Seattle Wine Awards grows into huge competition

By Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman, Northwest WineJune 15, 2011 

Walk into any winery's tasting room, and you'll likely hear all about its latest awards and see medals hanging around the necks of bottles.

Each year, dozens of professional wine competitions are held across North America, and it isn't unusual for wineries to enter several of them. Wine competitions help wineries see how their wines stack up against others -- and can help them sell a lot of wine.

In the Pacific Northwest, several wine competitions are held, many dating back decades. And one fairly new competition has quickly grown into the largest judging of Washington wines.

Christopher Chan has been the director of wine and spirits at the tony Rainier Club in downtown Seattle for the past 13 years. Six years ago, Chan launched the Seattle Wine Awards as a wine-recognition program that focuses on Washington wine. In 2006, he gathered 274 entries; this year, his judges considered 909 Washington wines.

"I'm really flattered, privileged and honored to have the Washington wine industry embrace it so well," Chan said during this year's competition, which was held in April. "I really believe that the reason the Seattle Wine Awards has been able to grow so well is because of the world-class tasting panel we've put together," he added.

This year, Chan brought together 15 wine professionals, including sommeliers, wine retailers, wine instructors, wine writers and wine bloggers. Each wine is checked by a group of wine professionals, then served to the judges "blind," meaning they cannot see the bottle and do not know who produced it.

"We bring in Washington wine professionals with a deep knowledge of the world of wines and also the history of Washington," Chan said. "I believe our tasting panel adds so much integrity to the program."

The results of the competition were released June 1, and Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla and Woodinville and Maryhill Winery in Goldendale were the big winners, each winning five double gold medals, which means all the judges voted a gold medal for a wine. Additionally, Maryhill won another six gold medals, and Dusted Valley earned three golds.

Craig Leuthold, who owns Maryhill with his wife, Vicki, said wine competitions are a critical component of his marketing efforts.

"We are giving consumers a reason to purchase our wine," he said. "We are giving them affirmation that we are a brand they should seek out."

Leuthold enters a lot of competitions, and his winery, which launched just a decade ago, will likely win its 1,000th medal later this year.

"It's a testament to the fruit coming out of this state," he said. "Even in our marginal years, the fruit is pretty amazing. It really comes down to giving the winemaker fantastic raw material to work with."

With more than 70,000 cases of wine to sell each year, Leuthold looks for every opportunity to promote Maryhill to the wine-buying public. He displays the medals in his tasting room that overlooks the Columbia River Gorge, touts them in news releases and promotes them in his magazine advertisements.

"If you don't beat your own drum, nobody else will," he said with a chuckle.

Even in his tasting room, where employees have the opportunity to talk to customers about a wine, promoting medals can help guide wine lovers.

"They're going to look at wines with awards on them," he said.

The strategy is paying off for Maryhill. Leuthold said that despite the recession, his winery had record sales last year and is on track to exceed them this year.

And the Seattle Wine Awards has worked so well, Chan also has launched the Oregon Wine Awards. To see the complete results of the Seattle Wine Awards, go to www.seattlewineawards.com. The results of the Oregon Wine Awards are at www.oregonwineawards.com.

*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.

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