A funny thing happened the other night at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival: For the first time ever, a British Columbia wine took home best of show.
In fact, B.C. wines were dominant, winning eight of the 23 golds. And at the 1999 Tri-Cities Wine Festival, Okanagan Valley winery Tinhorn Creek came into the heart of merlot country and won the only gold for merlot.
Not bad for a wine region that pulled out most of its vines 12 years ago and started over.
Now, this is not meant to trash the Washington wine industry. Far from it. But I want to point out that a few wineries in the Okanagan Valley are raising the bar for themselves and others.
And, to quote Martha Stewart, this is a good thing.
The entire Pacific Northwest is young as a wine region. Sure, the Washington wine industry dates back to the turn of the last century, but in truth, the Washington and Oregon wine industries are about three decades old, with much of the growth coming in the past 10 years.
Everyone in the Northwest is pushing everyone else to raise the quality of wine here.
If you've visited the Walla Walla Valley recently, you might have noticed a lot of awfully good red wine. Folks like Woodward Canyon, Leonetti and L'Ecole have continued to improve their already great wines through the years. But right on their heels are Dunham Cellars, Glen Fiona, Three Rivers, Walla Walla Vintners and others.
Same goes for the wineries in Woodinville, northeast of Seattle. Between Matthews Cellars, DeLille, Hightower Cellars and others, it's tough to find anything less than world-class wines.
And the Northwest's largest wineries are doing terrific jobs. Columbia Crest and Domaine Ste. Michelle are making some outstanding wines at incredibly low prices. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue Cellars also have stepped up their quality along with their quantity.
In Oregon, wineries like Archery Summit, Ken Wright, Amity and WillaKenzie are turning out incredibly good pinot noirs.
And in Idaho, the quality of wines by Hells Canyon, Ste. Chapelle and others is setting the tone for that area's future.
Nothing makes my point better than the number of medals Northwest wineries have won in 2000. Not that professional judgings are the final word on good wine, but they do help quantify quality. (A couple of caveats: Not all wineries enter competitions because they can be expensive to enter, and some competitions are limited to particular geographic areas.)
This year, I tracked 15 competitions, from the Tri-Cities Wine Festival to the Los Angeles County Fair to the All-Canada Wine Championships. In these judgings, Northwest wineries have won more than 1,500 total medals. Of these, 236 were gold medals won by 81 different Northwest wineries or labels (some wineries, like Washington Hills, have more than one label). That's a lot of wineries winning a lot of gold medals.
A wine that wins one gold and nothing else might not be as good as a wine that consistently wins multiple medals, whether they be gold, silver or bronze. But in 2000, 30 Northwest wines won at least two gold medals, and a few won three. Jackson-Triggs won an incredible 25 gold medals, 10 of them for its riesling ice wines.
Not far behind was Hogue Cellars of Prosser, Wash., which won 16 gold medals in 2000. Incredibly, 12 were for different wines. And Hogue's multiple-medal winners -- a chenin blanc and a cab-merlot -- are low-cost, high-value wines.
Of the 236 gold medal winners I tracked, 123 were whites and 113 were reds. The two favorites mirror America's favorite wines, with merlots winning 28 golds (this doesn't count the many cab-merlot blends) and chardonnay bringing home 27. Just behind them were cabernet (25 golds) and rieslings (22). And syrah, a grape I think will find its greatest expression in Washington's Columbia Valley, won 13 gold medals in 2000.
On the strength of winning 28 gold medals at the All-Canada judging, British Columbia wines captured more gold medals (108) than Washington (98).
All in all, the Northwest flexed its muscle in regional, national and international competitions. We're just a blip on the global wine map in terms of vineyard acreage and total production, but we're making plenty of noise in the quality of wines, which I think can stand up to any in the world.
What does this mean to us, the consumers? I think it means Northwest wineries are measuring themselves against each other and the rest of the wine world, and they're stepping up, meeting and exceeding the challenge.
That makes all of us winners.