Christopher Chan, Executive Director of the Seattle Wine Awards, breathes in a Pacific Northwest pinot noir.
“We’ve got black raspberry, a little bit of dark strawberry,” he said, after taking a deep inhale of the wine. “There’s a hint of fall leaves and a little bit of forest floor. Just a touch of cedar and just a hint of vanilla. I think it’s got some French oak in here.”
Chan runs the closed-door judging of the Seattle Wine Awards, the region’s largest and most comprehensive independent wine recognition award program.
Over Sunday and Monday, 20 hand-picked wine experts did blind taste tests of 1,200 Washington, Oregon, and Idaho wines. But, of course, each judge couldn’t try all 1,200 wines.
“Fifty wines in the morning and about 50 wines in the afternoon. So I’m going to do about 200 wines,” said judge Sabrina Lueck.
Lueck has a different experience with wine than the room full of master sommeliers. She teaches Oenology at Walla Walla Community College.
“Oenology is the study of wine. The Greek word ‘oenos’ means wine and ‘logy’ being the study of. I teach wine chemistry, wine microbiology, and production of wines.”
She can’t help but consider chemical components as
she judges wine.
“I have a lovely flight of Rieslings in front of me right now. I have a tasting note here, ‘petrol,’ which is a compound called TDN. (It’s) made from C-13 carotenoid compounds, which are made when light strikes a grape berry. So it’s so fun to kind of see how something that’s so aromatically typical of a really lovely grape is the product of science and sunshine.”
Bay Area Master sommelier, Reggie Narito, flew up to judge the wines. I caught him during a tasting flight of Riesling.
“I get that yellow apple smell, almost like a bruised apple, some lime skin. Maybe even moving over to white peach…”
He scores the wines based on aroma, bouquet, flavor, palate, structure, balance, typicity, and complexity.
“The wine’s in great balance, has nice fruit. I would give this a great score,” Narito said.
Judging wines might sound like a dream job, but after seven straight hours in a conference room, it gets a bit tedious.
“Well, just like anything that you do for a long period of time, it becomes arduous,” Narito said. “Then when you get towards the afternoon, it gets harder to get through them. So you try and maintain some of your perspective because you want to make sure that you’re fair to each wine. But at the same time, it does tire the palate out. So you really got to keep your wits about you.”
Of course, the judges aren’t really drinking the wines.
“We bring the wine into our mouths, we swish it around, and we spit it right back out,” Lueck said. “Because if we were drinking these samples, we’d all be on the ground.”
When all the score sheets are eventually tallied, the best wines of the region will be revealed to the public.
“What does the best mean? Because ‘the best’ is different for you and ‘the best’ is different for me,” Chan said. “So we don’t really use the term ‘best.’ Our wines will receive a Gold, a Double Gold, a Silver or Bronze, Grand Award of Excellence.”
And if you’re looking to pick up a bottle of wine tonight, here’s what the experts said is really popping right now:
“Washington is producing, in my opinion, really amazing syrahs,” Lueck said. “The warm days and the cool nights give us a quality of wine that isn’t flabby and still retains these really beautiful aromatics. One of my favorite wines that’s offered in the state of Washington is Chateau St. Michelle Columbia Valley Tier Syrah. We serve it to our students because it’s a flagship for good quality Washington syrah.”