Q&A: Sean Sullivan

Dedicated to Northwest wine

Sean Sullivan

Sean Sullivan reviews wines from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Canada for Wine Enthusiast. He is also the founder of Washington Wine Report, an online publication dedicated to the Pacific Northwest; the site is a four-time finalist and two-time winner for “Best Single Subject Wine Blog” from the Wine Blog Awards. Sullivan writes regularly for Seattle Metropolitan, Washington Tasting Room, Washington State Wine Tour Guide and is a contributor to Hugh Johnson’s “Pocket Wine Book.” Sullivan lives in Seattle. 

How did you first become interested in wine?

SS: In 2000, I moved to Seattle from my home state of Massachusetts and decided to explore a number of new directions. I’d always been interested in wine, but I didn’t know anything about it. So, I enrolled in an “introduction to wine” class at a local community college. I subsequently started going to all of the local tastings at retailers around town and quickly focused my attention on Washington and Northwest wines. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why are wine reviews important?

SS: From a consumer perspective, the reality is, even here in the Pacific Northwest, there are literally thousands of wines produced each year. That’s overwhelming. Wine reviews, if done well, can help provide focus and direction. Otherwise, you’re just in a grocery store or wine shop staring at hundreds of labels trying to decide what to buy. And you’re going to have lots of misses. With reviews, assuming one’s palate aligns with a particular reviewer, you’re going to have a lot of hits.

From a winery perspective, reviews can help promote their wines to a wider audience and impact people’s buying decisions. Assuming there’s some objectivity to them, scores can also serve as a checkpoint on how they are doing relative to their peers to that critic, who hopefully is knowledgeable about the region.

Describe the experience of a 100-point wine.

SS: I’ll let you know when I have that experience! I’ve been at Wine Enthusiast since 2013 and have rated over 11,000 wines for the magazine, but I have not yet rated a wine 100 points. Surely that’s partly because we taste all wines blind at Enthusiast, and no one gives out a lot of 100-point scores in that setting. You’re scoring based on what’s in front of you in the glass, not the reputation of the producer or vintage.

To the extent I ever do rate a wine 100 points, I would have to be convinced there is no other score that I could give that wine that reflects my sentiment of what’s in the bottle. That’s an exceptionally high bar to meet, as it should be. To the extent scads of wines are getting 100 points or other top scores, all scores become less meaningful.

Which AVA in Washington deserves more attention?

SS: More than a specific appellation, I’m interested in how the Columbia Valley is being carved up into smaller sub-regions. As that happens, we should see increasing specificity in the wines, to the extent the new appellations are meaningfully done. I think that’s exciting, and I look forward to seeing that process continue in the coming years.

Which AVA in Oregon excites you most?

SS: Similar to the Columbia Valley, I’m interested to see how Willamette Valley gets further refined. Part of that might be additional designations. Part of it will also be how existing appellations come to be better understood in the eyes of consumers and the trade. Creating appellations and saying “These things are different” is the easy part. Explaining what those differences are and how that leads to meaningful differences in the glass is heavier lifting. I’m excited to see that process continue to play out and hope to play a role in that as well.

Southern Oregon is obviously much less carved up. I’m interested to see people find additional areas that have something unique to say, and also see winegrowers continue to explore what’s possible in that appellation as a whole.

What’s one of the most memorable wines you’ve ever tasted?

SS: People often talk about epiphany wines, and I certainly had one. I was at a retailer tasting in downtown Seattle in the early 2000s, and they were pouring three wines: a $15 wine, a $25 wine and a $50 wine, all from different producers. The $50 wine was a Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot. I tried those three wines and thought, “I get it. There is a qualitative difference between these wines that is very clear.”

At that point, the Duckhorn Merlot was about two times what I’d ever spent on a bottle of wine, but I figured I’d splurge and start a wine cellar, so I bought a bottle. My roommate came home that night, and I said, “You’ve got to try this wine!” We sat on the porch and drank it to the bottom.

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