In this season of handing out music, movie and television awards, the country’s biggest wine judging and resulting awards was staged in January in Sonoma County. Winners of the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition have been announced, and a number of foothill wineries that entered have a lot to be proud of.
Now in its 19th year under the Chronicle moniker, this competition has grown to be the largest in America. This year’s event featured upward of 6,800 wines from more than 1,130 wineries, representing close to 30 states along with several wines from Canada and Mexico.
I look forward to this list of award winners each year because there are always surprise winners from states from outside the usually dominant California wineries. There are commercial wineries in every state of the union, and while all of them don’t utilize local grapes, a number of them do, which results in some very unusual grapes and wines. Think about cold weather and humidity challenges and how the vintners manage them and you have a hint as to how much work it is to craft a terrific wine.
Judged by a solid mix of 65 wine educators, industry leaders, media members and winemaking experts from around the country, I imagine it can be very challenging for some adjudicators who are saddled with evaluating obscure grape types such as the awarding-winning Vignoles from Missouri or the top Petit Manseng from North Carolina. Don’t go looking for these winners on our local store shelves.
The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is also a popular event because the wines are separated by price categories and judged accordingly. It assures that a limited-production $75 a bottle Cabernet Sauvignon will not be out-medaled by a big production Cab priced at $10 a bottle. Unlike many of the other statewide competitions, I think this structure brings together a number of wine entries from across the price board. For instance, the Chardonnay class, one of the largest, had 13 classes or categories for entries: Under $9.99 per bottle, $10-$13.99, $14-$15.99, $16-$17.99 and up to the $45-and-over classes.
Every year, I tend to grumble about there being too may categories. The number of price-specific classes under Cabernet Sauvignon has grown to 17 divisions. And, for the second year, organizers have included “Grape Dominated” classes with multiple price ranges for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Barbera, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and five other grapes that make up the larger portion of these individual blend classes. It just stretches out the overwhelming number of Best of Class winners; there are now upward of 170 potential classes for wines entered in the event.
Multiple Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals can be awarded in each class. A Double Gold medal is awarded when a panel of judges evaluating a wine agrees it should be awarded Gold status.
In the Mother Lode, red wines make up the biggest number of winery entries and Amador County wineries scored well in a tally of top medals. Several Amador wineries took home Best of Class awards, including Sobon Estate for its 2017 Barbera, Jeff Runquist Wines for its 2016 Alicante Bouschet, and Wilderotter Vineyards’ 2017 Vermentino was recognized.
Double Gold medals went to Dillian Wines’ 2016 Tre Fratelli Zinfandel, Amador Cellars’ 2015 “Ottimisa” Sangiovese, Iron Hub Winery’s 2015 “Resolute” Blend, Jeff Runquist Wines’ 2016 “Peroni” and “Cooper” Zinfandels, Bella Grace Vineyards’ 2016 “Old Vine” Zinfandel and 2016 Barbera, and Scott Harvey Wines’ 2016 Syrah.
A number of Amador wineries also picked up Gold medals in various classes, including Cooper Vineyards, Borjon Winery, Helwig Winery, Binz Wines, Bella Grace Vineyards, Terra d’Oro Winery, Jeff Runquist Wines, Vino Noceto Winery (earned Best of Class for Port up to $32.99 a bottle), Amador Cellars, Prospect Cellars and Story Winery.
Notable winners in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties included Inner Sanctum Cellars, which won Gold for its 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 Verdejo and 2014 Cuatro Port. Vina Moda Wines achieved Gold medals for its 2016 Barbera, 2016 Syrah and 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. Black Sheep Winery picked up Gold for its 2016 Calaveras Zinfandel, while Villa Vallecito Winery scored a Gold medal for its limited-production 2016 Sagrantino, an Italian varietal. Renegade Winery in Mokelumne Hill also did well.
The winners were tasted by the public on Feb. 16 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. You can examine the extensive lists of winners at winejudging.com.
We should always support our local achievements, but be adventurous and seek out winners from New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and even Georgia if we get the chance, unless a road trip is in your future. With fine wines now being made all over the country, it might be time for California to watch out.