A cascade of vinous wonders

In recent years it has been my great good fortune to be invited to judge quite a few wine competitions. Although they are much less “fun” than most outside observers might believe — arduously assessing 100-plus wines in a day requires a buttload of focus and care — I get a lot out of them. Some more than others.

Which brings us to last month’s Cascadia Wine Competition in Richland, Wash. It was great to meet and get to know so many wine folks from the Northwest, from Idaho to southern Oregon to British Columbia. It was even cooler to check out the wines from the (seriously) Great Northwest.

World-class cabernet and chardonnay from Idaho’s Snake River Valley along with classic merlots from the nation’s best locale for the varietal (Washington). Bubbles from British Columbia along with pinot noir from Oregon (the Umpqua Valley along with the more ballyhooed Wilamette). It was an amazingly wide-ranging array of seriously swell fermented grape juice.

If there were one word I’d use for these wines, it would be “expressive.” By and large they represented their perspective grapes splendidly, but they also showed something I seek out in wine: They came from a place, and evoked it beautifully. They were no-way-no-how manufactured or spoofelated.

Now I haven’t had enough wines from the Okanagan (left) or Lewis-Clark valleys to be able to say, “Oh that’s from [this particular place],” but after this, I’m doing my damnedest to get there. And to journey to these regions to enhance my chances of understanding them.

Yes, there were some offerings from bigger wineries such as Maryhill and Willamette Valley Vineyards, but these were stellar in their own way. In fact, Maryhill captured an unreal 14 gold medals and won best-red-wine honors for its 2015 Elephant Mountain Vineyard Carménère. White-wine honors went to the 2017 Pinot Gris from British Columbia’s Wild Goose Vineyards; the 2016 Wild Goose Pinot Gris had won last year.

The award for best sparkling wine went to another BC operation, Township 7, for its 2015 Seven Stars blanc de blanc. That was one of 40 gold medals for wineries from the Canadian province. In addition, 11 Idaho producers garnered 19 gold medals and four best-of-class wines, including top dessert wine for the Cinder Wines 2016 Dried on the Vine Viognier.

These wines were universally delicious — I can’t recall a more impressive sweepstakes round in recent years — as best dessert wine. I was especially enamored with hearty but food-friendly nature of the reds I tried from B.C. and Southern Oregon. And I finally got to taste the Abacela Albariño at a judges’ dinner. Love that wine!

Unfortunately, many of these wines are not widely distributed, especially in places like Minnesota. Progress is being made: San Diego-based I.B. Imports is now bringing in Wild Goose’s stellar wines, and more of this kind of work is on the way. I’ve been talking with distributors here about seeking these wines. (FYI, I have no skin in that game except to get Minnesota consumers more great options.)

In the meantime, these regions should be at or near the top of any wine lover’s travel plans.

(To follow the wine scene in this stupendous neck of the woods, get thee onto the Great Northwest Wine email list, operated by the indefatigable Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue, two of the nation’s very best wine writers. And thanks to Eric for looping me into this phenomenal event.)

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