How the Judging Works
STORY BY: RICK STEIGMEYER
The sixth wine competition for the Wenatchee Wine & Food Festival (formerly called the North Central Washington Wine Awards) was held June 7. Nine qualified judges on three panels tasted, compared and reviewed 233 wines from 35 NCW wineries. Judges gave out 10 Double Gold, 28 Gold, 105 Silver and 57 Bronze medals. Those are good numbers for a serious competition and a confirmation of the high quality of wines in our region.
For the first time, this year's group of judges included three experts from Western Washington.
This was my third year as a judge. The first year, I thought my taste buds and brain cells were going to explode with so many wines and quick decisions to make through six relentless hours of tasting 100 or more wines. I have plenty of wine experience, but it pales compared to the other wine professionals on the panels. They've helped me learn the flaws that disqualify wines and the characteristics that define and well-made varietal or blend.
Judges are always looking – and sniffing and gargling – for that wine that stands out from the others, but awards are based on more than just what we like. Judges look for wines that are true to type and offer a satisfying, sometimes exceptional, drinking experience for all.
Wines are judged double blind. Judges don't know specifically which wineries are entered in the competition. Panel moderators tell the judges what type of varietal is in from of them but offer no wine specifics about the producer or source of the grapes.
A staff of backroom volunteers labels glasses, making sure the numbers on the glasses match the corresponding wine bottle as they pour a flight for judges.
Judges taste the wines in flights according to type. Judges inspect each wine's color and clarity and the clear layer at the top of the wine that offers information about its alcohol level. They swirl the wine to blend in oxygen and expose the delicate aromas. Finally they sip the wine and wash it over tastebuds in different parts of their mouth before spitting it into a cup. Notes are taken for each wine. Often, judges will revisit a wine a few times to see if it opens up given a few minutes more time.
Judges award each wine a Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medal. Once all the wines in a flight are scored, judges giving the score sheets to the moderator, who enters the scores in his computer that identifies each number with a specific wine. If all judges in a panel agree on a medal – say, Silver – That's what it is. If the three judges award Gold, the wine is elevated to Double Gold. If there are differences of opinion, the moderator calls for a discussion to reach a consensus. Judges can take another sip and argue their case up or down on the medal scale until they agree.
Washington, including NCW, is on the threshold of becoming known as one of the world's great wine-producing regions. It's a very young industry here. Wine grape growers are still experimenting with what grows best in the diverse central Washington climate and soil. So far, they're learning there aren't many grapes the state can't grow well.
Growers are taking the challenge and planting more unusual varieties that winemakers can experiment with and keep up with the growing number of educated wine drinkers who want something different from the standard Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris.
As judges, we got to taste more exotic reds including Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Carmenere, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo and more, Whites included Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and others. Wine drinkers have more and more to choose from at our own local tasting rooms that offer wine education along with sips of their latest wines.
Pick up a copy of the September-October 2016 Foothills magazine to read the article and see event photos or subscribe on their website here.