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The Alexander Valley region earned its bragging rights, snapping up the top three sweepstakes wins at Saturday night's Harvest Fair Awards gala.

For the first time this year, organizers created a "Specialty Wines" sweepstakes category, and Simi Winery of Healdsburg snagged the prize with its 2007 Alexander Valley Late Harvest Riesling priced at $30.

The award for top-ranking red went to Stryker Sonoma of Geyserville for its 2006 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $50.

Alexander Valley Vineyards of Healdsburg won for top white with its 2007 Alexander Valley Viognier at $21.

"This is awesome," said Michael Overholt, tasting room manager of Stryker Sonoma, who accepted the award. "We love our cab, but to actually win a sweepstakes award is huge."

Overholt said he's not surprised the three sweepstakes winners were produced from Alexander Valley grapes. "The valley has a nice earth and fruit balance it brings to wine, especially cabs."

About 1,500 people attended the gala at Grace Pavilion at the fairgrounds, about 500 short of a sellout. Organizers said the $65 ticket probably was a stretch for some people in this economic downturn.

The gala had a nightclub feel, with dim lighting, live jazz and plenty of wine and appetizers. The only complaint people had was that the hall was stuffy.

While attendance was about the same as last year, wine entries dropped, with 124 fewer labels for judges to taste. Organizers said wineries were more cautious about entering because of last year's disqualification of the Adler Fels' pinot noir, a first in the fair's 35-year-old history.

The wine was the top-ranking red wine in the competition, but the Santa Rosa winery was forced to relinquish its sweepstakes honor because it failed to have the minimum 40 cases required for entries.

To protect against a disqualification, organizers asked each winery that had a wine nominated for the sweepstakes round to confirm it had this year's 50-case requirement available to sell at the fair, which will be held Friday through Sunday. Only one vintner, which was not identified, pulled out of the competition.

Last week, 25 judges from across the country tasted, debated and negotiated before giving scores for the wide range of Sonoma County wines.

The contest, now in its 36th year, began in 1974 with 59 entries, mushrooming to 1,084 this year, all produced from Sonoma County grapes. Only 123 of the entries, or 11 percent, didn't receive a double gold, gold, silver or bronze medal.

In all, nearly 1,000 wines won awards, with the top three sweepstakes winners — one for red, one for white and one for specialty wines — topping the field.

The new specialty sweepstakes category includes ros? sparkling wine, late harvest white, late harvest red and port.

"It's been years since one of those have had a sweepstakes win," said Bob Fraser, lead organizer of the competition. "The sweepstakes is really the Oscar of the competition. We wanted the opportunity to showcase another wine group that may be overshadowed by the more popular red and white varietals."

At Saturday's awards announcement, representatives from all three wineries took the stage and accepted a Waterford crystal decanter, which trumps an Oscar in Sonoma County.

"I didn't expect this," said Kevin Hall, winemaker at Alexander Valley Vineyards. "Getting this accolade is great. Viognier is a small varietal on the ranch, and to have this recognition is fantastic.

The winery produces about 800 cases of viognier yearly.

Alexander Valley Vineyards was once the original homestead of Cyrus Alexander, the 19th century ranger and namesake of the Alexander Valley appellation. In 1962, the Wetzel Family purchased the land, which was mostly prune orchards and pastures, and transformed into prized vineyard land.

Simi, another winery in the region with a rich history, won top honors, with senior winemaker Susan Lueker accepting the sweepstakes award for the "specialty wine" category.

"I'm so excited," Lueker said. "We only make 200 cases of this yearly, so this is perfect for a special-category wine."

Simi's stone winery on the northern outskirts of Healdsburg has a 125-year old history. It was founded by Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Pietro Simi. California native Steve Reeder is the winemaker, with a slate of wines that includes traditional and less traditional varietals such as riesling.

Overall, the judges awarded a total of 37 best of class awards, down from last year's 38; seven double gold, down from last year's 16; 142 gold, down from last year's 177; 450 silver, down from last year's 483; and 325 bronze, down from last year's 375.

You can reach Staff Writer

Peg Melnik at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.