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Winemaker's Journal — Wine judging a serious task

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Winemaker's Journal author Rick Steigmeyer was one of eight judges for this year's NCW Wine Awards.

What's it like to judge a 150 wines in a day? It might not be as much fun as you think.

Eight judges and two panel moderators swirled, sniffed, tasted and spit through about 235 different wines June 2 to determine awards for the 2014 North Central Washington Wine Awards. Judging was coordinated by Andy Perdue and Eric Degeman of Great Northwest Wine. They've organized dozens of wine competitions throughout the Northwest. The backroom team tasked with preparing wines for the judges was run by Hank and Nancy Sauer.

The wines were submitted by 35 NCW wineries. Judges tasted about 150 wines each all told, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A  few corked bottles required second bottles to be opened. Gold medal winners were sampled a second time to determine Best of Show winners.

Another grueling day at the office. It does sound like fun, and it is. But it's also serious work. Wineries and winemakers submit their wines expecting the most fair and knowledgeable competition possible to win well-deserved awards for their product and craft. Although each wine is judged independently, medals tell a winemaker how his or her wines stack up against others in the region, if there are flaws in his or her process and if the wines are accomplishing intended goals.

And yes, medals definitely help sales. Confronted with thousands of wines, consumers look for impressive medals and high scores as a way to choose one likely to satisfy. Wineries flaunt medals and good results, and they should.

With that in mind, judges, myself among them, are tasked with doing the near impossible: using our subjective knowledge of wine to be as objective as can be and determine each wine's merit. Wines are not judged against each other. All can earn a Gold medal or none at all.

To delete bias, wines are all judged double blind. Judges don't know specifically what wines from what wineries are entered in the competition. The backroom team decants red wines, chills whites and presents one ounce pours in numbered glasses. Moderators tell the judges what type or varietal in front of them — Merlot, Chardonnay, red blend, etc. — but are offered no wine specifics about the producer or source of the grapes.

Judges taste the wines in flights according to type. The more than a dozen categories this year included 12 Cabernet Francs, 35 red blends, 10 Viognier but only one sparkling wine.

Judges  inspect each wine's color and clarity and the clear layer at the top of wine that offers information about its alcohol level. They swirl the wine to blend in oxygen and expose the delicate aromas. Finally, they sip the wine and wash over tastebuds in different parts of their mouth before spitting it into a cup. Notes are taken for each wine before moving on to the next. Often, a wine will be revisited a few times to see if it opens up given a few minutes more time.

Judges award each wine Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medal. If judges feel a wine has been tainted by a bad cork, they ask that a second bottle be opened.

Once all the wines in a flight are scored, judges hand the score sheets to the moderator, who enters the scores in his computer that identifies each number with a specific wine. If all four judges in the panel agree on a medal, that's what it is. If all four judges award Gold, the wine is elevated to Double Gold. If there are differences, the moderator calls for a discussion to come to consensus. Judges can take another sip and argue their cases up or down until they agree.

After all the wines are judged, the backroom crew brings out new pours of the Gold and Double Gold winners to determine Best of Show, Best Red or Best White and Best Dessert Wine.

Judges gobble mounds of mushrooms, crackers, cheese and apple slices to renew their palates between flights and to keep from getting drunk. Believe me, even with spitting, it takes effort to keep from becoming intoxicated after sniffing 100 wines or so. By the end of the day, I had had my fill of wine without swallowing a drop.

Perdue and several judges experienced from previous NCW Wine Awards agreed that local wines have vastly improved over the past four years. Nearly 20 percent of wines entered received Gold or Double Gold medals — 58 wines — more than twice as many as in previous years. Ten Double Gold medals were awarded this year. Last year, there were only two.

Full results will be revealed and medals distributed at the NCW Wine Awards Gala, Aug. 23 at the Town Toyota Center. Stories about the big winners will be published in the wine issue of Foothills magazine in September.

For more information about the gala and to purchase tickets, check out the website