January 15, 2019 – Judging the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is a marathon of commitment. You spend three and half days judging this competition, whereas others usually entail just a single day or at most a day and a half. That’s because there are over 6,800 entries to evaluate, from all over the world, at what is the largest wine competition held in the United States.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, as this was my first time judging at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds, where the competition has been held since it began. Initially, it included just wines from Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties, gradually adding all of California, and then Oregon, Washington, New York and Virginia. Eventually, it expanded to include wine from all over the world, including Mexico and Canada.
For the past 19 years, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper has been a keen and active sponsor, devoting the issue prior to the public tasting to naming all the Best of Class and gold medal winners. This year’s public tasting at Fort Mason is February 16th, so look for the February 10th issue of The Chron to spill all the details.
What you won’t find in that issue is the philosophy behind the competition. It was one of the first competitions to acknowledge and promote the concept of Double Gold, where all the judges agree that the wine is deserving of a Gold medal. A wine can also be a Gold if just two judges out of 3 declare it Gold, as long as the third judge gives it a B+ or higher. While other competitions are strict about all the judges having to award gold right out of the gate, this one allows judges to discuss and nudge each other up towards a double gold. Each judge also gets a “silver bullet,” which they can use to move a wine up to gold even if the other judges are not in accord. I never used mine, although the other two judges did. I’m basically against violence.
The 56 judges who gathered for this one came from all over the country, including the Finger Lakes, Indiana, Michigan, Florida and Washington. Many headed straight back home into blizzards after judging the final Sweepstakes round. And this was no easy judging, as all the wines were quite impressive.
At other competitions, you sometimes sit there during the Sweepstakes round wondering what were the other panels thinking when they sent up this clearly crappy example of Cab? Or whatever it happens to be. No, these were solid. All 34 sparklings, rosés and whites, and all 27 reds, ranging from Catawba and Cinsault to a superbly made Halleck Pinot Noir, were stellar, or close to it.
When the best sparkling award was announced, a pall fell over the room. Tied for the honor were two wines: a Trump Blanc de Blancs from Monticello, VA, and a Goose Watch Sparkling Rosé from the Finger Lakes of New York. My panel had, unbeknownst to us, sent up that Blanc de Blancs. We looked at each other in horror and disbelief. Yes, everything is tasted completely blind. There is no vintage information, no winery location, no AVA info and no prices on our judging sheets, except when judging large categories, which are broken into price ranges.
Some people thought it was all a rude joke, unaware that the president, owned a winery. Yes, Virginia, it’s in Virginia. Monticello, no less. Then a clamoring of “Let’s revote!” reverberated throughout, along with various other comments that would be suitable for a Howard Stern show. Those who hadn’t voted for it (I actually had), felt vindicated. It was a truly dreadful moment. But, hey, I picked that Finger Lakes rose sparkling as my second choice, and if anyone asks, I’m going with that. I’m from New York, after all.
The winning white was a beautiful 2017 Castello Di Amorosa Chardonnay from Napa (sent up by my panel), and the Best Rosé went to the 2017 Turkovich Grenache Rosé from Yolo County. I totally preferred the Sangiovese rosé from 2017 Cardella Winery (sent up by my panel) and even the 2017 Pinotage rosé from Intercoastal Vineyards (Lodi), but clearly Grenache is a more universally appealing varietal for rosé. By the way, for you rosé doubters, we had 74 rosés on my panel the first day, and other panels had similar numbers, so this rosé phenomenon is here to stay.
Best Red was a tie between the righteously fantastic 2016 Las Positas Malbec from Livermore Valley and the juicy 2016 St. Anne’s Crossing Zinfandel, from The Ranch in Dry Creek Valley.
Our local wineries showed some mettle in this one as well, with Bargetto taking Best of Class for their 2017 Regan Estate Pinot Noir in the $44—$47.99 category, and Best of Class for their 2016 Regan Estate Merlot in the $40 and up category. Well done! That’s quite an achievement. They also scored gold for their 2017 Regan Estate Chardonnay, and silver for the 2017 Mount Eden Clone Pinot Noir. Way to go!
Bernardus really put on a performance with Double Golds for the 2016 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay in the high-end ($47 and up category) and the 2016 Gary’s Vineyard Pinot in the $67 and up category. That’s some stiff competition in those classes, both of which my panel judged. Bernardus also brought home gold for the 2017 Griva Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Arroyo Seco, a perennial favorite, and gold for the 2016 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir, at $90.00/bottle. Sweet.
Asked to comment on the fine results, longtime winemaker Dean DeKorth replied, “Thank you so much! We are all really happy about it, of course. I guess I’m finally learning how to make wine!” 🙂
Big Sur Vineyards scored gold for the 2016 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay and silvers for both the 2014 Chalone Pinot Noir and 2017 Arroyo Seco Grenache.
Winemaker Jeffrey Blair of Blair Estate garnered silver for his 2015 “The Matriarch” Chardonnay from Delfina’s Vineyard in Arroyo Seco, the 2017 Delfina’s Vineyard Rosé and the 2014 “The Reserve” Pinot Noir, also from Delfina’s Vineyard in Arroyo Seco.
Silver Mountain Vineyards scored gold for 2012 Oscar’s Wild Red and silver for 2012 Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah, while Sones Cellars scored gold for their 2015 Santa Cruz Mountains Petite Sirah.
Tony Craig of Sonnet Wine Cellars scored gold for the 2017 Tondre’s Grapefield Chardonnay (SLH) and for the 2016 Muns Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains), bringing home silvers for the 2016 Black Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains), the 2016 Santa Lucia Highlands Tondre Grapefields Pinot and the 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Gali Vineyard Pinot Noir from Watsonville. Nicely done, as usual, Tony: like a maestro, you manage to coax the best out of multiple vineyards in different AVAs.
Soquel Vineyards Soquel scored Double Gold for both the 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Saveria Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2016 Partner’s Reserve Regan Vineyard Merlot, also from the Santa Cruz Mountains. They also brought home Double Gold for both the 2017 Partners’ Reserve Maley Vineyard Teroldego from Lodi, and the 2014 Napa Valley Partners’ Reserve Petit Verdot. More gold came for the 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Partners’ Reserve Lone Oak Chardonnay, the 2017 American Pinot Grigio, the 2017Santa Cruz Mountains 30th Anniversary Regan Vineyards Pinot Noir, the 2017 Ben Lomond Mountain Coast Grade Vineyard Pinot Noir, the 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2015 Napa Valley Library Selection Intreccio. They added silvers for 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Partners’ Reserve Redwood Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Partners’ Reserve Lester Family Vineyard Chardonnay, 2017 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Partners’ Reserve Pinot Noir, 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Grown Pinot Noir, 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Partners’ Reserve Pinot Noir, 2017 Lodi Partners’ Reserve Maley Vineyard Petite Sirah, 2016 Coombsville Consonante Reverence Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 2016 Napa Valley Intreccio. Wow, I’m out of breath! They sure make a lot of wine, and a lot of good wine, to boot. Impressive.
Speaking of good wine, Pam and Steve Storrs are once again to be congratulated on their Chardonnay prowess, taking Best of Class for the 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Christie Vineyard Chardonnay and gold for their 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. They took home silvers for the 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Wildcat Ridge Chardonnay and the 2015 Santa Clara County Rusty Ridge Petite Sirah.
David Coventry from Talbott scored Double Gold for the 2016 Monterey Kali Hart Chardonnay, and silvers for the 2016 Santa Lucia Highlands Logan Chardonnay, 2016 Monterey Kali Hart Pinot Noir and 2016 Monterey Logan Pinot Noir. Looks like the Kali Hart and Logan wines are picking up Monterey fruit beyond the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard.
Z. Alexander Brown, a highly successful brand from musician Zac Brown owned by Delicato Family Wines, scored gold for both their 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay and 2017 Monterey County/Napa County/Sonoma County Pinot Noir, both under $20.
Congratulations to all the winners, and my apologies to anyone I inadvertently overlooked. You can find all the results on winejudging.com and the public tasting event is February 16 at Fort Mason.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.