Faced with a daunting 975 wines to taste and score in just three days, judges at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition on Wednesday quickly resumed their yearly ritual of politically correct discord — agreeing to disagree.
The identity of the winners in this tasting will be announced Saturday night at the Sonoma County Harvest Awards for participating wineries and their industry partners. As for the public, they'll get a chance to elbow their way to the winners next week during the Harvest Fair, Oct. 4 to 6.
In Wednesday's early round of tasting, the judges began their genteel sparring in the Showcase Cafe at the Sonoma County fairgrounds.
Dr. Gerry Ritchie, a professor of enology at Cal Poly, and Ron Washam, a former Los Angeles sommelier, didn't see eye to eye on a sauvignon blanc. Ritchie gave it a bronze while Washam gave it a gold.
"I think it's a varietally pretty sauvignon blanc with melon and fig and a nice, long finish," said Washam, who also writes the playful blog HoseMaster of Wine. "It's a lovely wine."
Meanwhile Ritchie said, "I thought the wine was too drying and a little bitter. … We differ and that's natural and it's important that it happens."
Contention is built into the competition to ensure each wine is analyzed from different perspectives, said Bob Fraser, head coordinator of the competition. There are 20 judges and each panel of five is comprised of a professional in the field of wine journalism, education, food, trade and tourism. The educator on each panel has a chemistry background to serve as quality control, there to detect any flaw in a wine, Fraser said.
This collaborative system of judging has been used since the Harvest Fair's initial competition in 1975. Organizers were advised by UC Davis enology professors that this was a better method than secret ballots, which were popular at the time.
Of course, Fraser said with a laugh, the collaborative aspect of the contest broke down a bit during the Harvest Fair's initial contest when the late Andr?Tchelistcheff, one of America's most influential winemakers, was a panelist.
"His colleagues felt he was God-like and held him in such high esteem that he intimidated them, so he wasn't invited back," Fraser said.
This year's judges hail from all over the United States, including New York, Miami and Virginia.
"On each panel there's only one judge from Sonoma County," Fraser said. "This year there's more interest in broadening our geographic base outside of Sonoma County."
As for the wine, there's a slight increase in entries this year, compared to 949 in 2012. There's also a modest increase this year in the number of these varietals — pinot noir, chardonnay, zinfandel and dry ros?
"The increase mirrors the popularity of these varietals among consumers," Fraser said.
The competition is a fall rite of passage in Sonoma County. Entries in the contest all have one thing in common: They're produced from Sonoma County grapes.
The pedigree of the grapes is what accounts for a higher percentage of gold medal winners than are found in most national wine competitions, according Fraser. There's no set limit to the number of gold medals that can be awarded, and Fraser said this contest typically produces 10 to 13 percent while national competitions typically range from 8 to 12 percent.