Here Come the Judges

A panel for the ages at Newport Seafood & Wine Festival competition

By Valerie Estelle Rogers

During the ninth year of the Newport Seafood & Wine Festival, local restaurateur Joseph Swafford was asked to assemble a team of expert judges for a commercial wine competition to complement the already thriving event. This select group represented winemakers as well as wine writers, merchants, scientists and educators.

In 2014, Flying Dutchman Winery of Otter Rock won Best of Show honors for its 2006 Syrah. ##Newport News Times

In 1986, only 49 wines were entered in the initial contest. Some 32 years later, the festival still includes the six original judges: two from the first year; the other four, only a year or so behind. In 2016, this team judged a record number — tied with 2011 — 181 wines. Medals are awarded for gold, silver and bronze standards, in addition to the highly regarded Joseph H. Swafford Best-of-Show.

Joining Swafford, the panel includes Lorn Razzano, Brooks Tish, Georgia Ross, Gerry Warren and Thomas “Mac” McLaren.

Their qualifications are impressive. Swafford owned the Champagne Patio Restaurant for 32 years. In 1980, Razzano founded The Ashland Wine Cellar, which continues to thrive, and currently writes about wine for a number of publications. Tish was the wine columnist for the Salem and Boise Statesman-Journal newspapers for years, in addition to being a professional wine judge throughout the U.S.; he also, after studying wine and the culinary arts in New York City, taught wine appreciation classes for adults and cooking classes for teens and older. Ross has been a restaurateur in Idaho and Colorado, where she lives, with years of wine-buying experience. A former professor at the University of Washington, Warren helped found the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest — also known as the Seattle Wine Society — while an active member of the Slow Food movement. For two decades, McLaren served as a wine steward on the Central Oregon Coast.

The judging spans four sessions over two days. After organizing into groups based on varietal or type of blend, the wines are placed into flights, with the morning sessions focused on the lighter and drier before moving into the heavier and sweeter by the end of the day.

When tasting hundreds of wine, having a plan helps minimize palate fatigue. The judging requires sincere effort and concentration and the use of sensory memory to effectively evaluate. McLaren maintains focus is the key and not to waver from it.

“I have a moment of hope that this will be the best flight or varietal ever entered into the competition,” McLaren said. “I think all of us are optimists, supportive of the industry even as we evaluate and give awards.

“I would say that as judges, we take our task in earnest,” he continued. “Each of us tries to give every wine we taste a fair evaluation based on our individual experience. We also respectfully work as a team to be sure that every wine gets its moment to shine. In the singular moment of attention, I want a wine to be transparent enough to reveal its pedigree.”

He and the team, realizing the magnitude of their decision for each bottle, make every effort to judge with integrity. The panel has been known to share praise or explain criticisms to the winemakers who contact them following the event. Tish may have said it best, “If any of us had perfect palates, only one — not five of us — would be needed.”

As in any forged family, there are stories-turned-legends happily revisited with laughter over time. For example, one of the first years of the competition, a car accident sheared a power pole and therefore the power; the team finished the competition by candlelight. One judge swears by fortifying for the day with an oatmeal breakfast, which could be wise words for those attending the festival or out for a day of wine tasting. Then there is the great story of when Warren and his wife were passed at a high rate of speed by two judges on the interstate as they were heading back from the competition. Warren called the driver and impersonated an officer. Over the years, the friendships have fermented beautifully together.

Each judge’s connection to the team originates with Swafford, described as the soul of the competition; all express the privilege of being invited back year after year to judge one of the greatest wine competitions in Oregon.


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