I had the tremendous honor of judging Whatcom Beer and Wine Foundation’s 8th Annual Pacific Northwest Wine Competition (formerly Bellingham Northwest Wine Competition) this past July in its new location: Walla Walla.

The weather was warm and welcoming as I arrived to judge an astounding 557 wines over four days among reputable palates of winemakers and industry professionals. Palate fatigue is real; many industry tricks are employed to give 100% to each wine as the day progresses. Cheese, raw mushrooms, iced coffee, crackers, and so much water in between flights cleanses and resets our tongues for fair judgment.

While the whites were overall somewhat disappointing, the highest scoring wine (at a near-perfect 99 points) was amazingly a white blend: the Alexandria Nicole Cellars 2022 Shepherds Mark, a Rhone blend of Marsanne, Viognier, and Roussanne. Alexandria Nicole Cellars’ first vines were planted in 1998 and their winery was opened in 2004. With talented Winemaker Jarrod Boyle at the helm, it’s no wonder they have been producing award-winning wines since 2001. You can purchase their wine online at alexandrianicolecellars.com

The unequivocal star of the show, varietally speaking, was Merlot (sorry Paul Giamatti) with a two-flight/15 iterations winning a stunning gold streak, with half being double gold (unanimous gold from all judges).

I can foresee a historical repeat (Judgment of Paris) of worldwide shock when Washington Merlot beats Napa Cabernet Sauvignon in a future blind tasting. Bold statement, but I stand behind it.

Other stand-out varietals include Syrah (obviously!), red blends (is anyone surprised?), Gewürztraminer, and a new rising star of our Pacific Northwest region: Cabernet Franc.

Blaine’s own Van Vino Vineyards, an exciting new addition to Whatcom County’s wine scene, earned an impressive three double golds! Their wines can be purchased online at vanvinovineyard.com and tastings are by appointment only.

I’m very excited about having an estate vineyard in my hometown, and their Red Mountain-sourced Cab Franc does not disappoint. It being Winemaker Zach Delooff’s favorite of his juices, and such an emergence on the wine scene here in Washington, is why it’s my honor to present to you my September wine pick of the month: Van Vino Vineyards 2021 Cabernet Franc.

Tasting Notes: Nose of raspberry preserves, smashed pine needles, mild celery root, and green peppers precedes
a round palate of garam masala, dark cherry, prosciutto, vanilla, black licorice, and ripe strawberries.

Pairing Suggestion: Charcuterie, bison ragout, sauteed oyster mushrooms, spinach, veal demi, or blueberry pie