Over four years ago Bryan Otis, owner of and , ran into Ross Mickel of clearing out a downtown Bellevue grocery store of the October, 2007 issue of a local lifestyle magazine. Mickel’s 06 Ross Andrew Pinot Gris, Celilo Vineyard was featured in that issue in a column I had written, including a food pairing suggestion of carrot-ginger soup made by a mythical mother.
The wine review spiked sales of Mickel’s Pinot Gris, the first white wine he released. Mickel also received multiple requests for that carrot-ginger soup recipe.
I look back on that story with laughter and confusion. My hope is that my wine recommendations inspire consumers, but must they take me so literally? Any carrot-ginger soup would have paired with the 06 Ross Andrew Pinot Gris.
There’s no single wine evaluation system that is full-proof. I generally advise consumers to cultivate a combination of recommendation sources, including wine reviewers, awards programs, retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs and other wine professionals. It’s important to find one or more sources and adapt the information to your comfort level.
Christopher Chan, wine director at Seattle’s Rainier Club, is striving to produce the most thorough wine competition with the Seattle Wine Awards, which he founded.
Chan gathered an impressive group of judges, including Master of Wine Joel Butler, Master Sommelier Fred Dame and Amy Mumma, director of the Central Washington University Wine Program. His judging panel also included professionals from restaurants, retail stores and the press.
Having a large and diverse panel such as the one Chan gathered for the Seattle Wine Awards creates a collective average result among differing opinions. If there’s truth in wine, as the Latin phrase “In vino veritas” suggests, the truth in wine often lies somewhere in the middle of differing opinions.
Chan modified the standard UC Davis 20-point scoring system, replacing appearance with topicity as an evaluation standard. Chan feels that appearance of a wine has little effect on wine quality preferring to award points for wines that are expressive of its unique environment.
“Our evaluation is the most thorough and thoughtful and better than most,” Chan said.
Chan received nearly 1,000 wines from about 250 wineries, about a third of the wineries in the state. Groups of judges were assigned wine flights divided by varietal or style and price point to evaluate rather than review every wine. All the wines were judged blind, meaning wines were not identified. Judges only knew the varietal category and price point. For a complete list of winners click here. If your favorite wine is not among the winners it could simply mean that they were not submitted for evaluation.
Chan admits his is an awards program designed to promote Washington wines. The tagline for the Seattle Wine Awards is “Washington State’s Premier Wine Recognition Program.”
“I don't call it a competition,” Chan said. “To me it’s about recognizing Washington wines. These wines deserve to be recognized. We are doing it for the promotion of Washington wines.”
Chan “recognized” hundreds of wines in 50 categories with Bronze, Silver, Gold and Double Gold medals. The overwhelming number of medals dilutes the value of each medal.
“I want everyone to win but that's just not possible,” Chan said.
With awards programs arranged to do the bidding for wineries and the wine industry, that leaves consumers vulnerable and wondering who and what to trust.
In the end, Chan feels his is the most thorough and fair process to evaluate wines.
“I make sure that it's as perfect as possible,” he said. “We had 15 of the top tasters.”
Otis’ Woodinville-based winery Tenor won three Double Golds in the Seattle Wine Awards in its respective categories for its 08 Bordeaux-style blend ‘1:1,’ 09 Cabernet Sauvignon and 09 Malbec.
“We don't ever think when we go into competitions we are going to win every award,” Otis said. “It's nice to know they are (tasted) blind. When you are a new winery you want the fairest chance to show what you want to do.”
Wine competitions are merely a single snapshot. That snapshot could be during a moment when a wine is not ready or simply going through a dumb phase. There are many other external factors during that snapshot that could alter results such as the surrounding environment with its smells and other distractions, glassware and the food (or lack thereof).
I visit restaurants at least three times when I am reviewing them. If something is majorly amiss I return a fourth or even a fifth time. I try wines multiple times, as well, as time allows. I strive for fairness and thoughtfulness when evaluating wine.
Many so called wine reviewers are merely shills, promoters and advocates for wineries. Many demand free bottle samples with the promise of glowing recommendations. Some go as far as attempting to extort wine bottle samples with threats of poor reviews. That sort of quid pro quo renders such recommendations unreliable.
“We have more people writing about wines today,” said Aryn Morell, winemaker at Tenor and Matthews Estate. “It is diluting the reviews. Look up any wine. You can find good things about it. You can find bad things about it.
“At some point we have to be able to test the proficiency of the reviewer. It doesn’t mean all reviewers are bad. There are reviewers who are very thoughtful about reviewing wines.”
The Washington wine industry is filled with personalities. Many reviewers are charmed by such personalities and often it skews their evaluation of wines. The opposite could be said; sour personalities produce sour grapes in the eyes of some reviewers. The last time I checked grapes do not react to personalities and neither should reviewers.
The Wine Advocate published by Robert M. Parker, Jr., The International Wine Cellar published by Stephen Tanzer and the Wine Spectator published by Marvin Shanken are the three most influential wine publications in this country.
Parker was the first time to adopt the 100-point scoring system, but not necessarily the best. His critics claim his monolithic leanings for alcoholic, tannic and fruit forward wines biases against elegant wines.
Tanzer, publisher of the International Wine Cellar, tends to be more thorough and judicious. He has yet to award 100 points to any wine.
Shanken’s Wine Spectator is the largest with circulation around 400,000 and readership of over 2.5 million.
“Parker was the first to market. People latched on to that,” Mickel said. “You can argue that Tanzer does equally the job but he doesn’t have the circulation.”
Otis suggests compiling all the relevant reviews and awards.
“What I think is unique what they are doing is that they are creating data points for future consumers. At some point someone is going to do some great aggregation of all the wine awards,” Otis said.
Until then consumers are left to float in a sea of wine reviews.