Amateur in Name Alone

September 2009

By Karl Klooster
Having one’s wines evaluated in a competitive tasting must be an intimidating experience for any winemaker. Even when you’re confident your enological efforts measure up, the unpredictability of someone else’s personal preferences can come into play.
What’s in the glass may tell the tale, but will the tasters be up to the task? Does someone have a cold? How many wines are they tasting at one sitting? Will your wines be showing their best at this point in time? Whatever the case, reputations are on the line.
It’s all the more daunting when you’re an amateur winemaker. You’ve decided to send your bottled baby out there all alone into a heartless world; and you can do nothing more than anxiously await a phone call or e-mail that informs you how it fared.
Just such a dispassionate scenario took place on Saturday, Aug. 1, at Eola Hills Cellars in Rickreall. Five judges gathered there at 10 a.m. to taste 47 wines entered in the Willamette Valley Amateur Winemakers Society’s first-ever wine competition.
The judges were Patrick McElligott, Northwest Viticulture Center instructor and marketing representative for Sineann Wines; Steve Anderson, winemaker for Eola Hills Wine Cellars; Don Crank, winemaker for Willamette Valley Vineyards; Annette Solomon, food and wine writer for the Salem Statesman Journal; and this writer.
Nearly seven hours later, 30 of the wines came away with medals: three gold, 11 silver and 16 bronze.
In summing up the event, McElligott said, “I think the competition was strong and rigorously judged. Despite that, 64 percent of the wines being awarded medals is a very good commentary on the state of amateur winemaking.”
Though 23 of the winning entries came from Oregon winemakers, the sources of grapes and other fruits were more diverse. Of the 21 vinifera wines, 11 were made from Oregon grapes, seven from Washington, two from California and one from Italy.
In addition to Oregon, winemakers hailed from California, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Saskatchewan. All told, in the medal group, there were 18 red vinifera wines, three white vinifera wines, five berry wines, three fruit wines and one made from birch sap.
Those are the facts. They’re also the reason for a complex set of logistics requiring multiple flights so that tasters would be comparing apples and apples, so to speak.
Obviously, you wouldn’t put reds and whites in the same flight. Nor would dry table wines and ultra-sweet dessert wines be directly juxtaposed.
Marionberry and Merlot may both have fruity flavors, but they have no common ground for comparison. The same goes for kiwi and Cabernet. Pinot Gris and peach share a stone fruit component; however, that’s where the kinship ends.
So it was that organizers presented the tasting panel with individual evaluation sheets for each wine and instructions to make as many “helpful” comments as possible for the benefit of the winemakers.
As is almost inevitably the case in wine evaluations, blind or otherwise, this group of experienced tasters didn’t always agree on their favorites. But, given cumulative points, sometimes lengthy discussion and the art of compromise, consensus was reached.
A 2007 Walla Walla Syrah made by Kenneth Stinger of Portland won Best of Show. The panel agreed that, as Anderson put it, “The wine was extremely well made and beautifully balanced with resolved tannins.”
Being full-bodied, deeply pigmented and intensely flavored by nature, balance is essential for a good Syrah. Too much alcohol, overly astringent tannins, dried overripe fruit and a single-dimensional taste profile can all adversely affect the overall impression.
Stinger’s Syrah, however, delivered the total package and could have held its own against the best professionally produced examples.
The other gold medalists were Scott Nelson of Beaverton, who submitted a 2008 Willamette Valley Gewürztraminer, and a 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Deane Logan of Salem.
Considerable discussion took place in regard to Nelson’s wine. Though everyone liked it, disappointment seems widespread among Gewürz lovers about New World examples of this unique wine not rising to the level of their Alsatian counterparts.
The wine is known for its spicy intensity, while still being fermented to full dryness. Few winemakers outside France have been able to consistently achieve this elusive combination.
Despite the presence of residual sugar, however, the Willamette Valley version proved very appealing. Fresh, citrusy fruit and a hint of spice played on the nose and palate throughout, garnering it the gold.
The grapes for Logan’s finely crafted Pinot Noir came from the warm, ripe 2006 vintage. In California, that’s the norm. But Oregon winemakers hold mixed views in regard to embracing the relative bigness that results.
Stylistically, many of them prize Pinot’s potential for layered complexity, preferring finesse, delicacy and nuance over fullness of mouthfeel. The majority of tasters, however, felt this wine delivered both the size and character to make it a winner with consumers.
Noteworthy among the silver medalists was a peach wine from Tom Hindenbrand of New Jersey. Anderson considering it almost like eating the lusciously ripe, fresh fruit, itself. He took home what remained in the bottle.

A kiwi-golden made by the Illinois-based husband-wife team of Dennis and Caryn Angel was also a tasting panel favorite. The fruit came from Brazil. A couple of tasters likened it to a crisp, clean Oregon Riesling.

McElligott was particularly impressed by a Zinfandel made from Sonoma County fruit. I was impressed by the fact that it was made by Armstrong Mettle of Saskatchewan who must have gone through quite a bit of effort to get those grapes to Canada.

Gold medal winner Deane Logan founded WVAWS 4 1/2 years ago and clearly sets the standard for the society’s membership, which currently stands at 78. The success of this first competition has encouraged him to make it an annual event. ◊

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