A look back at the 49th Annual AWS Conference

Sep 27, 2018

The American Wine Society (AWS) is the largest consumer based wine education organization in North America.  Dr. Konstantin Frank, a pioneering vinifera producer in New York’s Finger Lakes region, led its formation in late 1967.  It now boasts 165 chapters in 36 states and the District of Columbia including one based in Salem, Oregon.  AWS membership is approaching 6,000 and includes the entire spectrum from novice tasters to wine educators to competition judges to grape growers to amateur and commercial winemakers, supporting the characterization of “compleatness.”  While many chapters host tastings throughout the year, the main event is the annual National Conference.  From 3 to 5 November 2016, about 430 members gathered at the Hilton in Costa Mesa, CA, to learn, taste, and mingle.

As a first time attendee to a conference, I sat in on an orientation session.  Three panels of three first timers were invited to play “Who Wants to be an Oenologist?”  Multiple choice questions focused on the early history of the society, factoids about the California wine industry, and conference specific procedures.  I learned that Dr. Frank threatened to quit AWS because of its emphasis on hybrid grapes.

The Welcome Reception highlighted wines from Temecula, the nearest wine growing region to the meeting, as well as from Santa Barbara Winery. Buffets provisioned tasters sufficiently to serve as dinner.  Afterward, we adjourned to the hospitality suite to sample wines from North Carolina, Tennessee, and New York.

At registration, we were asked to rank our top three choices for sessions in each of seven periods, three one day and four the next.  I was assigned to all of my first choices.  Sharron McCarthy, Vice President of Wine Education for Castello Banfi, oversaw “An Extraordinary Tuscan Experience.”  The eight Banfi wines we tasted ranged from a refreshing 2015 Vermentino to a classy but still young Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.

As a volunteer, I was assigned to be room captain for the session “Virginia Wine Today” and had the pleasure of introducing the presenter, Richard Leahy.  Leahy is the author of the most authoritative exposition on wines of the Old Dominion, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, now in its second edition. In 2012, he was my counterpart on the East Coast during our bicoastal simultaneous tasting of Virginia and Southern Oregon viogniers and cabernet francs.  The results appeared in the December 2012 issue of Oregon Wine Press.   Leahy tasted us through two whites and two reds to show how far Virginia has come.  While all were well made and enjoyable, my “oh yes” choice was the 2013 Barboursville Octagon, a beautifully textured Bordeaux blend.  “Want some,” I noted.

In “Nose to Nose:  Cognac vs. Armagnac,” Portland, Oregon based Hoke Harden (pictured  below), “the spirits and wine professor,” expounded on the differences between the two brandies.  We were presented with four examples of each.   A complex, bright Jean Fillioux Cep d’Or 1er Cru Grande Champagne, a “grower cognac,” earned a “yum yes.”  The supremely smooth and refined Jerome Delord Bas Armagnac 1981, bottled in 2011, earned an “oh yes” and nearly brought on tears of overwhelming admiration.  I did get some.

On Friday evening, we assembled for the Showcase of Wine to sample products from several countries including Spain, Mexico, France, and the US.  Heavy appetizers served as dinner.  Table hopping facilitated mingling.

As an old fan of German Rieslings, I was particularly eager to attend “The New Classification of German Wines – the VDP Classification” led by Annette Schiller with comments from her husband, Christian.  The DC-based couple lead wine tours in Germany and France.  Since 1984, the Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter e.V. (VDP) has been developing a quality-based classification based on the Burgundy model to correct the mess caused by the 1971 law that diluted the prestige of many of the famous vineyards.  Two of the six lovely wines poured were produced by Dr. Ernst Loosen who, in addition to owning a facility in the Mosel region, collaborates in Oregon with Jay Somers of J. Christopher and in Washington with Chateau Ste. Michelle.

“The State of Red Wines in the American Rhone Nation” was discussed and illustrated by six California producers. Randall Grahm poured his 2009 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant which displayed an amusing aroma and flavors showing nascent wisdom.  This wine is typically fermented with 50 to 60% whole clusters that are dried for a few days to ensure the stems lignify.  A drinkable, untypical 2012 Tercero Mourvedre showed very nicely.

Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery, known for its zinfandel, guided “Exploring the ‘90s in Magnums.” He shared the 1994, 1995, and 1997 bottlings from Dickerson Vineyard, planted to 100% zinfandel in 1920, and the Old Hill vineyard, planted around 1885 to a mix of at least 27 varieties with about 68% zinfandel.  The wines made from Old Hill, especially the 1995, showed considerable youthfulness.

The final session, “Colorado’s High Elevation Wines, The Taste from the Top,” gave Doug Caskey, executive director at Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, the chance to pour outside the grape.  We were served a fragrant hard cider from a can and a sweet, pretty mead along with one hybrid and three vinifera examples.

A sparkling breakfast the first day and two lunches featured wine, as well.  The noontime meal on Saturday showcased noteworthy wines from Empordá, a region in Catalonia, Spain.  The 2015 Vinyes dels Aspres, Blanc dels Aspres, 60% Grenache Blanc, 40% Grenache Gris, earned a “yes.”  A novel Mas Llunes, Garnatxa Solera extended my experience with this versatile grape to the realm of dessert.  The Grand Banquet at which Peter Mondavi, Jr. accepted the Award of Merit for his late father, Peter Sr., concluded the conference on Saturday evening.

The egalitarian nature of AWS and the welcoming spirit of its long time members are two of this “most compleat” society’s greatest assets.   Where else can an oenophile, budding or already blossomed, taste wines with experts from across the globe?  Where else can amateur and commercial winemakers share pointers?    For me, though, the seven sessions I attended were the best reason to participate in the National Conference.  The range and quality of the beverages and the information shared by the presenters kept this long time taster enticed, engaged, and even educated.  Sound good? From 2 to 4 November 2017, the society celebrates its 50th anniversary at its National Convention at Kalahari in Pocono Manor, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit http://www.americanwinesociety.org/.


Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Oregon.  His wine writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications including the Journal of Wine Research, the Journal of Wine EconomicsOregon Wine PressPractical Winery & VineyardWine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine.  He can occasionally be found pouring quintessential Pinot noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.