Underappreciated wines shine at Calaveras contest

Winning wines were in abundance at the Sierra Foothills Wine Competition at the Calaveras County Fair in May.

While most Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee enthusiasts had to endure a soggy May frog jumping competition, Amador County winemaker Jeff Runquist had a lot to smile about after another competition. Runquist entered upward of 20 wines in this year’s annual Sierra Foothills Wine Competition at the Calaveras County Fair, and he did well.

When I connected with Runquist earlier in the month and asked about the number of wines he entered, he remarked with a smile that his tombstone will probably read: “He never met a wine varietal he did not like.” He should probably consider adding “or made a wine that did not win a gold medal.” That was almost the case at the 2019 Calaveras competition that took place in late April.

A crew of 25 judges from around the state assembled at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds outside Angels Camp to judge wines from all over the foothills. The judges were comprised of individuals from around the wine industry, including winemakers, writers, managers and educators. The judging is open to any winery or producer from the seven counties that make up the Sierra Foothill appellation.

It is hard to believe this was the 38th annual wine competition in Calaveras; I have overseen 37 of them. I was assistant manager of the City Hotel Restaurant in Columbia in the early 1980s, and featured a growing selection of foothill wines on our list. As a result, I was asked by late Calaveras winery owner Barden Stevenot to expand the first year’s judging that consisted of a meager three participants.

Looking back on the second annual judging in May of 1982, the competition featured one winery form Calaveras, Stevenot, along with another dozen or so from Amador and El Dorado counties.

About 70 wines were entered and 19 of them were Zinfandels. The next most popular category was White Zinfandel with 10 entries. Popular grapes at the time included Chenin Blanc and Ruby Cabernet, which have disappeared from the current competition. And the judging at the time had not a single Barbera, which has now become a big player in our foothills. The Best of Show winner was the 1979 Montevina Special Selection Zinfandel.

Fast-forward to this year’s competition, where more than 250 wines competed in more than 45 different classes. That’s not to mention an increasing number of grape varieties, including 16 different types that Runquist entered. All of his wines medaled, and most won Gold or better.

Every year, the competition yields insight to the region’s progress; this year it seemed like a growing number of Spanish white varietals were entered, with many picking up Silver medals.

The comments from judges after the competition were extremely positive about the continued success and diversity of wines created in our area. In the end, over 90% of the wines medaled, with a growing number of them achieving Double Gold or Gold medals.

“The diversity of varietal wines and wine styles in this year’s competition again showed that grape growers and winemakers drawn to the Sierra foothills are pioneers more keen on creating markets than chasing established markets,” noted wine columnist and longtime judge Mike Dunn. “Sure, 21 Cabernet Sauvignons and eight Chardonnays were entered, but is there another region that can boast of so much variety, from Vermentino to Verdejo, Torrontes to Teroldego? This range virtually guarantees that wine enthusiasts exploring the Sierra foothills will find something to delight their palate.”

The Best of Show White winner was the 2017 Symphony “Obsession” from Ironstone Vineyards. The Symphony grape was developed by University of California, Davis, decades ago, and only a handful of wineries continue to make this floral and fruity white today. The Best of Calaveras White went to the 2017 Black Sheep 2017 Semillon, another under-the-radar grape. Inner Sanctum Cellars picked up a Double Gold for its 2018 Chardonnay, while Gold went to Sobon Estate’s 2017 Roussanne, Ironstone Vineyards’ 2017 Viognier, and Gianelli Vineyards’ 2017 Pinot Grigio.

A Double Gold medal is awarded when all four judges on the panel agree that a specific wine deserves a Gold medal. Wines that win gold or better move on to a second judging to determine the best of winners.

The Rose category continues to grow and show success, especially with Rhone-type grapes. The Lavender Ridge 2018 Grenache picked up Double Gold, and Inner Sanctum Cellars’ 2018 Grenache won Gold. Best of Show Rose/Blush went to the 2018 Milliaire White Zinfandel, the only one entered; it’s made in a drier style than was popular years ago.

As for the reds, Italian varietals proved big winners. Barbera and Sangiovese showed particularly well. The Best of Show Red went to Jeff Runquist Wines for its 2016 “The Hill” Sangiovese, while the Best of Calaveras Red went to the Mineral 2016 Barbera. Other reds in the running for Best of Show were Double Gold winners: Runquist’s 2017 “Reserve” Barbera, its 2016 Petite Sirah, the 2016 “Shake Ridge Ranch” Tempranillo and its 2017 Dolcetto; Chatom Vineyards’ 2014 Malbec; and Amador Cellars’ 2016 “Farmhouse Red” blend.

A category that showed better this year than in the past was Cabernet Sauvignon, with Double Golds going to Aloria Vineyards’ 2016 “Renner” in Calaveras, and Runquist’s 2016. A number of other Cabs picked up Golds and Silvers.

The Best Dessert Wine and a Double Gold went to the Runquist 2018 Muscat Canelli. Other winners included Double Gold for Inner Sanctum Cellars’ 2014 Vintage Port, and Golds for Shenandoah Vineyards’ Black Muscat and “Angelica,” and Ironstone’s 2018 Muscat Canelli.

Congratulations to the medal winners, and thanks to all the wineries for participating as the region continues to etch out a bigger reputation for excellent wines.

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