Swafford on Wine: Someone's got to go first

Wine judge Patrick McElligott with some of the 95 entries at Salem’s First Taste Oregon wine competition. (Photo by Joseph Swafford)

First Taste Oregon, as its name boldly states, is the first of the year’s wine and food festivals that seek to draw the public to try what our winemakers and food purveyors do so well here in the Northwest.

This festival, now a commercial venture, was a fundraiser for Salem Catholic Charities when Christina and I first visited it at the Oregon State Fairgrounds over 10 years ago. Three of us from Newport — Mac McLaren, former Bay House Restaurant sommelier; Eric Vaughn, wine buyer for the Newport Grocery Outlet; and this columnist — were invited to judge the wines entered in this first competition of the new year and the new decade. We three joined judges Patrick McElligott, one of the founders of the Chemeketa College Wine Studies program, and Jacques Rendu, a former student of Patrick’s who has worked at several Oregon wineries.

The judging took place at Chemeketa Community College’s northwest Salem Eola Viticultural Center where we had lovely views of the school’s experimental vineyard through floor-to-ceiling windows. We spent all day Wednesday, Jan. 8, starting at 9:30 in the morning, tasting — and spitting — 95 wines from Oregon. At day’s end, 12 gold, 15 silver and 15 bronze awards had been determined.

From the 12 golds, two were designated Best-of-Show: one white, one red. Two recently established wineries, both founded within the last five years, took home these top awards. The Awen Winecraft 2018 grenache blanc was BOS White, and Dauntless Wine Co. 2017 ”Howitzer” Pinot noir, BOS Red.

Awen Winecraft was founded by two former amateur winemakers from the San Francisco Bay area, Sean Hopkins and Tom Homewood. Arriving in Medford, they released their first commercial wine in 2016. The name Awen, pronounced “ah-o-when,” is a Celtic word for a Druid triad, a three-part symbol celebrating the belief that all good can be divided into three, such as land, sea and sky. The grenache blanc grape is very rare in Oregon, but is better known in Spain (garnacha blanca) where flavors of pear and apple, with just a touch of acidity, come through, just as the Awen showed us. Two other Awen wines were awarded gold at First Taste: 2016 sangiovese and 2018 albariño. The two amateurs have turned pro with a flourish!

Dauntless Wine Co., which has a tasting room in Forest Grove, first bottled in 2016 after its founding by three Iraq War veterans: Ben Martin, Ryan Mills and Paul Warmbier. Profits from sales after expenses are met will go to veterans’ support groups, such as those that help returning vets having difficulty readjusting to civilian life.

Martin graduated from Chemeketa’s wine studies program while launching Dauntless and the well-balanced flavors of anise and black cherry, enhanced by good acidity, found in the BOS 2017 howitzer pinot noir, show he learned his lessons well.

First Taste Oregon is Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24 and 25, at the State Fairgrounds, Columbia Hall, in Salem. For more information go to www.FirstTasteOregon.com. You will have the opportunity to get an early taste of some excellent new releases of Oregon wines. And it is only a month away before the 43rd Annual Newport Seafood and Wine Festival opens in the marina across the bay. I look forward to revisiting some of these excellent wines we met for the first time in Salem.

Cheers!

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