Wine Judging Requires Swirling, Sniffing, and Tasting Your Way Through a Lot of Wine

This article originally appeared in the October, 2019 issue of Bellingham Alive Magazine

Tell someone you’re taking part in a wine judging and you’re likely to hear how “lucky” you are. Drinking all of those wines has to be fun, right?

Certainly there’s an element of enjoyment to the process;  and most judges would probably agree that looking for a near-perfect wine that stimulates the senses in terms of color, aroma, mouthfeel, and flavor is both challenging and rewarding.

Judges taste wines and award medals as part of this year’s Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival

The key to wine judging, however, is not drinking the wine, it’s tasting it. Swirling, sipping and then spitting gives the taster plenty of clues about the wine’s quality or flaws, body style, finish, and whether or not it’s a good representation of the grape.

While this tasting technique is essentially a form of “wine speed dating” (where first impressions count), from a practical standpoint it may be the only way for a wine judge to remain upright during the course of the competition.

Take for example last August’s Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival. The pre-event judging featured nearly 200 wines from Washington and Oregon wineries. The panel of judges was allocated less than two days to blind taste through the entire list of entries and award bronze, silver, gold, and double gold medals along with the Best in Show trophy…no easy task.

Even so, the panel was able to agree on a clear-cut winner: the Thurston Wolfe Winery 2016 Petit Verdot; an expressive, full-bodied red wine from Prosser, Washington packed with black licorice and dark fruit flavors that finish with beautifully integrated tannins.

In addition to the Petit Verdot, a gold medal from all the judges earned five other wines double gold recognition:  the Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Darkness Syrah, Jones of Washington 2017 Reserve Chardonnay, Mellisoni Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay, Thurston Wolfe Winery 2016 “The Geologist” Red Wine, and Treveri Cellars Non-Vintage Sparkling Gewurztraminer.

Local wineries also fared well in the judging. Margarita Vartanyan’s 2015 Carmenere aged in French oak barrels and Rob Dhaliwal’s Samson Estates Cassis Dessert Wine both earned gold medals. The pair of Whatcom County winemakers took home an additional seven and three medals, respectively, for other wines they entered in the competition.

In addition, Dynasty Cellars’ Peter Osvaldik was a perfect three silvers for three entered wines, while Tom Davis and Tracy DeGraff of GLM Wine Company scored silver and bronze for their two entries.

So is wine judging foolproof? Of course not. Every person has inherent likes or dislikes about certain smells, flavor characteristics, textures, or even particular wines themselves. In other words, one person’s recommendations won’t always align with yours.

Just remember, in the world of wine it’s consensus we’re looking for…and that rarely means unanimity. When in doubt, the solution is remarkably simple: taste – and judge – for yourself.

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