WINE JUDGING AT THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE WINE COMPETITION
HOW I BECAME A WINE JUDGE
I love wine judging! Every year for the past eight years, I have been invited to be a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Many people wonder who I came to be a judge. Well, besides drinking A LOT of wine in my adulthood, I used to be involved in the wine industry. My parent’s owned Graton Ride Cellars in Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley appellation. We were small, only about 1200 cases of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and some unique dessert wines. In 2010, we entered our wines into the Chronicle Competition, and to our complete disbelief and amazement, our 2007 Estate Pinot Noir was awarded the red sweepstakes wine out of thousands of red wines that were tasted.
We were a baby of a winery, starting up during the recession in 2006. The wine that won the big award was our second vintage using grapes grown on our small estate vineyard. Our winemaker was gifted and even though he had made very little pinot noir in his winemaking career, he was producing beautiful, elegant pinots that would rival any high-end producer in the Russian River Valley.
Prior to being in the wine business, I had attended the public tasting held in Fort Mason Center in San Francisco every February. There were a TON of wines there, some traditional, some unique and all amazing. What an honor to be chosen out of nearly 3000 wines to be the best one in the bunch!
The director of this wine judging program, Bob Fraser was a wine educator at the Santa Rosa Junior College and after our big win, would bring his classes to visit our winery where we would set up vertical tastings of our pinots. I know that Bob appreciated our hospitality and showing his students that a small winery could run with the big dogs.
A couple years later, the judging was again being held at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds and judges from all over the country were slated to be there. Due to a huge storm, many judges were not able to make it to California and they were short on judges. Luckily, Bob called me and asked if I would like to be a fill in judge. The answer was a big huge YES! And after I hung up the phone, I panicked. What do I know about wine? I would be sitting next to sommeliers, wine buyers for gigantic retailers, wine educators, wine writers and hospitality experts in the field. How would I possibly be able to offer anything additional amongst these talented palettes?
I couldn’t sleep at all the night before I was to be a first-time wine judge, but I was so excited to see how the process worked and get the behind the scenes view, as well as be part of wine history. What an honor. My panel of judges could not have been nicer. They were indeed, very qualified and were also welcoming, friendly and helpful. I have been on panels with different people each year and each year, I learn something new, hone my palette and build friendships.
2020 CHRONICLE WINE COMPETITION BY THE NUMBERS
2020 is technically the 37th year since the competition began during the Cloverdale Citrus Fair, but this year marks the 20th year of the San Francisco Chronicle Competition, since it became named for the bay area newspaper.
There were 6700 wine entries from 1130 wineries in United State, Canada and Mexico making this the largest wine competition in North America. Nearly every state in the US was represented, which is amazing considering the different climates, soils and growing conditions that vary across the country. The competition invites 65 professional judges and utilizes 155 local volunteers and staff. Not only did the judges evaluate those 6700 wines, in order to cleanse their palettes during the four-day competition, they collectively consumed over 150 loaves of French bread from local baker, Costeaux, nine cases of Graber olives and twenty pounds of rare roast beef.
I made the short drive to Cloverdale this year to once again be part of wine history. We began with a champagne breakfast reception where we would be reunited with our wine buddies we hadn’t seen in a year and meet and welcome some of the new faces. Big smiles, hugs and catching up along with a good breakfast to get us going for our first round of wines.
DAY ONE OF JUDGING FOR PANEL #13
I was placed on panel number thirteen with Rick Fraga who has worked all over the Sonoma County wine scene for years and was a student of Bob Fraser’s at Santa Rosa Junior College. Our third was Dick Mercer, wine travel expert and mild mannered, yet funny guy. I had met Dick during my first year as a judge, when I inadvertently stole his dessert wines during the sweepstakes round! It was a moment we both would never forget! This was going to be a great panel. And boy, was it!
LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED!
The three of us began with a short flight of fruit sparkling wines, which ended up being much better than we all had anticipated. Peach, strawberry, berry, pineapple, mango and even almond were among the competitors. We selected three double gold winners out of a flight of seven wines – not bad to get the party started!
We moved on to Pinot Gris/Grigio $20 and over and quickly realized that our palettes were very much in synch. There were 42 wines to taste in four flights, in which we awarded seven double gold and six gold medals. These were surprisingly good wines for the lower price point touting flavors of peach, tangerine, orange blossom, rose, strawberry and mineral across the board. I couldn’t wait to find out which winery made those delicious wines so that I could get some while respecting my wine budget.
Next up was category 551 “Other Red Varietals.” Most of these varietals I had never heard of. I am a huge fan of local Sonoma County wines and often don’t try new things as much as I should with regard to wine. Blaufrankisch, Cabernet Pfeffer, Cinsault, Counoise, Dornfelder, Gamay Noir, Graciano, Lagrein, Lemberger, Mencia, Negrette, Negroamaro, Nero D’avola, Pinot Meunier, Pinotage, Rosa del Peru, Sagrantino, Souzao, Touriga Nacional, Trousseau, Valdepenas, and Valdigule. Whew! I had no idea what these varietals were SUPPOSED to taste like, so this would be a bit of a fun adventure. It became more a matter of identifying wines with good structure and elements, rather than what it was supposed to taste like from a traditional sense. There were a total of 51 glasses of wine within all of those varietals and we awarded five double gold and eight gold medals in those five flights of wine.
JUDGING THE BEST OF CLASS WINES
We had tasted a total of 100 wines on that first day and because our palettes were so in synch, we finished before lunch! That meant we would be retained to be part of what they call a Best of Class taste off. There are so many wines that get selected as Best of Class that will be sent to the Sweepstakes round, that there are just too many to include for the Sweepstakes tasting on Friday. For example, they took all of the Best of Class Red Blends (spanning different price points) and brought them to us to do the taste-off. We selected the best Red Blend wine out of seven categories. This wine would be sent to the Sweepstakes round to represent the best of the Red Blends that were entered into the competition. We only did one round of taste-off, but this would be done with all of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, etc. The result is just one Chardonnay, one Pinot Noir, etc will appear at the Sweepstakes round at the end of the week.
Day one done! It was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for our welcome reception and dinner in downtown Cloverdale.
WELCOME RECEPTION AND DINNER
We were warmly greeted at the Cloverdale Arts Alliance Center with a hug from Frosty of the Yorkville Highlands Growers and Vintners group. This group was our host for the reception, pouring wines from the region and represented by six different wineries producing wine from Yorkville Highlands. We were given the experience of vertical tastings for most of the wineries, comparing different vintage years for one varietal and other wineries that presented multiple different varietals.
The Yorkville Highlands appellation is located in Mendocino County, five miles west of Cloverdale and was established as an AVA in 1998.
“The main distinguishing factor of the AVA is its elevation. The result of which is that all 24 current vineyards are planted between 850 and 2,500 ft. and benefit from high diurnal temperature ranges and the mélange of soils including gravel and old brittle rock found in benchlands.” – YorkvilleHighlands.org
Although the entire appellation is approximately 40,000 acres, only 414 are planted in grapes, within just 24 vineyards. They produce primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot and Merlot, but we also tasted a few Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays during the reception. There are only 50 appellation-designated artisan wines produced from Yorkville Highlands and they are all made in very limited production, so we were lucky to be served these very special wines.
I visited the flight of Chardonnay first. Three vintages were represented from Artevino at Maple Creek Winery. We met the owner, Tom Rodrigues who has been an artist for more than four decades. He has been able to meld his love of art and wine with his handcrafted wines. Price range $38 per bottle.
Next, I moved on to Meyer Family Cellars where I met Matt Meyers who showcased a vertical of both the winery’s Petite Sirah and Syrah wines. The winery was started in 1987 by Silver Oak founders and former owners, Justin and Bonny Meyer. Think the wines might be good now?? You bet your ass they were! I did the vertical of Syrah’s and was blown away by the complexity and beautiful fruit. Each vintage showing similarities but vast differences in flavor profiles. They ranged from fruit flavors like ripe cherry, plums, black and blueberries to spices and pepper. All I can say is they were delicious! Price range on the Syrah’s: $28-44 per bottle.
I met Theadora Lee, AKA Thea-patra, Queen of the Vineyards, the owner of Theopolis Winery. A bold and dynamic trial lawyer from Texas, she is a powerful woman winemaker, vintner and owner with lots of sass and flash. She produces Petite Sirah’s that are full bodied, flavorful and fruit forward. Flavors of these wines include raspberry, chocolate, cola, lavender, wild cherry, currents and tobacco. Sign me up! Price range: $38-39 per bottle.
Venturing on to the Yorkville Cellars table, I met Edward, the force behind getting the Yorkville Highlands AVA successfully added. He and his wife own the winery and produce all six of the Bordeaux varietals. What a treat to try them all from the same vintage year! Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. All deliciously done, with dark fruit flavors of blueberry, plum, raspberry with hints of licorice and tobacco. Price range on the Bordeaux wines $34-40 per bottle.
DINNER FOLLOWING THE RECEPTION
An amazing reception could only be followed up with an amazing dinner! We walked down to the Trading Post restaurant, which we completely took over! We were treated to a delicious family style meal featuring seasonal lettuces and root vegetables with a winter citrus dressing, crispy Brussels sprouts with cider-bacon vinaigrette, polenta with winter squash, roasted chicken and dessert of spice cake with Chantilly. Each table had a variety of wines for us to compliment the meal. It was a delicious dinner with lively conversation as we reconnected and met new people.
What do you do after a long day of drinking wine?? Go to the After Party of course! One of the judges steps up every year to host this in their very tiny hotel room. Everyone brings a nice bottle of wine, there’s music, singing, laughter and lots of jokes! This is where the real connections happen! Each year I get to know these people a little better and they are truly talented and wonderful folks from all over the country. I managed to reign it in for a bed time of 10:30pm.
DAY 2 IS NEXT!
All that was in just one day! The next post will cover days two and three! Stay tuned!