Before I go into the details I would just like to issue an apology to all my Willamette Valley Pinot noir-making friends. I am sorry about the judges' outcome. I can't quite explain it.
Ray's Boathouse is a Seattle dining institution. Great seafood, great location, loyal clientele, great wine program under the direction of Richard Kelsey. Every January Ray's Boathouse conducts its Retrospective of Northwest Wines competition and dinner. Now in its 22nd year, it is a signature Northwest wine event that has ended up showcasing new, small, and sometimes unexpected winners.
Wines are submitted and organized into a 2-day blind tasting. This year 400 wines were submitted, and the panel of judges included eminent regional wine writers, sommeliers, food writers, retailers, and wine professionals. Ok, so they had to have a token Oregonian, so they invited me again this year to judge.
On the second day I arrived early and so had my choice of varieties to judge. Straight to the Pinot noir table I went. Two other judges joined me, and the three of us tasted through and scored all the submitted Pinot noir wines.
In my defense, I will say that my general impression was that the wines were mostly big and juicy in style (implying a 2006 vintage), with some that were more lean and elegant (implying 2005 or 2007). I will also say that no single wine stood out to me as particularly spectacular. Rather, my recollection was that it was a mixed bag of Pinot styles, tending toward a lush and oaked emphasis.
So, when I received the final results of the judging, I found myself flabbergasted (the Brits would say, gobsmacked) at the winning Pinot noir. Not only was it from Washington—and NOT Oregon—it was from the Wahluke Slope appellation of Washington . . . one of the 2 hottest in Washington, with growing degree days that average around 3,000. This is distinctly NOT a cool climate area and it is distinctly NOT the place anyone would expect Pinot noir to be grown.
How could I have let this happen??
Now please understand, I am not being disrespectful to the winning Pinot noir. I am expressing surprise (what would be a stronger word?) that a Pinot noir from such an indubitably warm, nay, hot climate, would have shown so well among a group of what I have to think were predominantly cool-climate Oregon Pinots.
Here's my theory: the other two judges were from Washington (that's a fact, by the way) and their palates are more calibrated to big and lush wines (that's the theory part) . . . which I have to believe such a warm-climate Pinot surely was. The winning warm-climate wine surely appealed to their tastes.
That would be two warm-climate palates against one cool-climate palate. In such a case, the big wine wins.
Am I rationalizing? Could be. I don't know what the winning wine tasted like (it was all blind and there were about 40 wines) so I have no idea how I scored it.
But that's, my theory and I'm sticking to it!
Oh, and what was the winning wine (besides being one I have to find myself a bottle of to conduct my own blind tasting with)? It was 2006 Pinot noir from Ginko Forest Winery, a boutique on the sparse and really warm loess soils of the Wahluke Slope (home to mighty fine merlot, cabernet, and syrah . . . if not at least one pretty danged respectable pinot noir . . .).
Good on 'em, I say. But let me taste that one again . . .