The judges faced a tsunami of wine on Wednesday as they began a daunting challenge — to taste a pool of 951 wines in three days for this year's Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition.

In an early round of this blind tasting, they began their yearly ritual of genteel sparring on some of the contenders in the Showcase Caf?at the Sonoma County fairgrounds.

The identity of the winners in this colossal tasting will be announced at a dinner Saturday for participating wineries and their industry partners. As for the public, they'll get a chance to elbow their way to the winners during the Harvest Fair, Oct. 5 to 7.

During Wednesday's judging, panelist Tammie Ruesenberg, a lead sommelier of the restaurant Olives at Bellagio in Las Vegas, and judge Ray Johnson, director of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, simply agreed to disagree on one wine in a flight of Rhone whites. Ruesenberg gave it a gold medal, while Johnson didn't think it deserved an award.

"It had a very astringent character to it and white wine with an astringent character is not very appealing," he said. "But the majority liked it so it got a gold... We just all don't experience wine the same way."

The contest will continue through Friday, with judges sipping as well as consuming 25 loaves of bread, 2 dozen cans of olives (the vinegar-free version) and 10 pounds of blood-rare roast beef, all chosen to cleanse their palates.

"Ultimately we're looking for the gold, for the stars," Johnson said. "That's our job, to find what people will love most. When you think about it, these wines will go on to represent the whole North Coast."

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 to Bob Fraser, who coordinates the contest. There's no set limit to the number of gold medals that can be awarded, and Fraser said this contest typically produces a higher number than national competitions.

"You have to realize that Sonoma County is a premium wine region in the United States," Fraser said.

There are 25 judges, with five on each of five panels. Each group is comprised of a professional in the field of wine journalism, education, food, trade and tourism. Fraser stressed that the educator on each panel has a chemistry background to serve as quality control, there to detect any flaw in a wine.

The contenders are vying for a top spot, with the hopes of snagging a sweepstakes win in the categories of red, white or specialty wines.

"There has to be a &‘wow' factor involved for a wine to win sweepstakes," said Fraser, adding that a sweepstakes win has muscle in the marketplace.

"I think a Harvest Fair sweepstakes award is comparable to winning the Super Bowl in Sonoma County," Fraser said. "Most sweepstakes winners see an immediate and automatic increase in sales for at least 90 days but also a residual effect in Sonoma County, especially for newer wineries emerging on the scene."

(Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.)