When Christopher Chan established the Seattle Wine Awards in 2006, there were only about 250 wineries in Washington state. And people in other parts of the country would ask, “Which side of the Potomac do you make wines in Washington,” Chan recalls. Today, wine pros worldwide know about Washington state, as well as Oregon and, maybe, even Idaho. And there are a lot of great things to know—and like—about the Seattle Wine Awards. For starters, the awards program is older than about three-fourths of the Northwest’s present-day wineries. And the evaluation process, as Chan says, is more about recognition than competition. Producers get meaningful feedback from industry pros. For the rest of us, the results double as a road map to Northwest wines worth tasting right now. With this in mind, here are great things to know about the 2021 Seattle Wine Awards.
Awards are based on merit
There are things about the evaluation process that seem to democratize wine judging. Chan (above) invites sommeliers, wine educators, wine buyers, restaurant beverage directors and others industry professionals, including those from outside the Northwest, to participate. One of this year’s more notable panelists was Tonya Pitts, wine director at San Francisco’s One Market Restaurant. She is also a consultant and respected wine judge. And she has been widely lauded for helping diversify the wine industry.
In April, this year’s Seattle Wine Awards panelists gathered at the Women’s University Club in downtown Seattle to evaluate about 900 wines submitted by producers from Washington state, Oregon and Idaho. As usual, they tasted each wine by varietal, with no further information about each selection, such as producer or price point. This enabled them to hold lower-priced wines to the same standards as their pricier counterparts.
In the Seattle Wine Awards, selections that satisfy the point threshold for each award receive a medal, which include (from lowest to highest scores) bronze, silver, gold and double gold. There can be as many or as few medals awarded for any varietal as the scores merit. For 2021, about 20 Washington red proprietary blends received double golds. But only one Washington gewürztraminer received an award, a silver medal for Tsillan Cellars.
New and lesser-known wineries can gain attention
Each year, newer or lesser-known wineries get noticed at the Settle Wine Awards. And this year’s tastings gave Bayernmoor Cellars a chance to gain recognition. Its wines are made by Brian Carter, who has been winning awards since he began making wine in the Northwest in the 1980s. (He established Brian Carter Cellars in 2006.) Bayernmoor’s wines include pinot noirs sourced from its estate vineyard in Stanwood. One of these pinot noirs received a double-gold medal, and two others received gold.
In the short-but–rapidly evolving history of modern Northwest wine, most Washington growing areas have been considered unsuitable for pinot noir. But Chan’s tasting panel might beg to differ. In all, Washington pinot noirs received two double golds, four golds and 11 silver medals.
The stalwarts get equal treatment
Another great thing about the Seattle Wine Awards is the way that some of the region’s most formidable producers receive the same treatment as newer and lesser-known wineries. This year, Carter (above) was in both groups. In addition to the hardware he helped garner for the Bayernmoor team, his namesake winery received two double-golds and four silver medals.
Among the other “big boys,” Chateau Ste. Michelle earned a double gold for its 2019 Eroica Riesling. DeLille Cellars won double golds with its D2 red blend, Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon and Minuit Malbec, with all three from the 2018 vintage. This was the first year that Quilceda Creek Winery participated in the Seattle Wine Awards. Not surprisingly, its 2018 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon earned double gold.
Then there’s Maryhill Winery. Along with being one of Washington’s largest wineries, it is one of the Seattle Wine Awards most enthusiastic participants—and a consistent medal winner. This year, its haul included 35 silver, gold and double-gold medals.
Price is not the only factor
In my own unaudited review of the results from the Washington, Oregon and Idaho evaluations, I noticed that most double-gold wines retailed for $35 per bottle or more. But that didn’t stop several selections with lower price points from earning praise. Double-gold winners costing $20 or less per bottle included a 2015 merlot from Oregon’s Melrose Vineyards, the 2018 Idawine Red Blend from Idaho’s Holesinsky Vineyard and Winery, and the aforementioned Eroica from Chateau Ste. Michelle.
The results point to wineries worth visiting
The majority of wineries across the Pacific Northwest are boutique operations that eschew the large production volumes that major distributors need. We love this approach for allowing producers to retain their artistic freedom. But this sometimes makes their wines hard to find. Programs such as the Seattle Wine Awards help take the guesswork out of figuring out which wineries to visit. Or what to look for in your local bottle shop.
If you’re planning a trip to Lake Chelan this summer, you should know that the tasting panel liked several wines from Mellisoni Vineyards (six double golds, one gold and three silvers) and Tsillan Cellars (two double golds, three golds and five silvers). Both have tasting rooms overlooking the lake.
If you’re interested in post-hike refreshment near Snoqualmie Pass, or skipping the trails altogether, head over to Château NoElle Vinyards & Winery. Its pinot noirs feature grapes grown on its Snoqualmie estate. And it also offers warm-climate selections sourced from Eastern Washington’s Sagemoor Vineyard.
On the Olympic Peninsula, consider a visit to Camaraderie Cellars’ tasting room in Port Angeles, where the selections include a double-gold 2017 syrah sourced from Yakima Valley grapes. The tasting panel loved it. You might, too.
[Panelists photo by Craig Booth; Christopher Chan headshot by Michelle M. Chan; Brian Carter courtesy of Brian Carter Cellars; Medal courtesy of Seattle Wine Awards; Wine glass courtesy of Mellisoni Cellars.]