Founded in 1975, the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest was the oldest volunteer-organized wine appreciation group in town. Rechristened the Seattle Wine Society in 2004, it continued to sponsor monthly wine dinners and an annual wine judging whose excruciating fairness was better suited to the days when Washington and Oregon combined had fewer than 100 wineries (many owned by paranoid individualists barely on speaking terms). But its leaders recruited international wine authorities as judges, and their influence helped put the Pacific Northwest on the map.
Now it's "Mission Accomplished," for real.
Rather like Willie Keith, "the last captain of the Caine, it fell to international business attorney Mel Simburg, serving a term as president, to decommission the Seattle Wine Society. Thirty-seven years ago, its founding board came straight out of Seattle's Blue Book (Dorothea Checkley, George Taylor, Nancy Davidson Short, Betty Eberharter), with a mission to guide its members "in viticulture, enology, and the appreciation, enjoyment, knowledge and proper usage of wine."
For the next two decades, under the guidance of an early recruit to the cause, Dr. Gerry Warren (a clinical professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of Washington), it did just that, providing its 3,000 members with monthly educational programs and an annual wine festival, all run by volunteers. Chapters were added in half a dozen outposts, from the Tri-Cities to Spokane. The festival became a focal point for a growing body of wine enthusiasts, not the least of them the internationally renowned judges. Over the years, they included Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux; the Italians Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori; the American historian Leon Adams; writers Roy Andries de Groot and Gerald Boyd; California wine makers Joe Heitz and Warren Winiarski; UC Davis professors Maynard Amarine, Denny Webb and Ann Noble. Their palates, unfamiliar with the unique wines of the Northwest (especially in the early years) were always impressed by the quality of the top bottles; they were also unafraid to criticize flawed wines.
Today, the number of wineries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho has grown from fewer than 100 to nearly 1,000. The Wine Society's casual, chatty summer festival has morphed into the tony Auction of Northwest Wines, one of the nation's biggest charity auctions. The Washington Wine Commission (which didn't even exist when the Society started) runs a two-day Wine & Food Festival; there's also a privately run Seattle Food & Wine Experience. There are smaller festivals in every valley and hillside of the wine country, and wine maker dinners at restaurants across the region. And no shortage of independent, benchmark judgings, either, from the Platinum Wine Awards run by Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest, to the high-profile Seattle Wine Awads (and its companion, the Oregon Wine Awards) run by Rainier Club sommelier Christopher Chan, who brings in a panel of top-name judges.
John Bell, an engineer who spent his career working at Boeing while he made wine in his Everett garage, is among those who regard the Wine Society's work with fond nostalgia. Now the owner of a successful boutique winery, Willis Hall, he's also a longtime Society board member who appreciates what the Society has done as a catalyst for wine education and appreciation, "to the point where that mission has now been taken up by a plethora of individuals and groups."
"We are proud of our accomplishments," Bell says. "It's the end of an era, but it was truly a bright era, wasn't it?"
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