ASHLAND — Oregon Wine Experience makes a point of rotating judges for its competition to level the playing field from year to year.
When a judge returns, however, it provides an opportunity to measure both the competition and the local wine industry’s progress.
Tim Hanni, a master of wine, didn’t expect to be on the six-member panel when it reviewed 349 entries made from 38 varietals by 98 wineries during the competition at Ashland Hills Inn & Suites this past weekend.
Although the preponderance of Hanni’s career was based out of California’s Napa-Sonoma region, he has called Bend home the past two-plus years. That made him the go-to, on-call judge of sorts when OWE needed a late replacement.
The first time he judged the regional competition, he admittedly was ignorant of Oregon wines. After multiple return trips, however, he’s observed progress in the refinement of flavors and vineyard practices.
“My favorite work is in emerging areas, or lesser known areas, and you’ve got a great history here and a lot of things going,” Hanni said.
“The first year there were a lot of really excellent wines, but a lot of them were kind of wayward trying to push the grape too hard, trying to make tempranillo that was more like cabernet. This year was a spectacular notch up, and I love to see that.”
Winners will be announced at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, during the medal celebration at Bigham Knoll in Jacksonville.
Both human and environmental factors contribute to the identity of the still young, but rapidly maturing wine region.
“You attract people to an area that come from California or are new to the industry, or just simply have a passion for a certain style of wine or place they visited in France, Italy, Spain or wherever,” Hanni said. “It just takes time when you’ve got vineyards you’ve got to figure out how to deal with the natural environment. One of the things we’re seeing that’s starting to be dealt really well with here is in the fire years when you’ve got the smoke. It actually has an affect on the finished wine, and you need to know how to manage those things.”
Hanni’s research passion revolves around sensory differences, expectations and the neurology of perception. He focuses on what people desire in a particular type of wine.
“What would really make you want to fill up a glass, have it, share it, have more of it, and immerse yourself in it?” Hanni said.
There’s been a trend in competition for wines that stick out to win awards, he said.
“At the end of the day, it might not be best for the consumer,” he said. “In Australia, it’s the ‘show wine’ phenomenon: More oak, more alcohol, and the wine stands out like a sore thumb. It’s much, much harder as a judge to look for finesse, delicacy and elegance.”
The Oregon Wine Experience panel took a different tack.
“Let’s see what we can find that wows people without knocking them over the head with a 2-by-4. That takes time. If you are used to Napa cabernets, and you come here and try to replicate that, frankly that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something that speaks to me a little bit differently that’s a little bit new of a fingerprint on the wine, and we’re seeing that here over and over again.”
Panel newcomers quickly find there is more to Oregon wine than pinot noir and chardonnay, said Bree Boskov, Oregon Wine Board education manager, who moderated Sunday evening’s forum.
“You come to this competition and there is malbec, tempranillo, sangiovese and barbera — and they all present deliciously in the glass,” Boskov said. “I think that will be a real surprise, and a real challenge, to some of the judges.”
What the region gets in return is extended exposure, she said.
“Oregon wine is quite a small percentage of the national marketplace, and Southern Oregon is much smaller within that,” Boskov said. “It’s really about exploring the quality wines within the region and really trying to get a feel for the region through the wines in front of you.”
Nigel Sneyd, who leads E & J Gallo’s International Winemaking Group, said past experience shapes present perspective.
“Every competition has its own little quirks and differences,” Sneyd said. “What you’ve done before, you bring that into the competition. Mine is very much based around a very rigorous Australian or English wine competition system, with a set of criteria, and you know what category you are looking at.”
He said limiting awards to gold and silver levels gives him pause.
“Many wines deserve some recognition above nothing, but are not worthy of a silver,” Sneyd said.
Rosé entries improved their quality for the palates of the judging panel.
“Last year, the rosés were very challenging, and not very many people got behind them,” said Ashley Hausman, a master of wine from Denver. “This year, we were really impressed by the quality we saw across the board. We sent quite a few up in terms of awards, so it seems to be going in a good direction.”
Wineries were limited to five entries.
Jean-Michel Jussiaume, winemaker at Del Rio Vineyards outside Gold Hill, said he looks for wine with balance in selecting entries.
“You know when you have a good wine,” Jussiaume said. “There is a balance, there is a freshness, there is je ne sais quoi that makes you want to get another glass; that’s a good wine.”
Brian Wilson, winemaker for Foris Vineyards and Cuckoo’s Nest Cellars, has won his share of medals, but that isn’t his aim.
“What makes it worthy is what you feel about the wine,” Wilson said. “I feel good about all of them, I don’t think of them in terms of medals, though. I don’t think of them in terms of gold medals, I don’t think of them in terms of double-golds, or anything better than that. Because I feel like they are all solid silver medals. But outside of that, I don’t have any hope beyond that.”
Irvine & Roberts Vineyards winemaker Vince Vidrine said his takeaway from the evening was for the region’s vintners to find a unifying voice and identity.
“What I heard was that we need to collaborate and continually refine,” Vidrine said. “One of the coolest things about this area is that we’re at 2,200 feet elevation, and from here to Gold Hill there are so many varietals that are done well. It was easy for them to recognize that fact.”