The 27 judges of the 2017 North Coast Wine Challenge were joined by nine young associate judges Tuesday at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in a new program that allowed the judges to share their knowledge while tasting through the record-breaking 1,107 wines entered in this year’s contest,
Now in its fifth year, the regional wine competition hosted by the Press Democrat continues to evolve under the leadership of Chief Judge Daryl Groom, who launched the mentorship program this year as a way to reach out to a new generation of wine professionals.
“We’re breaking new ground with this format, which is exciting,” Groom said. “I don’t know of any other contest in the U.S. that does this.”
During last year’s contest, Groom tested the waters by placing three associate judges alongside experienced tasters on the judging panels. Since the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, he launched the program in earnest this year as a way to introduce up-and-coming wine professionals to the world of wine competitions.
“When I look back, I see it was my early mentors in life that helped me,” Groom said. “I wanted to be able to help people the same way.”
Groom handpicked the associate judges from a field of about 60 or 70 candidates who, like the other judges in the contest, work in various aspects of the industry, from sales and marketing to hospitality and winemaking. He hopes the program will give the associate judges a new appreciation for wine competitions.
Associate Judge Reed Ackerman, 30, tasting room assistant manager for Trione Vineyards & Winery in Geyserville, hopes the experience will help him understand the process of judging wines.
“I’m taking a lot of it in and just trying to keep up,” said Ackerman, who has taken the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 test. “It’s nice to hear how they go over disputes.”
In addition, Groom expects that participating in a major wine competition will give the associate judges a new appreciation for the process.
“I want the next generation ... to see the credibility and to see that it’s completely blind and unbiased,” he said. “Nobody reads the label or gets any favors out of rewarding a wine highly.”
Associate Judge Megan Bainbridge, 27, works in marketing and sales for Apriori Cellar in St. Helena, is looking forward to meeting a few of her idols.
“Some of the judges are people I’ve been following for years,” she said. “So it will be exciting to meet them and spend a whole day with them ... and interesting to see how the whole process works.”
Although the associate judges are asked to evaluate, give opinions and score the wines, their scores will not factor into the final tally leading up to the awards.
“I’m a strong believer in wine competitions ... I like the results better than an individual reviewer,” Groom said. “When 27 prominent people from all facets of the industry say this is a great wine, that’s way more compelling than an individual reviewer.”
The contest accepts only wines grown in appellations within the premium AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of the North Coast, including Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties, plus parts of Solano County.
Groom hand-picked the 27-member judging panel and arranged them into balanced groups of one winemaker, one wine buyer and one media person or wine sommelier. This allows each panel to look at the wines from different perspectives.