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Judging Astoria

Evaluating wines a part of my past

By Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

I watched boats on the Columbia River from the window of the Liberty Theater in downtown Astoria, where I recently judged wines for the annual Astoria Seafood and Wine Festival Competition. I sat between fellow judges Mattie John Bamman, culinary editor of Eater Portland, and Patrick McElligott, an industry veteran at both Amity and Sineann wineries.

People ask me how I got the job of judging wines. Three decades of wine experience starting with our family winery, followed by employment in wine tasting rooms, international wine sales and many points in between helped.

My sense of smell developed during early morning pruning with the aroma of freshly tilled Jory loam, and I learned to taste unfiltered Pinot Noir in our winery’s basement, often sampled with a turkey baster — I could never find the wine thief — from barrels, along with countless neighborhood potlucks blind-judging Dundee Hills’ wines without labels made by the likes of David Lett, John Paul, Don Lange, Rollin Soles and other early vintners.

Evaluating wine for Astoria’s competition really wasn’t so different from my younger years. Although the tasting was blind, we knew the grape varietal and vintage year. But, overall, what was most important was the survival of sensory skills.

Pre-game prep (8:30 p.m. the day before): Of course, every good wine competition begins with a palate warm-up, mine was a Bloody Mary — a perfect 10 — at Astoria’s waterfront Inferno Lounge. 

Game on (8:30 a.m.): Bright and early — reflecting some of my descriptors for this round — we first tasted whites, starting with Pinot Gris. Nine wines divided into two flights, all poured by eager volunteers. Only 121 more wines to go…

Our sensory evaluation guide was the UC Davis 20-point scoring system, with categories such as appearance, taste, texture, perception on the nose, palate tartness, acidity levels and sweetness — or lack thereof.

Break (10:45 a.m.): Goldfish, pretzels and saltines washed down with sparkling Perrier for some serious palate cleansing after discovering the first corked bottle of the day.

“Red Vinifera” (11 a.m.): The servers emptied our spittoons — yes, we were spitting — and chocolate appeared on the table — between tastes, of course. We also sniffed coffee beans as if we’d been at a perfume counter.

The ability to evaluate the overall quality of a wine is largely based on the taster’s previous tasting experience. Therefore, that bottle of 1979 Eyrie Pinot Noir I had for my birthday is setting a high benchmark.

Lunch (noon): Delicious clam chowder. I think back to the “1st Grape Day” in 1975 which my father and other Red Hills neighborhood growers attended. Lunch at the historic event, it was noted, was “Oregon wine,” but, more notably, no food!

Recommence (1 p.m.): Descriptive phrases flowed as if we’re English majors in a hot game of Scrabble, along with adjectives from the venerable wine wheel.

Finished (3 p.m.): A mere 130 wines in six hours. Gin and tonic, here I come.

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