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Parsing the meaning behind wine medals and scores

We’ve all seen notes with scores from this or that publication posted on the shelf under a bottle in a wine shop or grocery store. Wine club members get emails touting medals won at this or that competition. Do these accolades actually mean something?

The answer depends on who gave the medal or the score. Wine competitions and publications can be national, regional or local — which determines how many wines were entered, where they came from and how they were judged.

The Wine Spectator and The Wine Enthusiast are the two best-known national publications judging wines and awarding scores. They rate both domestic and international wines. The magazines’ editors and wine experts from specific regions of the U.S. and the world judge the wines. Wineries submit entries — there are no entry fees. The Wine Spectator editors will also purchase and include in their judging wines that have been recommended to them by sommeliers, readers and friends.

The Wine Enthusiast has a top classification of 98-100 with wines rated 94-97 as “superb” and wines rated 90-93 as “excellent.

The Wine Spectator classifies wines with scores of 95-100 as “classic, a great wine,” scores of 92-94 as “outstanding” and scores of 89-91 as “very good to outstanding.” You can see the ratings for a particular wine or region on the magazines’ websites.

Southern Oregon wines have done very well in these magazine ratings.

The Wine Enthusiast gave 95 points to the 2005 Abacela South Face Block Reserve Syrah ($45) and 94 points to the 2009 Abacela Blanco Dulce Viognier ($30). The magazine gave 93 points to the 2009 Cowhorn Viognier ($30), the 2011 Cowhorn Viognier ($30) and the 2006 Quady North Flagship Syrah ($65). Other Cowhorn and Quady North wines, as well as wines from Troon, Roxy Ann and Brandborg, received scores of 92. Many other local wineries have received scores of 90 and 91.

The Wine Spectator recently awarded 91 points to three Griffin Creek wines: the 2011 Cabernet Franc ($40), the 2011 Malbec ($40) and the 2011 Syrah ($40). Griffin Creek is Willamette Valley Vineyards’ label for wines made exclusively from grapes grown by the Rogue Valley’s Quail Run Vineyards. Kriselle Cellars’ 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) also received 91 points. Wines from Del Rio Vineyards, Quady North, Merrill Cellars, Simple Machine, Upper Five, Cowhorn and Plaisance Ranch have all received scores of 90 points.

Southern Oregon wines have also done well in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, which bills itself as the “largest competition of American wines in the world.” The 2015 Chronicle competition had 6,417 entries from 28 states.

Local wines winning Gold medals included Abacela’s Estate Grown Tempranillo ($23), Schmidt Family Vineyards’ 2013 Chardonnay ($26) and Pebblestone Cellars’ 2013 Ellis Vineyard Viognier ($19), LaBrasseur 2012 Riesling ($15) and South Stage Cellars 2013 Riesling ($18).

The Chronicle competition awards medals not only by varietal but also by wines of different price ranges within a varietal. For example, among the pinot gris wines judged, Brandborg’s 2013 Pinot Gris ($16) won a silver medal in the “Over $15” category, while Cuckoo’s Nest Cellars 2013 Pinot Gris ($15) won a silver in the “Under $16” group. 

Because pinot noir is so widely produced and with a wide range of prices, by far the largest number of judging divisions within a varietal at the Chronicle competition are for pinot noir. Brandborg won several Silver and Bronze medals for their pinot noirs at different price points. And, remarkably, two very young Dancin Vineyards wines, entered pre-release, won Bronze medals in the $30-$34 range — the 2012 Eleve Pinot Noir ($34) and the 2012 Adagio Pinot Noir ($34).

Other Chronicle medal winners from Southern Oregon came from Quady North, Troon, Red Lily, Schmidt Family Vineyards, Kriselle and Grizzly Peak.

On a regional level, there are a growing number of wine competitions limited to the Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and even Alaska. Spangler Vineyards 2011 Petite Sirah ($28) won a Gold medal at the 2014 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, and wines from Abacela, Agate Ridge, Cliff Creek Cellars, Folin Cellars and Quady North won Silver medals there. Serra Vineyards 2011 Pinot Noir received “Best of Class-Gold” at this year’s Seattle Wine and Food Experience Competition, sponsored by Seattle Magazine.

The local World of Wine Festival is a competition among wines only from Southern Oregon and from out-of-area producers that use Southern Oregon grapes. Nationally recognized judges taste the entries and award the medals, comparing the wines not only against other regional wineries but also against what the best of a varietal should taste like.

Whether a national, regional or local award, a medal or a high score for a particular wine affirms that the winery, the winemaker, even the grape grower is doing something that is worthy of wider recognition.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.