How Writing Plays a Role in Wine Competitions

Guest author Dana Van Nest shares a behind the scenes look into the Great Northwest Wine competitions.

“Intriguing nose of cherries jubilee, sweet herbs, and chocolate-covered blueberries,” I noted about the 2017 Siren’s Reserve Beijo Red Wine from Siren Song Wines. “Juicy red berries and plum greet you in this smooth and very drinkable blend, and later give way to chocolate and hints of tobacco.”

The Columbia Gorge Hotel where the Great Northwest Invitational takes place

At the Great Northwest Wine Invitational, held this past October at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, I tasted 67 Gold medal-winning wines and wrote tasting notes for each in less than two days. Eric Degerman, journalist and owner of Great Northwest Wine, had invited me to return for a second time as a Chief Judge for this competition (I also served as a Chief Judge at the Cascadia International Wine Competition last May).

With approximately 800 wines entered in this invitation-only competition, we start early with the panels of wine judges receiving their first flights at 8:30 am. The panel is comprised of a number of the region’s most respected wine buyers and merchants. They are a knowledgeable and generous crowd with whom I seriously enjoy getting to work, eat, and drink with for two days. After the panels have chosen the Golds for each flight, the Chief Judges (typically two or three of us) get to work.

“Enticing nose of warm red plum clafouti and strawberry jam,” I wrote about the 2018 Northstar Merlot. “Spiced red fruits on the palate with hints of clay and cream. Hint of mint on the mid-palate.” The key to writing tasting notes for these competitions is keeping it short: Nose, palate, structure. Three descriptors for each. Start there, then elaborate.

Palate and Prose

Participating as a Chief Judge in these competitions pushes me to hone both my palate and my prose. It’s full-sensory exercise – the physicality of sniffing and spitting, the intellectual task of finding just the right words, and the emotional endeavor to connect the scents in the glass to the reader’s own scent memories.

For each entry, I must quickly access my internal aroma library to find interesting descriptors and sense memories that could strike a chord with readers. “Clean scents of laundry, plastic containers, and white flowers. Sweet lemon first off, followed by just-ripened Honeycrisp apple. Very refreshing, with a crisp minerality,” I wrote about Milbrandt Vineyards’ 2020 Riesling. It’s also really fun to debate with yourself and drill down on an aroma. Is the grapefruit scent in this Sauvignon Blanc ruby red grapefruit, grapefruit pith, sugared grapefruit, or grapefruit marmalade?

How to Portray Pinot

It was a challenge – in a good way – when 15 Gold Pinot Noirs landed on the Chief Judges’ table. Pinots have a well-established and recognized flavor profile, yet each bottle here was unique and deserved to be evaluated with language that was both truthful and evocative. At the same time, I needed to move rapidly and complete the sniffing and writing process in about five minutes, or the bottles would start stacking up.

“Cream cheese and cherry danish. Tart raspberry and pomegranate on the tongue. Elegant and delicately spicy with cola and allspice notes,” I said about the 2019 Erath Reserve Collection Pinot Noir. For the Iris Vineyard 2019 Pinot Noir, I wrote, “Pretty, herbal nose with a touch of strawberry candy sweetness. Beautiful balance of tart red cherry, clove, and pepper. The acidity is bright with a bit of juicy blood orange.”

These tasting notes form a bank from which Eric can pull descriptors to write articles for Great Northwest Wine, such as this one sharing the results of the 2021 Great Northwest Wine Invitational, as well as for the Seattle Times’ annual wine issue in Pacific Magazine, where he recently suggested 36 bottles for your holiday table.

It is an honor and a delight to be a part of the Great Northwest Wine competitions and to be able to blend my two of my favorite topics: wine and writing (my other favorite blend is a GSM), and to learn from and with very smart and respected wine professionals in the region.

About the Author

Dana Van Nest is a Seattle-based writer and communications strategist who works with organizations to bring their values into their voice. In addition to serving as Chief Judge for Great Northwest Wine competitions, she has also served on wine panels for Sip Magazine. Her website is

Wine Competition Photography

Many thanks to Richard Duval for the imagery. Find more of his work on Instagram or his website.

Are you thirsty for more? Go behind the scenes at the Seattle Wine Awards.