More medals come to foothill winemakers

California State Fair wine judges face lots of varietals from all over the state and beyond.

It’s the season of wine competitions, and I know several judges who could have conceivably (and most likely) judged more than six competitions in just the past two months. These recent adjudications range from the Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado county fairs, to bigger statewide competitions like the California State Fair, Sunset magazine and Orange County tests.

While the first three events mentioned are primarily open to the foothill spread of wineries, the other three are more wide-ranging tests that feature upward of 3,000 wine entries. These bigger statewide competitions still only garner a fraction of the eligible California wines produced here or made by possible competitors. They still stand as markers for what’s happening wine-wise in our state.

Mark Chandler, chief judge for the California State Fair contest, summed it up perfectly.

“The California State Fair Wine Competition encourages wineries to make better and better wines each year,” he said. “It’s exciting to watch the improvements, and to realize that today, the Best of Show wine could come from any of our 11 judging regions.”

One thing that caught my eye in these larger competitions is the number of top medals that went to our Sierra foothill wineries. Our wineries continue to be recognized for growing success with lesser-known varieties; they continue to showcase their diversity of wines. And many foothill winemakers continue to experiment in a number of ways, including in the development of blends, the crushing and fermentation processes and taking a nontraditional approach to production techniques. This is evident with the Amador County Fair judging, where Cielo Estate was awarded Best White for its 2018 White Barbera.

More medals come to foothill winemakers

Amador County Fair wine judging winners include Ironstone Vineyards, Jeff Runquist Wines and Bella Grace Winery.

Susan Farrington is Cielo Estate’s winemaker and has experimented with making a white wine from the popular Italian red variety since 2011. It started as a pet project, but customer response (the wine sold out quickly) has made this one of her favorites to produce.

“We pick it early, avoid skin contact and extracting color, and conduct a very cool fermentation,” Farrington said.

She had taken over a neglected Barbera vineyard, so the crop load was manageable.

“The wine has lots of citrus notes with sweet, tart and white peach characteristics, along with a touch of residual sugar,” Farrington offered. “Acid from the Barbera is the game changer. It is a softer type of acid that shows perfect balance.”

She keeps the alcohol content under 13%, and only produces a little over 200 cases.

Lewis Grace Winery in El Dorado County made the State Fair Best of Show Dessert Wine. Its 2018 Fashionably Late, late-harvest white wine received a Double Gold medal and a 99 point score for the wine, which is a combination of 67% Pinot Gris and 33% Muscat Alexandria. At 11% residual sugar and 12.9% alcohol, this dessert wine is on a roll, having won Best of Show Dessert at the Amador County Fair in 2018 with its 2017 vintage.

More medals come to foothill winemakers

School Street Wines’ Pinot Grigio, Jeff Runquist Wines’ Syrah and Montevina’s 2016 Barbera are California State Fair favorite wines.

And, hats off to Jeff Runquist Wines and it continuing to garner an astounding number of Gold medals at every competition the winery enters. At the California State Fair Wine Competition, the winery won Winery of the Year, awarded to the judges’ overall top winning winery. Runquist picked up a Double Gold and Best of California Region Red for his 2017 Syrah, which goes with the 11 other Gold medals he earned at the state competition. Also, a number of our local wines achieved Best of California class designations.

You can taste a number of the Amador County Fair winners from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, July 26 during the fair. Tickets are $42 at (designated drivers cost $20), plus fair admission.

Congratulations to all the medal winners who participated in the spring contests. Winemakers can clear more space on their tasting room walls for the ribbons that are coming their way.

I wish we could fit the many Gold medal winners into these lists, but I hope I didn’t miss anyone’s Double Gold.


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