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Judges display a sweet tooth at Oregon Wine Experience

The inaugural Oregon Wine Experience, held Aug. 18-23 in Jacksonville, yielded some surprises. Perhaps the biggest was that in blind tastings, the six-judge panel of out-of-state wine journalists exhibited a decided sweet tooth when it came to awarding the top medals. They overwhelmingly preferred Southern Oregon’s off-dry wines.

Not only did they award a Best of Show medal to Red Lily Vineyards’ 2013 Night School, a red dessert wine, but four of the six Double Gold winners — wines chosen for a gold medal by all six judges — were off-dry proprietary blends or varietals.

The Best of Show medalists, in addition to Night School, were Belle Fiore’s 2012 Numinos, a Bordeaux-style red blend, and Pebblestone Cellars’ 2014 Ellis Vineyards Block 9 Viognier.

The six Double Gold winners were Belle Fiore’s 2013 Belle Esprit Muscat Canelli, their 2013 Numinos, Cuckoo’s Nest’s 2014 Aromatique (a white blend of viognier and gewürztraminer), the Pebblestone 2014 Ellis Vineyards Block 9 Viognier, Red Lily’s Night School and Roseburg’s Season Cellars 2014 Transparency (a white blend of Muller-Thurgau, muscat and riesling) made by winery owners Scott and Jennifer Henry from fruit sourced from the Applegate and Umpqua valleys.

Off-dry wines are not easy wines to make well. The fruit’s distinctive fragrance and flavor has to be balanced against the natural residual sugars and the higher alcohol levels that often accompany those higher sugar levels or “brix” when the fruit is picked.

The choices were not predictable from the resumes of the judges. This year’s panel included business consultant Michele Anderson, wine consultant and journalist Randy Caparoso, Napa-based wine columnist Bob Ecker, wine consultant and writer Doug Frost, Seattle-based Sip Northwest Magazine editor Erin James, and James Beard Award-winning food and wine blogger Mary Orlin.

Anderson and Frost hold the prestigious Master of Wine certification. Only 312 people worldwide hold this title, with 34 of those from the United States. Frost is also one of only three people in the world holding both the Master of Wine certification and a Master Sommelier title.

The 21 Gold Medal winners — chosen by a majority of the judges rather than a unanimous decision — included whites and reds, single varietals and proprietary blends and came from both large and small producers. There were five pinot noirs and two zinfandels. There was an albariño, a pinot blanc, a cabernet sauvignon, a malbec, a merlot, a chardonnay and a verdejo. The 87 silver medalists were equally diverse.

Another surprise was the top medal sweep by winemakers, Bryan Wilson and Kathe Kaigas.

Wilson is the winemaker at Foris Vineyards in Cave Junction. He not only won a Best of Show for the viognier made for Dick and Pat Ellis’ Pebblestone Cellars as a custom crush, he also earned two Double Golds, one for that viognier and one for his Aromatique under his own Cuckoo’s Nest label. He also won a Gold Medal for the 2014 Pinot Blanc made for Foris Vineyards and three silver medals.

Wilson garnered four Gold Medals in 2014 and a two Double Golds and a Best of Show in 2013 at this event when it was called World of Wine Festival.

Kaigas is the winemaker at Belle Fiore Winery in Ashland. Up until recently, Belle Fiore’s chateau-style tasting room, winery and events pavilion garnered more attention than its wines. The estate’s grapes were planted from 2007 to 2009 and are just now coming to maturity. Kaigas brings winemaking experience from regions as diverse as Paso Robles, Napa Valley and Marlborough, New Zealand. In addition to her Best of Show and Double Golds, she won two Silver Medals, for a 2014 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Belle Esprit Malbec.

Rachael Martin, co-owner and winemaker at Red Lily Vineyards, not only earned a Best of Show and a Double Gold for her 2013 Night School red dessert wine, she earned a Gold Medal for her 2014 Verdejo Stargaze Lily and a Silver Medal for her 2012 signature Tempranillo.

Among the other multiple-medal winners taking both Gold and Silver medals were Herb Quady, Eric Weisinger, Brian Denner, Linda Donovan, Terry Brandborg, Rob Folin, Joe Ginet, Scott and Jennifer Henry, Steve Hall, Jon Olson (of Roseburg’s Tesoaria Vineyard) and Cal Schmidt — but this list is by no means complete.

More than 50 wineries entered 224 wines for judging. The complete list of medal-winning wines, their winemakers and price can be found at the Oregon Wine Experience website, www.theoregonwineexperience.com.

There was no single European grape-growing region of origin common to the winners’ locally grown grapes — one more indication of the microclimate nature of grape growing in Southern Oregon.

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