Ken Robertson

A good year for quality wines

Something shocking is happening in the world of Northwest wine in 2016. It’s practically raining gold medals.

During the year’s first four months, I served as a wine judge at three Northwest events and at a fourth was chief of judges, which meant I tasted and wrote reviews for about three-quarters of its 200 gold medal winners.

Of the red wines entered for the competitions, most were from the 2012 and 2013 vintages. And of the white and rosé wines, most were from 2014 and 2015. About 1,700 wines were entered in the four events, all made from grapes grown in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho, except a lone Northern California import crafted in Southern Oregon.

Some of the judges work at competitions throughout the United States and Canada. And virtually all of them have spent decades learning about and evaluating wine, whether their background is in winemaking, sales, restaurants, hospitality, teaching, research, writing or in some other job related to the industry.

In a typical year, these men and women as a group probably rank 12 to 15 percent of the wines they evaluate as worthy of a gold medal. So far this year, the wines rated have been winning gold medals at a rate of 18 to 21 percent, except at the recent Wine Press Northwest Riesling tasting, which drew 108 entries and awarded 33 gold medals.

If there’s an anomaly here, it would appear to be the Riesling tasting featured in this edition of Wine Press Northwest, with 30.6 percent golds. That’s certainly a lot, and perhaps the judges were overly generous. But Northwest Riesling has an international reputation for excellence, which even the Germans recognize.

There is a reason that Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more Riesling than any other winery in the world — and sells every bit of it without difficulty. And if you can’t find a style of Ste. Michelle Riesling to suit your preference — dry, off-dry, sweet, late harvest, ice wine — perhaps you don’t like Riesling.

Judging wine is admittedly a highly subjective pursuit, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over 15 years of judging, it’s that most judges have definite opinions, developed over decades, which they defend stoutly and with little restraint. Consumers who suspect wine judges are mere industry shills would do well to sit through the discussion over several flights of Pinot Noir.

Some of the terms used to defend or to disparage Pinot would be right at home in our current election campaign. The arguments are forceful, sometimes to the point of insult and beyond. So I don’t believe this level of praise is a matter of soft-headed or soft-hearted judges.

Instead, I’m convinced we’re seeing the result of four good vintages back to back, after the difficult, cool years of 2010 and 2011. Those years produced some excellent wines, but not so many as previous years. Those two years, as veteran winemaker Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin in Richland, Wash., once told me, were a surprise to many young winemakers who had become used to warm summers and best-quality crops.

Making good wine from the grapes grown in a cool year, “separates the men from the boys,” he observed.

So perhaps all those gold medals are the result of winemakers being forced to hone their skills on some challenging crops, learning new skills and then being rewarded with best-quality grapes for four years in a row, produced by grape growers who also learned some new skills during those two difficult years.

Dick Boushey, recognized as one of Washington’s premier growers for his work on Red Mountain and in the Horse Heaven Hills, has described 2012 as “almost a perfect year.”

Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., another of the Northwest’s winemaking veterans, echoes that. He recently told Wine Enthusiast, “The wines just came out near perfect.”

In 2016 competitions in the Northwest so far, the wine judges reached the same verdict. For consumers, it means there are plenty of stellar wines of every kind in almost every price range.

Wine word: The barrel

The Pacific Northwest’s wineries have mostly just completed that annual rite of spring, the barrel tasting. And that means thousands of us have migrated to the region’s 1,700 or so wineries in the past couple months, all to pay homage to the wine that will emerge from its oaken cocoons over the next year or so.

We’ve sniffed, swirled, sipped and perhaps even reluctantly spit while trying to appreciate the unfinished product and somehow guess whether it will be a beautiful butterfly when the winemakers set it free after bottling.

And no doubt some have admiringly approved of those ranks of barrels, all carefully labeled, stacked and lovingly stored, without even giving thought to who invented one of the most critical elements of wine making — the wooden barrel.

One might guess it was the French, perhaps the wine barrel’s most devout proponents. Or perhaps the Romans, those world conquerors who spread Latin, wine and later Christianity throughout the civilized world. Or maybe the Greeks, sprung from the soil that nurtured many concepts of Western civilization.

And if so, one would be wrong. It was, historians agree, the Celts, a people who didn’t write down much of anything, probably some time before 500 B.C. Roman authors reported encountering wooden barrels early on. And soon adopted them to keep the wine flowing to their victorious Legions.

Interestingly, the Celts and others who resisted the Romans found other uses for barrels as well, rolling barrels laden with pitch and set on fire to attack one of Rome’s Legions. More practically, the Latin scholars reported, barrels were used to build ancient pontoon bridges.

Readers who’d like to know more might want to track down a recent book titled, “Wood, Whiskey and Wine: A History of Barrels,” by Henry H. Work.

This story was originally published May 24, 2016 12:00 PM.

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