I’ve written repeatedly about the problems with wine scores, especially the ubiquitous 100-point system. But once in awhile it’s worth pointing out the fact that as bad as it’s always been, it’s getting worse. Back when I was writing the first edition of Washington Wines & Wineries almost 20 years ago I noted that the so-called 100 point system was really a 20 point system in that only the 80 to 100 point range was ever used.
A few more years went by and it became clear that it was actually a 10 point system as no wine, no matter how cheap, could ever expect to attract buyers with a score under 85, and rare indeed were wines scoring 95 and up.
But wait, now there have either been massive improvements in winemaking across the board or… perhaps… score inflation is out of control. It’s still a 10 point system, but you will look far and wide to find any trade recognition of wines that don’t score at least 90. Meanwhile the once-rare scores of 95 and above have become commonplace. Someone somewhere no matter how obscure has given that $8 Chardonnay a 95 and the number is all that matters.
Lest you point the finger back at me for being guilty of the same sin I will note that yes, this site only rarely recommends wines that score under 90 points, but that is because I only write about truly superior wines. I do not publish endless shopping lists of hundreds of wine reviews; only a few reviews each week of exceptional wines that have been tasted and carefully evaluated over many days. As a result, the 90 point score is an unofficial minimum. And scores from me at 94 and above are still meaningful because they are rare.
Another topic worth a quick re-cap is the so-called supremacy of blind tastings. You may choose to believe that tasting wines out of brown bags is somehow more fair, more objective, more honest than actually knowing something about the context of the wines being evaluated. You may believe those that claim that once the bags are pulled no scores are adjusted. But along with score inflation, here’s something to consider. How often do you see a lineup of scores from the same reviewer tasting similar wines that magically descend or rise according to the price of the wines? If you look around, as I do, you will find that that is almost always the case.
Just today I received a sales pitch from a well-known online retailer for a lineup of five closely-related wines from the same vintage and producer. Each was accompanied by a score, and all scores came from the same reviewer, a fellow often noted for his shall we say generous appraisals. As if by magic, as the five prices for the five wines descended, so did the scores! Like a step ladder, down in perfect harmony.
And of course I would imagine all were tasted blind. The score/price continuum just happened to work out that way.
On a happier note, this week I had the pleasure of exploring a number of new releases from King Estate.
This third generation, biodynamic winery offers a vast portfolio focused on multiple cuvées of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (as many as 7 different PGs in a single vintage!). They also delve into Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner and a wide range of both white and red wines apart from those mentioned here. My most recent tastings focused on the white wines, notably the Pinot Gris, which was the founding purpose of the winery when it began. King Estate remains one of if not the largest producer of those wines in the country. Apart from handling the sheer production volume, COO/Winemaker Brent Stone coddles and cajoles distinctive notes and nuances from each separate bottling.
A graduate of Washington State University’s famed enology program, he was hired in 2011 to run the winery laboratory, named winemaker in 2016 and Chief Operating Officer in 2018. While ramping up for harvest he was kind enough to offer these comments.
Brent Stone: “Pinot Gris has always been a central part of our winemaking. I think we were a fan of the variety from the beginning given it is so well-suited to the climate here. Particularly in our estate vineyard which is higher in elevation and cooler than most of the Willamette Valley. It is a hardy grape and does well even in wet and challenging vintages.
“Rather than producing riper, fruit-driven wines that you would perhaps associate with California or Italy, the Oregon style is generally more in the Alsatian realm. The wines are often more austere but can be rich, bright, complex and typically very ageworthy. For these reasons, we love to showcase the grape in a variety of ways – whether that be single vineyard expressions or using different winemaking approaches.
“For example, of the seven different versions you mention, four are from single vineyards. All made with a similar winemaking approach (cool fermentation in stainless steel) but all with unique flavor profiles.
“The other three highlight how winemaking style can change the expression. For example, we make one in a concrete egg (Steiner Block), one in French oak (Paradox), and one using skin contact (7 Rows). We also have our flagship (Domaine) which is made in our typical fashion using a stainless-steel fermentation followed by 6+ months of sur lie aging.”
I asked Brent about the background behind the 7 Rows Pinot Gris, made for the first time in 2021. As noted it’s a skin contact (orange) wine yielding scents and flavors quite unique even in this extensive lineup. His reply:
“This was all estate fruit. We took half of the grapes and fermented them on the skins which is usually the traditional approach when making an orange wine. We took the other half and crushed/destemmed the grapes then let them cold soak for 5 days at 40°F. We then pressed the cold soak fraction in our basket press and fermented the juice cool at 55°F. Had great color coming out of the basket press! The two different fermentations were then blended together. The goal was to get a combination of phenolics and richness from the skin fermentation then freshness and aromatics from the cooler juice fermentation. We loved the way it turned out. Will definitely try again.”
Here are notes on the PGs, plus an outstanding Sauv Blanc and a lovely rosé. Not yet listed online but all are coming soon.
King Estate 2022 Sauvignon Blanc – As a lifelong fan of Oregon Sauvignon Blanc I wish everyone who loves the grape as I do could taste this wine. Bursting with juicy citrus fruits, electric with palate-cleansing acidity, this is a wine you want to gulp, not sip. Included in the blend is 5% Semillon, just enough to add a bit of weight to the mid-palate. Finished with a screwcap, I would bet this could drink well for up to a decade. But why wait? 4600 cases; 13.5%; $19 (Oregon) 92/100
King Estate 2021 7 Rows Pinot Gris – A new companion to the 7 Rows Pinot Noir, this skin contact (e.g. ‘orange’) wine takes Pinot Gris in an entirely different direction. It’s a pretty coppery pink, with tart flavors of strawberries and citrus. The intentional oxidation tends to flatten the palate. Unlike many of the young wines I review and recommend that you aerate aggressively, this wine should be chilled, opened and enjoyed immediately. 135 cases; 11.9%; $35 (Willamette Valley) 91/100
King Estate 2022 Pinot Gris – Founded initially to grow and produce Pinot Gris, King Estate has made as many as seven different versions in a single vintage, and probably produces as much as the rest of Oregon combined. It’s all but iconic, with full, fleshy pear fruit, buoyant acids and a mouth-pleasing texture. Green apple, cucumber and grapefruit highlights follow. Three fifths of this bottling is estate-grown, hence biodynamically farmed. A touch of white pepper enlivens the finish. Try this with roast chicken or turkey, white sauces and noodles. 115000 cases; 12.9%; $19 (Willamette Valley) 92/100
King Estate 2022 Artisan Series Pinot Gris – This is the first year for this new series, an all-estate bottling fermented entirely in stainless steel. Ripe and focused, it features flavors of lemon meringue, tangerine ice, quince and papaya. Tangy acids keep it refreshing through a lingering finish. Value pricing and limited production make this especially worth seeking out. 1000 cases; 13.8%; $20 (Willamette Valley) 93/100
King Estate 2021 Domaine Pinot Gris – This is an estate reserve, all biodynamic grapes, fermented in stainless steel and aged six months sur lie prior to bottling. It’s just out and feels as though it is still pulling all its pieces into focus. Leesy and loaded with citrus flesh and rind, supported with sassy acids, the exceptional depth and texture suggest that this will cellar for up to a decade. 2000 cases; 12.9%; $30 (Willamette Valley) 93/100
King Estate 2022 Rosé of Pinot Noir – A pretty nose introduces fruit flavors of strawberries and cherries, leading into a ripe, substantial palate loaded with those fruits. Big, full-bodied and juicy, you might think of this as strawberry shortcake in a glass. One third is estate grown fruit. The low abv and moderate price makes this a great bottle for fall drinking. 1500 cases; 13.5%; $20 (Willamette Valley) 92/100