Blind tasting, sour grapes and a small celebration: Ali Bacon compares literary prizes to wine awards.

Natalie at Poulton Hill Vineyard
Recently we were lucky enough to Poulton Hill, an English vineyard in the South Cotswolds.  This very small enterprise is testament to the 'upside' of climate change - English vineyards are flourishing and winning greater acclaim every year.

Our guide Natalie, co-manager of the vineyard, gave us a hands-on account of the challenges, not to mention the physical labour, involved in planting, training and harvesting vines in this country. The tour was of course followed by a tasting of their award-winning wines, from bottles bearing medallions from a number of wine competitions. One of our fellow tour members asked if these were earned from 'blind' tasting which Natalie assured us they were, i.e. they were competing against much bigger and longer established producers but removal of labels establishes a level playing field.

Poulton wines
In writing it's also the norm for any major short story competition to be judged 'blind' - a great encouragement to the unknown writer who knows  a well-known name can't guarantee success. I have 'judged' entries for live events of both kinds -- named and unnamed entries -- and I am aware that knowing the author does add to the interest. There's a flutter of anticipation when a writer who has pleased us in the past submits something new, even if it's followed by a smidgeon of disappointment if we like it less than the last effort! Does it affect the outcome? I'd like to think not, and it's equally exciting to spot something outstanding from someone we haven't read before. But blind reading is a huge comfort to the writer who may not succeed and even if he recognises the same names coming up on different occasions knows this has happened purely on the quality of the writing (tempered only a little by the predilections of a particular judge or set of judges). Having been on the receiving end of rejection, it's also an encouragement to learn from successful entrants and improve our writing accordingly, rather than linger over the ever-present temptation of sour grapes (Oh him/her again, wouldn't you know it? Mine was just as good as theirs. Actually no it wasn't!)

So the vineyard trip cemented my belief in 'blind tasting' for writers, but made me realise it's very different for the major book awards, headed for fiction writers by Man Booker, Costa and Women's Prize for fiction. These of course are for published works. There are competitions for unpublished novels but these are usually restricted to unpublished writers and the 'big boys' of the prize world are skewed (because of substantial entry costs) towards big publishers. But it makes you wonder if there would be any difference if these books could somehow be stripped of their covers and prelims and read in manuscript form. But hang on a minute, didn't a jaundiced novelist once submit a Jane Austen novel to a publisher in MS form and have it rejected out of hand? Possibly an extreme case of sour grapes which doesn't really prove anything - except the ignorance of one publisher's reader!

So really, there's not much to compare between novel and a wine vintage when it comes to blind tastings : we can't even decant a little bit of a novel into a tasting glass and see how it goes down - only the full bottle will do! But none of this makes 'blind reading' any less important for the situations where it does occur.

And this week I have become - tadaa! - the beneficiary of a 'blind tasting' competition. Having submitted to the Bristol Short Story prize for as long as I can remember (quick rummage in archives suggests 2010) this year for the very first time I have made it through the first round to be on the longlist.

Persistence pays!

That's one of 40 from a field of over 2,000. Even if I go no farther this is worth the popping of a cork!

 Ali Bacon writes historical and contemporary fiction. Learn more at


Sandra Horn said…
Congratulations, Ali! Those are impressive odds!
AliB said…
Thank you Sandra. X
Umberto Tosi said…
Congrats, Ali! Well earned! I'd love to sample some of that English wine, being a Roman on my mother's side. It is said that the British Isles haven't been this warm since the days of Hadrian, when vineyards also fourished - but probably not literary prizes.

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