Twenty years ago this week, I started writing about and reviewing wine. I had moved from Boston to Seattle four years earlier. I often tell people that if a psychic told me then that, within 10 years, I would be spending all my time writing about and reviewing wine, I would have doubled over laughing. I knew nothing about wine.

Moving to Seattle was what I referred to as a “life hard reboot,” as I left behind a career in medicine and research. I did a lot of different things to get to know the area and to meet people. One of those things was take an “Introduction to Wine” class at South Seattle Community College taught by Dieter Schafer. That class was the start of my wine journey.

Entranced, I went to many of the weekly tastings in Seattle. On Thursday nights, I would go to Seattle Cellars (now defunct). From there, I went straight to Esquin in SoDo, which had a tasting that ended a half hour later.

I have such vivid memories from those tastings. I could tell you exactly where in Seattle Cellars I saw my first bottle of Dunham Cabernet Sauvignon. I could point to the place on the floor where Poppie Mantone from Syncline poured the winery’s Subduction Red. At Esquin, I could show where the wooden bin was that I found my first bottle of Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon.

Seattle Cellars did a tasting where they poured wines at three different prices: $15, $25, and $50. The qualitative difference between the wines was a lightbulb moment for me (and a fateful one for my wallet). I decided right then and there that I was going to start a wine cellar.

I bought the $50 wine, a Duckhorn Merlot. This was twice as much as I’d ever spent on a bottle of wine. When my roommate came home that night, I exclaimed “You’ve got to try this wine!” We drank the bottle on our porch. Wine is meant to be shared with friends. The start of my wine cellar would have to wait.

I also spent a lot of time at City Cellars in Wallingford, my local wine shop. I purchased my first Red Mountain wine there, the Kiona Lemberger. I had my introduction to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, the Shooting Star from Jed Steele. I bought my first Washington Syrah, the 1999 Glen Fiona Basket Press. I fell in love with Washington Merlot with a bottle from Reininger.

I also bought my first bottle of Quilceda Creek at City Cellars, the 2000 vintage. I remarked on its $70 price tag. “Some people believe it’s the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington,” owner Michael Herndon said. I bought it. That bottle actually was the start of my wine cellar. Many years later, I opened it with my wife.

Whenever I went to tastings, I took notes to remember the wines. Retailers often provided tasting sheets. I would put a dot next to a wine if I’d tasted it. If I didn’t like the wine, I would put a minus (-). If I liked it, a plus (+), really liked it, a star (*). If I loved the wine, I would put two stars (**). That is how my early wine ratings started. (Long-time readers will remember that was the system I once used here.)

I was a careful reader of Wine Spectator’s reviews that critic Harvey Steiman gave to wines from Washington and Oregon. If Steiman rated a wine highly, I would seek it out. This sometimes meant going to several stores or perhaps to the winery itself to hunt down a bottle.

What I noticed over time was how I scored wines aligned very closely with Steiman. That gave me confidence that I would not have had otherwise. Following Steiman’s palate also informed how I rated wines then and continue to today. I will always be grateful for his influence on my life and career.

Twenty years ago this week I went to Yakima Valley for Spring Barrel Weekend. At Hightower Cellars, they used a thief to pour a wine from a French oak barrel and then another from a Hungarian oak barrel using the same fruit. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I visited Kiona, tasting in the basement. I remember meeting Brian Carter pouring Apex wines.

My friend who went with me asked if I would send my notes. I dutifully typed them up, he circulated them to his friends, and the rest is history. Washington Wine Report was born. I called it that simply because that is what it was. (I rebranded this site Northwest Wine Report in 2022.)

Looking back 20 years later, I am struck by how vivid these memories are. There was such a joy of discovery in every tasting, in every bottle I purchased, and in every winemaker I met. I was completely in wine’s thrall.

Three things in particular resonated with me. The first was the quality of the wine coming from the Pacific Northwest. The second was the sense of newness of the region. The third was the passion and the excitement of the winemakers.

That excitement stood in sharp contrast to the career I had left behind. Everyone I knew in medicine was miserable. By comparison, people I met in the wine industry were brimming with excitement about what they were doing and the possibilities for the region.

I was swept up in the wake of their excitement. Twenty years later, I still am.

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