It isn't often that consumers get a peek behind the curtain at wine competitions, but this story is just too good not to be shared.
Sometimes, a wine is meant for greatness. No matter what tries to get in the way, destiny steps in to offer a helping hand.
That's what seemed to happen in late April during the Northwest Wine Summit at Oregon's Timberline Lodge. The Northwest Wine Summit is our region's largest and finest wine competition. This year's version attracted 900 entries from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.
With so many wines, it's important that each gets a chance to shine, that an elegant, understated Pinot Noir isn't lost amid big, bold Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons. To ensure this doesn't happen, judges at the Northwest Wine Summit get to make a few "challenges," which means they can ask that a wine they thought was scored wrong be judged again by another panel.
In all cases, the wines are tasted "blind," so the judges don't know who made them or in what region the grapes were grown.
With that said, here is what happened to one very special wine at this year's Summit.
The wine in question is the 2003 Cabernet Franc from Barrister Winery in Spokane, Wash. As a point of background, the 2002 vintage of this wine won Best of Show for Limited Production Wines last year at the prestigious L.A. County Fair Wines of the World Competition, then went on to earn a Platinum Award in this magazine's 2004 best-of-the-best competition.
At the Summit, the '03 Cab Franc was placed in the "Other Red Varieties" category with such wines as Zinfandel, Malbec and others that didn't fit into the major groups.
On the first time through, the panel judging the Cab Franc gave it a bronze medal. But two judges thought it was better and "challenged" the medal. So that wine and five others went to another panel (which I happened to be on), and we immediately were drawn to its quality and awarded it a gold medal.
This got the Cab Franc into the running for best red wine of the competition. From here, it would go up against every other red awarded a gold medal (of which there were several dozen).
On the first round, the Cab Franc came to my panel again, but it didn't smell the same. In fact, it was musty. I thought it might be corked. It turned out a second bottle had been opened for this flight, and it was bad. So the third bottle was opened, and it immediately was recognized by the panel as the best wine among the six we were judging. This pushed it on to the semifinals. It easily won that round, too.
Now, the Barrister was in the finals for best red wine. Frankly, it didn't look good for a wine that is more about finesse than power. This rather suave Cab Franc was up against the likes of bold Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons. And on that panel was a Pinot Noir producer who was not eager to vote for a Bordeaux variety. But the wine was so good, the other members of the panel ultimately shouted him down and awarded the Cab Franc best red wine in the competition.
Now it was on to the Best of Show round, where this wine from a little-known winery was up against a dozen other wines, including the best white (a Hogue Cellars Pinot Grigio) and best ice wine (from N'kmp Cellars in British Columbia).
Some 15 judges weighed in. The first round of voting went like this: seven votes for the ice wine, seven votes for the Cabernet Franc and one vote for the Pinot Grigio. The judge who voted for the Pinot Grigio held the tie-breaker, but he refused to vote for either wine!
Just as the organizers tried to come up with some sort of complicated tie-breaker system, one of the judges changed his vote from the ice wine to the Cab Franc, giving Barrister the Best of Show.
As I drove down Mount Hood from the competition that night, I marveled at the gauntlet this wine had to traverse. At several points along the way, its opportunity to be the top wine in the biggest competition could have been derailed. What if those judges didn't have the courage to challenge their fellow panelists' ruling? What if I didn't notice the second bottle was corked? What if a third bottle hadn't been sent? What if that last judge hadn't changed his vote?
If any of these had occurred, this great Cab Franc would not have had the opportunity to shine. It might simply be another wine collecting dust on a shelf in some grocery store or wine shop.
This was destiny, I tell you.