In 1998, the difference in the marketplace between an 89-point wine and one at 90 points was subtle yet massive.
For a couple of copy desk jockeys working at a small daily newspaper, albeit in the middle of Washington wine country, the responsibility of going up to 90 points was something we didn’t feel comfortable with when we judged Merlot for the first issue of now-defunct Wine Press Northwest magazine. That was thousands of wines ago.
Andy Perdue and I were well into our second decades as professional journalists, but new to wine. That didn’t stop us from starting a wine magazine. However, we decided rather early to surround ourselves with experts such as winemaker Charlie Hoppes and international wine judge Coke Roth, as well as eschew the 100-point scale popularized by Robert Parker and international magazines such as Wine Spectator, Decanter and Wine Enthusiast.
In those days and the two decades prior, it seemed only producers along the Silverado Trail in California’s Napa Valley and the historic houses of Bordeaux and Burgundy were receiving lofty scores for “Parkerized” wines.
Then, international critics began to appreciate what was happening in the Pacific Northwest. Ken Wright, who trained at the University of California-Davis, moved to Oregon to launch Panther Creek Cellars, made the first wines for Domaine Serene and created Ken Wright Cellars. High scores followed each brand, and he wound up on Spectator’s cover.
In Washington state, Quilceda Creek first attained perfection — 100 points from Pierre Rovani in Parker’s Wine Advocate — with its 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Leonetti Cellar 2003 Reserve garnered 97 points from Parker. Bob Betz received 99 from the Advocate for a 2012 Red Mountain Cab.
These days, essentially every winery in the Northwest is earning higher scores. Credit climate change/warmer vintages, the formal education of winemakers/growers and technological advancements, including research by the cork industry.
Sure, those higher-alcohol wines championed by Parker are viewed as an endemic condition by some. That concept fed into the American consumer’s penchant for wines that drink more like a cocktail rather than an ingredient at the dining table. Bottom line, though, there are simply far fewer flawed/undrinkable wines. Our blind tastings and competitions — and those of others — prove that.
In fact, every entry we received for this issue’s comparative tasting of Merlot was at least recommendable/drinkable. On Wine Spectator’s scale, that would be 79 points. The WS range for “Outstanding!” the adjective Andy embraced in 1998 to describe a top wine, is 90-94 points. Any wine beyond that is one Spectator defines as “Classic,” but rarely does that magazine’s score climb above 97. It happened twice in our Merlot judging. (Your results may vary.)
So now we’re back to where Andy and I were two decades ago. What takes a wine from 89 to 90? In Spectator’s rarified air of today, it is 97 vs. 98.
Those who read our coverage this winter of the 22nd Platinum Awards in the inaugural issue of Great Northwest Wine magazine likely noticed points were given to each winning wine. The Chris Daniel Winery 2017 Malbec — the top-scoring wine — finished with 99.5 points. One judge, a celebrated winemaker, held firm at 99 points, noting, “No wine is perfect, but this is close.”
One of the country’s most respected critics once told me that he couldn’t imagine awarding a white wine more than 96 points. Well, some bottlings by the Gehringer brothers, the Krugers at Wild Goose or Rieslings from Bob Bertheau can take me there.
Our decision not to award points wasn’t because we were trying to break with tradition. Much of it was that we were novices when it came to evaluating and judging wine, and a portion of our readers appreciated our approach. We were learning on the job, using a journalistic approach to evaluating every wine under blind conditions, and taking new consumers along as we explored and discovered.
Ultimately, though, I answer to two camps: the readers who subscribe to the magazine and/or buy wines our panels recommend and the vintners who seek our impressions of their wines.
In recent years, more winemakers asked us to begin using the 100-point system. We all grew up with it in grade school, though some wine critics delight in pointing out the 100-point system is essentially a 20-point scale starting at 14. They may have a point.
Some retailers want a score to use as a shelf talker. (Many also appreciate it when a bottle wears a gold-medal sticker from a wine competition.)
However, the tipping point for my internal debate came last summer when one of the vintners you will read about in this issue reached out and said:
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve never been asked, ‘So how many ‘Outstanding!’ ratings have you gotten?’ They only want to know about gold medals or how many points a wine got.”
Back when my beat was not wine but the Western Hockey League, the local club briefly restricted my access because they didn’t appreciate the way I wrote about their last-place team.
It presented a few challenges, so I was tempted to write a column about it. My editor told me something that’s stuck with me.
“The reader doesn’t care if your job is difficult or how you do it, so don’t mention it.”
Well, I didn’t run the newspaper, but I own this publication so in the interest of transparency, this second issue of Great Northwest Wine magazine will feel different than the first. My publisher, Jerry Hug, needed to switch printers to get this edition to you in March rather than May.
“I was shocked to find out our printer is killing their press for our magazine,” he told me. “With covid, the paper mills reverted/changed their processes to making cardboard — Amazon needs it — and killed the press lines that make the stock paper we use. Couple that and a backlog of newsprint orders, and they have a six-month plus wait.”
Another reason this issue will look different is we’ve added a columnist — Liz Moss Woerman — and brought on retired banker Jim Thomssen to write regularly about Idaho’s wine industry. I trust we will have room to fit in all of this worthy content, but it’s an exciting challenge. Thank you for reading and supporting us.