This fall, Wine Press Northwest’s annual Platinum Judging officially moved into its third decade, and when we started this “best of the best” competition, the thought was simply to create a top 100 list.
Eric Degerman and I were thrilled to be invited to judge all sorts of wine events along the West Coast and were looking for ways to make the most of our experiences — especially as a way to sort through the exponentially increasing number of gold-medal wines from the Northwest.
Along the way, the Platinum Judging has helped us and our readers discover trends and take a broad view of how wine styles evolve.
Better off red
The first Platinum winner was the Kiona Vineyard 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was great for a small, family-owned winery to come out on top. As the pioneers of Red Mountain, the Williams family and this wine earned several awards during 2000 and helped prove the importance of this grape-growing area in the greater picture of Washington wine.
As I reflect on the many reds I’ve tasted over two decades of judging, I’ve noticed a general reduction in tannins, a more balanced approach to fruit and acidity and an increase in cellar-worthiness.
Red blends emerged as a dominant regional style. Syrah transitioned from a big, plummy and juicy wine to something leaner, more food-friendly and less dependent on overripe fruit.
Early on, I wasn’t a big fan of Cabernet Franc; it was like “Cabernet light.” The Platinum changed my mind. It’s nuanced with soft tannins and big black cherry flavors. Importantly, the vines resist our cold winters.
As I’ve looked back over the history of the Platinum, I found it interesting that the Vin du Lac 2003 Cabernet Franc is the only one of its variety to earn the title as “The Best of the Best,” in the 2005 judging.
Petite Sirah, among my favorite varieties, has shown it grows well in the Columbia Valley. In 2014, Alexandria Nicole Cellars topped the field with its 2011 Destiny Ridge Vineyard Mr. Big Petite Sirah from the Boyle family’s estate in the Horse Heaven Hills.
I love Malbec, whether from Washington, France or Argentina. My only surprise is that Malbec has won the top prize only once, in 2014, the William Church 2011 Gamache Vineyards Malbec.
Looking over the list, I had a flashback to 2009 — the first time our northern neighbors took the top prize with JoieFarm’s 2008 Riesling. Then in 2012, Wild Goose Vineyards won with its 2011 Mystic River Vineyard Gewürztraminer, followed in 2013 by Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery 2009 Riesling Icewine, the first dessert wine to be the “Best of the Best.”
British Columbia has the smallest representation in the competition, primarily because the wines are difficult to get in the U.S. The spectacular acidity, bright flavors and nice people are worth the effort of planning a post-pandemic road trip across the border.
If you cross at Oroville, Wash., in roughly 15 minutes you can pull off Highway 97 and arrive at Gehringer Brothers, which I dubbed “The King of the Platinum” for the number of top awards they’ve won.
The rise of Riesling
When I started writing about wine in the mid-1990s, Riesling wasn’t taken seriously. Since then, each of the four Northwest wine regions has proved that Riesling is delicious, subtle yet powerful and has an incredible ability to age. I’ve tasted a 75-year-old Riesling. It was spectacular.
While few producers in California work with it, Riesling is a variety that the Northwest can hang its hat on. Our cool nights and hot days allow Riesling to ripen and retain both its acidity and its fruit flavors.
The first “Best of the Best” award for this noble grape came in 2009 for that effort by JoieFarm. More recently, the No. 1 entry in 2016 was Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 2015 Dry Riesling, priced at just $9 a bottle.
Out of the mainstream
Because of our region’s diverse climate, we are able to grow a number of unusual varieties. The west side of the Cascade Range is especially known for its success with cool-climate grapes.
Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, in particular, has gained a global reputation for its Umpqua Valley take on the Austrian white Grüner Veltliner, which led our 2017 Platinum. Grüner Veltliner (groo-ner velt-liner) is food-friendly with orchard and tropical fruit flavors and sleek acidity. Stephen Reustle was the first U.S. winery to grow and vinify this varietal.
Another trailblazer has been San Juan Vineyards in Washington’s Friday Harbor with Siegerrebe, a German grape, and its 2006 vintage was our overall winner in 2007. Hard to pronounce (zee-geh-RAY-buh), but easy to drink, it has high acid and a kiss of sugar, perfectly balanced. It is fantastic with oysters.
Somewhat selfishly to Wine Press Northwest’s team of journalists, the Platinum Judging also serves as a source of story ideas, a guide to emerging regions and evolving wine styles. We discover who is making great wines consistently in the Northwest and who is an up-and-comer.
The joy of judging the Platinum is to look at wines within the context of our corner of the wine world. That each wine is a gold medal winner has helped me to become a better evaluator. And in each glass is the story of a season, the vines, the grower and the winemaker.
ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest. A third-generation journalist, he lives in Richland, Wash. with his wife, Melissa, and their daughter, Niranjana.