A decade ago, I began thinking about how we could come up with a year-end list of top wines from the Pacific Northwest. For ages, wine writers have come up with their "best of the year" columns and national magazines have put together "top 100" lists.
How could we create a list? We couldn't re-taste every wine we'd reviewed during the year. We didn't want to exclude wines we hadn't tasted. It was a conundrum.
My first idea was to create "Wine Press 100" list, with 10 categories containing 10 wines each. It would be the top 10 Rieslings, top 10 Pinot Noirs, etc. But what would those 10 categories be? And, again, how would we determine those wines?
Then the idea struck: Let's let professional judges do the preliminary work for us. We already tracked about 30 competitions around the world, capturing the medals won by wineries in the Pacific Northwest. What if we invited gold medal winners to a special year-end judging, in which each wine would be reviewed again under single-blind peer-group conditions?
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That first year, we printed out and mailed invitations to more than 200 wineries requesting samples of their gold medal winners and received 146 entries.
Back then, we still used a 100-point system for scoring wines, then converted the final scores into our usual categories: Outstanding, Excellent and Recommended. That first Platinum Judging, one judge - a winemaker of some repute - took advantage of the system and basically hijacked the judging, resulting in just one Platinum award. We learned two things: Ditch the 100-point system for good - and don't invite that winemaker back as a judge.
Each year, we receive about 70 percent of the wines we request. What happens to the other 30 percent? The winery might be sold out of that vintage and might see no point in entering it into a competition. Some wineries simply forget to enter, as we send the the invitations out at the start of harvest.
Starting in 2002, we began bringing in Dan Berger, the respected wine writer from Santa Rosa, Calif., as a judge. He judges in more than a dozen competitions annually all over the world and provides an important international palate. We later added Parks Redwine of Atlanta, Ga., a longtime wine writer, importer and director of the Northwest Wine Summit, the largest competition of Northwest wines.
With the exception of one year, entries have increased annually, as has interest in the results by consumers, the wine trade and the industry. We knew it would never have the cachet of the large international publications, but our niche has been Northwest wines, and the Platinums were a year-end celebration of our region's best.
We have held the Platinum in many places. The first year was in the banquet room of an Applebee's restaurant. Other years, we held it at different wineries in town. For the past half-decade, it has been at the Clover Island Inn, a hotel overlooking the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash. The staff has been great, and the judging rooms have been perfect for our needs.
A year ago, entries broke 300 wines for the first time, hitting 329 (up from 261 in 2007). This was a problem because we could no longer conduct the judging in two days with one panel. In anticipation of increasing entries again this year, I added a second panel of judges so we could still complete everything in two days.
Little did I realize we would see entries again increase dramatically: This year, we hit 450. Part of this is because more medals are being won by Northwest wineries as the industry increases in size and quality. Part of it is that more wineries are taking the Platinum more seriously.
More entries mean more awards. In fact, this year, our judges handed out 16 Double Platinums (a unanimous Platinum) and 66 Platinums. At the end of the judging this year, I sat down to count up the numbers. At first, I was dismayed because I worried we were diluting the importance of earning a Platinum if we handed out too many.
But as I discussed it with the friends and colleagues who make this thing run so smoothly every year, I had a change of heart. I reminded myself that, while we do not use a 100-point system, we do use a 10-point system of sorts. When our judges submit their votes, they are encouraged to add a "plus" or "minus" to their score. This gives them flexibility to change their scores during subsequent discussions. It also means I can sort the wines more accurately when we're finished.
We facetiously call it the "Coke Roth Modified Reverse Golf Scoring System" after Coke Roth, an international wine judge who has been on our panel since the beginning of the magazine and came up with the idea. For example, a score of "Platinum Plus" would earn a score of zero, a "Platinum" would earn a score of one and so forth. A "No Medal" would be a score of nine, effectively giving us a 10-point system. When all the scores are converted to numbers, the wine with the lowest score is No. 1. Thus, the "highest" score a wine can earn is zero (that's never happened; the best score has been four). The lowest it can earn is 36. This turns out to be a pretty good spread.
More importantly, the wines are listed in order, with the best at the top.
So, as it turns out with this year's 10th annual Platinum Judging, we awarded 82 Double Platinums and Platinums. Serendipitously, we are pretty close to that "top 100" list I was looking for a decade ago.
ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.