No contest: Oregon wines have improved

I just returned from another stint as a commercial wine judge at the Newport Seafood and Wine Festival in Newport. This is the most prestigious festival for wine in the Northwest and just under 160 wines were judged in a two-day event. Wines from anywhere in the Northwest are allowed to enter as long as the participating winery also attended the public event at the end of February.

The attendance for the festival is the largest attendance for any wine event that I know of on the West Coast, and motel, B&B and hotel reservations are logged a year in advance for as far away as 100 miles from the event itself. Wine makers are very serious about the medals they win and earning a gold medal is a rare and joyful event for all concerned.

This was my 22nd year as a wine judge at this event and I am finding that the wines are not only getting better, but more interesting and complex as the years move along. Wine making talent, vineyard management and judicious use of oak have made this judging a joy to attend.

In the early years, judging at the Oregon State Fair in 1982, it was not uncommon to have two out of 10 wines rejected from fouled corks, alone. There was also an almost experimental use of oak barrels, vineyard management was a "go alone" prospect and wines came in various shapes and colors of bottles which were not only not traditional but confusing, as well. It was not uncommon to see labels peeling away from bottles on the shelves, corks exploding from bottles and Chardonnay or Pinot noir stuck in heavy Claret bottles.

There were not enough wineries in 1980, for example, to really set up associations where information could and would be freely exchanged. The only winery in the "south" was Valley View winery which made a pear wine called "Peary" and sported an original wine label from Peter Britt. (Today, Valley View winery proudly produces, on a regular basis, gold medal offerings.) Things have come a long way since those days in the wine judging business.

One of the reasons the overall quality of Northwest wines are better (and this I believe ends the controversy on "real cork" enclosures and twist top or synthetic corks) is the absence of tainted wines from bad corks. Of the almost 160 wines we judged there was only one wine rejected because of a "corked" bottle. That's an amazing quality control measure and wineries should applaud themselves for moving from the "traditional" closures to twists or synthetic.

Another quality seen at the fair was the absence of monster amounts of oak regularly tasted in this event in the past. Third, we are seeing good, clean and vibrant fruit coming from all over the wine-growing regions. This might be the most important quality statement so far in Northwest wine production. There seemed to be fine fruit, picked at the correct time where acid levels were sufficient for little adjustment and alcohol levels in line with the varietals. In fact, I think we found fewer than 10 wines where acid levels had to be adjusted because of a lack of natural acid in the grapes.

Some might say that this is due to where the grapes are grown and that some vineyards are simply better than others, but I think it is just good management and quite possibly a greater understanding of vineyard management all around. In past years we saw grapes with long hang time, resulting in huge levels of alcohol from the high concentrations of sugars, as well as mold problems or grapes picked before they were ripe.

We're now witnessing very few sulphur problems associated with vineyard management which is a clear indication that wineries are really on board with what is happening in the field. That was not the case even five years ago and I think it says huge amounts for the Oregon and Washington viticultural programs.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Ashland Wine Cellar. Reach him at

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