Dan Berger

A veteran’s view of the Platinum judging

Evaluating wines for well over decade at the Platinum Judging has given me a solid grounding in the wines of the Pacific Northwest, and as with anything that becomes very familiar, we typically approach things with a bit of fore-knowledge.

Knowing that in advance helps to mitigate the most negative effects of such prejudicial beliefs.

Fortunately, I have learned that the best trait to have when doing such technically repetitive work is humility since the nature of the three-day event, a double-blind tasting, makes it foolhardy to have any preconceived notions that we assume are valid.

I have been a professional wine judge since 1981, and have had numerous experiences in which other judges’ prejudices were exposed to be just that, prejudicial.

Judging in Canada three years ago, I discovered one of the major pitfalls of having a belief that might once have been true held up to the light of expert scrutiny.

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I was on a three-person judging panel with a woman who placed herself well above all of the wines, and who clearly did not understand the first thing about some of them. One category she was obviously biased against was dry rosé.

One wine was simply fabulous, but she voted it no medal. And worse yet, no amount of discussion would get her to move to even a bronze medal. As it stood, the wine would get nothing despite my vote for a gold.

I showed the wine to a Quebec City wine expert, who was startled by my table-mate’s intransigence, and her failure to recognize its quality.

Quietly, he took me aside and confided, “She hates rosé. She always has a prejudice against any of them.”

The judging coordinator agreed to a compromise of sorts, allowing the other judges to have look at the wine. When the voting of 20+ judges showed overwhelming preference for the wine getting a gold medal, the formerly intransigent judge at last swallowed her pride and voted it a gold too!

So it was that I had long since abandoned my preconceived ideas about looking at the best of the Pacific Northwest. Once, a decade ago perhaps, I would assume that only two or three Rieslings would be good enough to compete against the estimable Chateau Ste. Michelle in that class. I have since learned that all four major growing areas in the Pacific Northwest can now grow great Riesling and make stellar wine.

Two additional aspects of the vast PNW region:

-- Some of the most interesting wines now are coming from grape varieties that previously were orphans with few supporters.

-- Some regions are developing skills at growing common varietals with a pizzazz that leads to great wines, but in styles that are not really mainstream.

We saw wines from Gamay, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, and Pinot Gris that are extremely personable. We also saw Cabernet Sauvignons from places like British Columbia, southern Oregon, and Idaho that were exemplary, although not always made in what would be called a traditional style.

Fortunately, most of our judges at the Platinum are respectful enough of the others on their panels to respect the votes cast with due consideration. As such, numerous times when one judge cast a “double gold plus” vote on a wine and another said “Platinum,” the first judge would go back and re-evaluate the wine to see if he or she could justify moving up!

It rarely went the other way, where a Platinum-voting judge looked again at a wine in order to downgrade his or her vote for it.

I have long since abandoned histrionics at blind tasting events, assuming that I will get my revenge in print. But because of the professionalism of the Platinum judges, little needed to be negotiated since the goal of the event, well understood, was two-fold: to improve the breed, regardless of what the breed was, and to send a message to wine makers about what we all perceived to be important aspects of such events.

Notable here is the issue of style. Heavy, hard, alcoholic, tannic reds were not as well-received as were more elegant, fruit-evident wines that displayed a distinct varietal identity.

Among the very positive messages was that judging many of the flights was more difficult than perhaps 15 years ago, when a higher percentage of the wines was clearly flawed.

In the past, judging a higher percentage of flawed wines meant we could easily pass on many of the entrants without having to cast a vote other than “no medal.” (One particular wine competition has a notorious reputation for giving out gold medals to simply execrable wines!)

In today’s world, flaws are hard to find. The majority of wines that do not get any medal at all reach such a sad fate based mostly on what I call UOTC – which is my shorthand for “unclear on the concept.”

These are wines in which a winemaker chose a style most unbefitting the fruit with which he or she had to work. Such as a tannic Pinot Noir that lacked the fruit to taste very good either now or in the future. Or a Riesling with too much sugar for the meager acid.

The only weak categories we witnessed were some rather amorphous red blend groupings in which the choice of grapes seemed to be arbitrary and left the wines neither here nor there in terms of raison d’etre.

This is to be expected since such categories are rarely very exciting anyway, and since the numbers of such wines are increasing because of the demands of marketing departments to get rid of unsalable Syrah.

The real problem here was the lack of supporting grape varieties to make the blends more appealing as young wines. Too often dark-heavy Syrah was blended with more dark and heavy red wines, when a bit more Merlot or Tempranillo (or Grenache!) could have saved the day.

In sum, this year’s Platinum results were among the most exciting I can recall, a tribute to Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman’s vision in starting this event.

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