moving forward, we hope to be able to get our hands on more and more sophisticated equipment, we are trying all kinds of collaborations with medical entities that already deal with this area in a different sense (medical), but where could we get access to some data and we could make other correlations. This method has not been used anywhere else because it is our pure invention, just like our invention "The sound of wine" ("Sunetul Vinului") which is a Nobel invention that lies somewhere in a country that in turn repeats to itself that it has potential, it stands on this perpetual untapped potential. That invention also has benefits for pedagogical, oenological, and medical purposes, we can talk about this at some point.

Carmina: The Vinarium benefits from a team of Romanian and international jurors. Who are they and how are jurors selected to be invited to judge?

The jurors are people I met at other international competitions, Masters of Wine, WSET diploma (but this is not enough because there are many WSET graduates who only learned some textbooks; you need experience in evaluation, assumption, a certain perspective, you have to know all the angles from the one in the vineyard, from the cellar, from the position of the seller, from the position of the elevated buyer), authorized tasters from Romania, some of whom I proudly formed and Vinarium was their first competition and then they went to other competitions. The Romanian jurors are the minority, the foreign ones are the majority. There are people from different countries, some of them very well-known and important (we had them with us in turn on different years): Mike Veseth - The Wine Economist, the wine columnist of Le Figaro, the wine columnist of the Financial Times, but they are hard to keep permanently (they are very well paid, and the Romanian state always looks, especially when it comes to an organic success, elsewhere).

Carmina: What criteria must a winery meet to enter its wines in the competition? Is there a limit to the number of wines that can be entered?

It must be a normal, official winery, which has a cult product, can have analysis reports; there is no limit to sending wines to the contest other than what the winemaker/owner imposes. They won't be able to send very bad wines although in my view they should send almost all wines from the winery to be evaluated because the wines that don't get a medal are not communicated to the public, but the producer can have some data to understand very clearly where they should work on a particular wine. These are the criteria, the rest of the competition includes entries from very old wines (they are fewer and fewer, which is a good thing), to new wines and very very new wines if we are talking about those from the southern hemisphere.

Carmina: The winners of the 20th edition of Vinarium have been announced and can be found here on  Vinarium website. Please tell me how many participating wineries there were, how many wines were analyzed in total and how many wines were awarded?

At this year's edition, 1311 samples from 23 countries were registered: Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Cyprus, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Republic of Moldova , Romania, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Republic of Turkey, Ukraine.

From these countries 250 manufacturers/importers/traders/representatives of manufacturers have registered their samples. 1230 still wines, 70 sparkling wines and 11 spirits of wine origin were entered in the competition. 40.58% of all registered samples come from outside Romania - the organizing country.

Carmina: I know there is a limit imposed on the number of medaled wines. Please tell me more about this but also about the points that can be awarded for each individual medal (Grand Gold Medal, Gold Medal, Silver Medal). At the end of the competition, the medaled wines have the Vinarium sign on them so they will be easily recognizable by the public, but I would be happy if the public also knew the possible scores for a wine to receive one medal or another.

The scoring thresholds increased this year because the OIV considered preventing a possible inflationary process of medals, although there we had a limit of 30% of the total wines that have a medal score anyway. They also did this which is not bad in itself because the gold wines have to have a very high score. It was a little weird when you were comparing to a Parker or Wine Spectator and you said you had gold from 86 points and they had 94 – 95 – 96 points, so that alignment was made.

The new scoring grid is as follows and in this year's competition 11 Grand Gold Medals, 286 Gold Medals and 122 Silver Medals were awarded:
  • Grand Gold Medal: 93 - 100 points
  • Gold Medal: 89 – 92.9 points
  • Silver Medal: 85 - 88.9 points
For now it is hard for both the judges and the producers to swallow this thing because they find it strange when they have a wine of 88 points that did not even get a silver by applying the new grid.

The "Vinarium" sign on the medaled wines is more and more visible, the wineries are starting to put this self-adhesive label more and more often, they are starting to understand that there is a "sign" on the shelf. We said "in sign" of appreciation, but when you read it can also mean "sign" of appreciation. It's a play on words that shows that pricing can be inclusive if it's a good price for a valuable wine.

On the shelf a lot of people feel the need to have a guide. We would have done even more, we could have added augmented reality, but being alone we abandon some projects. We have a lot of other projects to implement that are waiting, and in terms of organizing the Vinarium it is exhausting. It means thousands of phone calls (no exaggeration), to bring the jurors from different routes, to bring thousands of wines to reach the warehouse, hundreds of phone calls from the drivers, that ordering in the cellar, ordering for the competition by days, by commissions, by series, and so on.

Carmina: Cătălin, thank you very much for giving me this time to answer the questions. See you next time!
Cătălin: I thank you too, Carmina. Keep in touch!

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