The Oregon Wine Experience panel of judges addresses guests at the 2018 celebration. ##Photo provided.

Golden Opportunity

Oregon Wine Experience contest a moment for marketing

By Maureen Flanagan Battistella

Winning a wine competition can result in strategic intelligence, increased sales, personal satisfaction while presenting an excellent brand-building opportunity.

Submitted wines are numbered and covered by brown paper bags to ensure the competition truly is “blind.” ##Photo Provided

The Oregon Wine Competition, one aspect of the week-long Oregon Wine Experience in Jacksonville, opened to all Oregon wineries in 2015. Since then, participants and organizers have demonstrated how winning medals at a well-run competition with expert judges can mutually benefit wineries and the state.

Bruce Nicholson, chair of the Oregon Wine Competition for the last six years, explains, “The original point of the competition was to bring recognition to Oregon wines. In the Oregon Wine Competition, not only do Southern Oregon wines get recognition but all the wines get recognition as a single entity. It’s more that Oregon makes good wines everywhere in the state.”

Some 98 wineries participated in the 2018 Oregon Wine Competition with 66 percent representing Southern Oregon; the rest from four other Oregon AVAs.

This marked the third year Hood River’s Stave & Stone Wine Estates entered the Oregon Wine Competition, and the first year they won a double-gold — for their 2017 Pinot Noir Blanc. “We like to show our wines to see how we compare with everyone else,” says owner Jill House. “It’s always nice to see how our wines stand in the different growing areas.”

Early in August, the 2018 judges, three Masters of Wine and two distinguished wine writers, traveled to Southern Oregon to assess the 350 wines entered. Over the course of two days, Joe Roberts, CSW; Ashley Hausman Vaughters, MW; Liza Zimmerman; Joel Butler, MW; Nigel Sneyd, MW and Tim Hanni, MW, evaluated 44 wines each session with flights organized by type — red, white and other — and then ordered by alcohol and residual sugar. Each wine was first independently and privately evaluated by three judges based on the UC Davis 20-point criteria; then the wines were comparatively appraised by the team.

The system works for Roberts: “You really feel that each wine is getting its due.” Ashley Hausman Vaughters enjoyed her judging experience saying, “I was really moved in the direction that Oregon is going; I like the bravery to try different varietals to find that they work really well in all the different pockets.”

The Oregon Wine Competition is one of few events that organize a judges’ panel open to the industry and public. After tasting and judging, the experts discussed their process and findings, and participants asked questions — the judges’ comments placed Oregon wines within a larger context.  

Overall, 13 double-golds, 29 golds and 131 silvers were awarded. Old 99 Cellars 2014 Tempranillo won Best of Show for red; Awen Winecraft 2017 Viognier garnered Best of Show for white; and Quady North 2017  Rosè GSM captured Best of Show in the specialty category.

Nicholson wants to expand the competition carefully. “We’ll limit the number of entries based on how many judges we have and also allow each and every entry to be adequately assessed; we don’t want to rush any of the wines through the system.”

Nicholson also invites new judges for every contest, seeking those with sophisticated, trained palates and noses, experienced in high-stakes wine competitions to ensure consistent results. “We want judges who are unfamiliar with our area,” Nicholson says. “They can take what they’ve tasted — how good the wines are, the variety, the diversity of the wines — and talk about the wines around the country and around the world. We want the judges as unofficial spokespersons for Oregon wines.”

What has happened in the weeks since this year’s Oregon Wine Experience lends credence to his mission. Roberts blogged, “You’ll see a lot more coverage of some key S. OR producers here over the coming weeks because I found their stories — and their development in wine quality — quite compelling. More to come.”

As for sales? Last year’s Best of Show red, Weisinger Family Winery 2014 Estate Tempranillo flew off the shelf at the tasting room. Inventory was exhausted in two weeks.

This year was the first time Sam Desimone of Old 99 Cellars entered his wines; he sells out of his retail space, Old 99 Beer & Wine Shop in Medford. “The double-gold brought people in who hadn’t been here before and once they walked in, they found a whole new place to shop,” he says. “It was nice to show that our wines are competitive, and it definitely gave our brand a lot more traction.”

The 2018 Oregon Wine Experience raised more than $1,275,000 for Asante’s Children’s Miracle Network and other programs, a 25 percent increase over last year. More than 4,000 wine enthusiasts attended the event. 

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