Tech exec Tim Armstrong has admired the Washington wine industry since 2009 when he and his wife, Jennifer, were living in Chicago.
Two years later, after taking winemaking courses through University of California-Davis, Washington State University and South Seattle College, the Armstrongs were in Woodinville and ready to launch Armstrong Family Winery. High on his wish list of fruit sources was Milo May’s Discovery Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.
“It’s a sought-after vineyard and difficult to get into,” Armstrong said. “Milo is extremely picky about who he lets into that vineyard.”
Judges at the 2020 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition added to the resume of both the vineyard and the winery by picking the Armstrong Family Winery 2016 The Scotsman Syrah as Best of Show.
Armstrong’s tribute to 19th century viticulturist James Busby, the Scot credited with establishing syrah in Australia, rolled through the judging at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel by earning acclaim as Best Syrah and Best Red Wine on its way to the sweepstakes.
After the reveal, the superlatives for a Syrah off Discovery came as no surprise. May family grapes are coveted by the likes of Ron Bunnell, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Jason Gorski of DeLille Cellars, Morgan Lee of Two Vintners, Chris Peterson of Passing Time and Avennia in Woodinville, and the Roberts family at Westport Winery.
Receiving the top prize at a prominent Pacific Northwest wine competition driven by nominations from many of the region’s top wine buyers seems to indicate that Armstrong — who operates tasting rooms in Walla Walla and Woodinville — is on track to join those ranks.
Winemaking talent along the Columbia Gorge was on display throughout the two-day judging. Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, dominated by amassing 11 gold medals, four for Italian varieties and three for work with Rhone grapes.
Cathedral Ridge Winery in Hood River earned six gold medals, ranging from barbera to pinot noir. Cathedral Ridge is owned and managed by Robb Bell, but his winemaking is directed by Sonoma-based Michael Sebastiani, who represents the fourth generation of winemakers in his family tree. Mt. Hood Winery earned two gold medals, including one for barbera.
DeLille Cellars in Woodinville produced three gold medal winners as did King Estate Winery near Eugene, Oregon, and Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards in southern Oregon.
Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley earned double gold medals for its 2019 Chardonnay and 2017 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon.
Domaine Serene in Oregon’s Dundee Hills stood out at The Invite for its work with both chardonnay and pinot noir. It comes on the heels of the Domaine Serene 2016 Mark Bradford Vineyard Pinot Noir winning the prize for Best of Variety in London at the Decanter World Wine Awards — the planet’s most prestigious judging.
And then there was Vine 46, a tiny producer in Idaho’s portion of the Lewis-Clark Valley. The winemaking turned heads by entering three red wines and receiving a Best of Class award for each, including a 2015 cabernet sauvignon.
Armstrong Family Winery 2016 The Scotsman Syrah, Columbia Valley, $38: This marks Tim Armstrong’s third vintage of showcasing Discovery Vineyard for his prized work with syrah, and it’s a stunning example from this site overlooking the Columbia River along the base of the Horse Heaven Hills. Subtle, rich cherry notes on the nose pick up warm baking spice and a hint of menthol. Flavors hinting at black cherry and blackcurrant swirl with cedar and tobacco for an expensive mouthfeel. The acidity balances nicely with attractive tannins.
Callan Cellars 2019 Boushey Vineyards Picpoul, Yakima Valley, $25: Washington State University alumna Lisa Callan continues to rank among the Pacific Northwest elite for her work featuring white Rhone grapes. She allows the Picpoul to shimmer by conducting all of the fermentation in stainless steel. Lemon shortbread adds to the soft nose on this wine also influenced by a gripping minerality layered with white flowers. Delicate and light notes of pineapple and papaya welcome you in with a bit of preserved lemon peel in the mouth. A mixture of creamy citrus, softer acidity and bright melon make this your new favorite white, as the finish takes you into an apple orchard. It sailed into the sweepstakes as the Best White Wine.
King Estate Winery 2018 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $29: Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the winery’s founding by the King family, and it will be the 15th year for King Estate Restaurant. Brent Stone’s flagship pinot noir brings a peaceful nose of tart raspberry sauce, vanilla and a hint of herbaceousness. It’s comforting in the mouth with red currant, allspice and a pinch of earthy brown sugar that leads to a smooth finish. It received a double gold medal on its way to selection as the best pinot noir of the judging.
Coyote Canyon Winery 2019 Coyote Canyon Vineyard El Chispear Albariño, Horse Heaven Hills, $32: The Andrews family can take credit for being the first in Washington state to establish Albariño, and they’ve been crafting a sparkling version of the white Spanish grape since 2014, using the Spanish verb “to sparkle” as the moniker. The nose carries hints of caramel apple, pomme frites and nectarine and honeysuckle. Its perfect foam of tropical fruits and Bosc pear opens up to a bed of lemon peel and candied orange peel. There’s a slight touch of brioche in the finish with a smooth and lean perfume of almond and apple. This fall, it earned the award for Best Sparkling Wine.
Be Human Wines 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, Horse Heaven Hills, $18: This past summer, it was the Best Rose at Cascadia International Wine Competition. This fall, it rose to the top of The Invite. A whiff of baseball-card bubble gum comes right off the bat, followed by Jolly Rancher watermelon candy and orange zest. The drink is bright and very easy to enjoy with its crisp, lively and appealing approach of sweet-and-sour red fruitiness and a finish reminiscent of Orange Julius. Suggested pairings include watermelon and feta for apps, alder-planked salmon or that holiday bird.
Camas Prairie Winery 2019 Raspberry Mead, Idaho, $14: Jeremy Ritter moved production from the college town of Moscow to the logging community of Bovill, and the gold medals for his honey-based wines have followed him. The latest example with raspberry brings a big nose of hard raspberry candy and chewy honey. Initially, there’s a burst of crystallized sugar on the palate, but that gives way to fresh raspberry and raspberry vines with an unexpected herbaceous end for complexity and to balance the residual sugar of 4.5%. Enjoy alongside a salad with spinach, goat cheese and raspberries. This earned the award for best sweet wine at the Invite, and then it went double gold at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, where it also received 98 points on a 100-point scale.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.