There’s more than fruit, grapes, honey and grain that goes into the Northwest Wine Summit, April 18-20 in Hood River.
Those are the ingredients of the wine, mead and distilled spirits that will be among the 1,300 expected entries in the event, at Columbia Gorge Hotel.
Garrit Stoltz of Stoltz Winery in Hood River is among this year’s judges.
The Summit’s general rule is that all grapes, berries or fruit that go into the wines should come from the Northwest; provenance rules are a bit looser for the newest portion of the Summit, the judging of distilled spirits, where the barley or malts might be from as far away Minnesota.
Northwest Wine Summit started in 1996, at Timberline Lodge.
“We outgrew it and moved it to Columbia Gorge Hotel four years ago,” said its founder, Atlanta wine importer Parks Redwine.
“From year one we have been the largest judging of Northwest wines, with entries from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, Saskatchewan,” said Redwine (and, yes, that really is his family name).
Beyond those basic ingredients there are some wine judging secrets shared by Redwine.
First of all, before the first flight of wines in each category, judges take a few sips of a blending of all five to six entries.
“They drink that first thing, so their palates get used to the type of wine they are about to drink. We call it ‘an acclimation wine,’” Redwine said.
To protect judges’ senses of smell, the hand soap in the hotel will be unscented.
“Some say we might go a little overboard with some of these things, but it’s all about enabling the judges to be able to truly sense what it is they are tasting,” said Redwine, of Atlanta, Ga.
He also stressed that no “circuit riders” will sip at the Summit.
“Once you judge in the Summit, it’s a one-time deal,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there to go around, but we have no ‘circuit-riding judges,’ those who go from event to event.”
Only once in memory has a judge repeated in all the Summits over the years. Redwine said most judges come from Northwest, but he always invites a few from back East, “to try to spread the word of what’s going on,” he said.
Judging itself is a service to the winemakers, according to Redwine.
“A lot of winemakers get caught in a rut; they see their own wine every day,” Redwine said. “You lose track a little about what’s going on around you; it’s good to see what others are doing.”
At tbe Summit, wines are ranked on a 13-point scale, unusual among contests, with an average being 6 —bronze medals going to an 8 or 9, silvers to a 10 or 11, and golds to a 12 or 13.
Before being poured for judging, corks are checked to see they are intact, and then a thermometer is used to ensure bottles are kept at the proper temperatures. The rooms are appropriately lighted to help in judging tone and clarity of the wines.
Further, the Summit provides an appeals system.
“If a winemaker requests it, we will look at what the judging panel has done, and even retaste the wine, and if it merits it, give the wine a new number and it can be rejudged,” Redwine said. “We try to bend over backward to be fair to the wines.”
Redwine is a lifelong southerner, but his great respect for Northwest and Canadian wines has inspired him to put on the Summit for 17 years.
“I like the area, and I’ve been trying to help promote it, regularly since late 1970s.” Redwine, a former banker, started Atlanta Improvement, a wine-importing company, in April 1990.
In 1982, he started a competition in Atlanta, now known as Vino Challenge Internationale.
“I’ve put on more competitions than anyone in the United States,” Redwine said.
He has traveled around the Northwest as far back as the 1950s, and in 1970s and 1980s he was a regular visitor as a wine writer. That was during the Oregon wine industry’s earliest days.
He was invited in 1977 through 1984 to be a wine judge at the Los Angeles County Fair, and has the distinction of twice judging at the Oregon State Fair, in 1982-83. He has also judged and attended events in the French Bordeaux and Rhone regions.
The Summit awards include varietal-specific ones such as best pinot noir and best cabernet, and general ones, starting with best-in-state awards named for the highest peaks in each state. Then there is the Winery of Distinction Award, based on overall judging of three or more wines.
Also presented is the Jerry Mead award, named for the late wine writer, for best-value wine.
The 2012 Winery of Distinction Award went to the Ste. Michelle group based in Woodinville, Wash.
Judging wines, Redwine said, is in one respect a marketing tool for wineries, to be able to advertise a gold or silver medal, but he also said it is “a guide for the public, knowing that this group of judges on this particular day felt it was pretty good wine.”
Redwine also said some awardees might never advertise the fact that they won a bronze medal. The Summit offers an opt-out to bronze medal winners.
“They get to keep the medal, and they know how they did, but they can ask us not to put it on our website,” he said.
Redwine said he expects to reach 1,300 entries, the same number as previous years; though he noted that in March the hotel had hosted a similarly named event, the Great Northwest Wine Competition, organized by wine industry publishers in Washington’s Tri-Cities.
“I do not know if it will push our numbers down a little; it might,” Redwine said. “There’s no hard feelings, I’ve worked with these folks in the past and will again, but in the future we might need to talk about disclaimers or something.”