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Top 5 Surprises

Daryl Groom, chief wine judge of the North Coast Wine Challenge, shared a few insider tips on what goes on during the two-day judging.

1. Palate Endurance: Judges evaluate about 120 wines a day. That can spiral to 150, if they’re involved in the Best of Class rounds.

2. Pragmatic Uniform: All the judges wear white lab coats to keep red wine spills at bay.

3. Wine Smarts: We have 27 judges who collectively have more than 500 years of industry experience.

4. Brew Breaks: At lunchtime or after the contest is over for the day, many judges enjoy a beer.

5. Colorful Comments: All gold-medal-winning wines get a comment from the judges, and the comments get funnier toward the end of the day. While the judges spit, it appears they still retain some alcohol in their system.

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Taste the North Coast Wine Challenge's winning wines at the North Coast Food & Wine Festival on June 9 at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park. More information at northcoastwineandfood.com.

If you were to go behind closed doors and witness a round of tasting at the North Coast Wine Challenge, you might be perplexed.

After listening to a bruising debate about a single wine, with some judges calling it nectar of the gods and others deeming it the devil incarnate, you would think there could be no other explanation; the wine must have a split personality.

With the judging to begin next Wednesday, we offer you a window into these heated conversations, a figurative seat on the panel of the regional wine competition focused exclusively on North Coast wines. That way you can understand why a format that embraces discussion ensures only the best wines rise to the top.

Chief Wine Judge Daryl Groom, who coordinates the competition, is a proponent of heady arguments when it comes to deciding the fate of a wine. That’s why he creates tasting panels with built-in controversy, selecting a trio of judges with different backgrounds to vet wine from different angles. One of the judges is a winemaker, another is a wine buyer, with the third is either a sommelier or a wine writer.

“If three people evaluating a wine from completely different perspectives agree, and it’s a gold, the wine is a real winner,” Groom said. “I think more so than if you had three winemakers on a panel or three sommeliers who all have similar preferences of style.”

Debates typically don’t involve quality in this contest, Groom explained, because it draws entries from six reputable North Coast counties – Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino, Lake and parts of Solano.

“The disagreement often is style-oriented,” Groom said. “I know judges that just don’t like some particular style and therefore don’t give the wine an award. This may be that they feel the wine is too big and alcoholic or too oaky or too over the top or too tannic, for example

“Yes, we do get judges disagreeing 100 percent on a wine and this is OK,” he added. “This is part of the process.”

Fred Dame, a Master Sommelier from San Francisco, has been a sparring judge in three of the past five competitions, and he’s back for another round this year.

“It’s like being in a jury trial,” he said. “You make your case.”

Dame, along with 26 other judges, will taste about 120 wines each on both Wednesday and Thursday, selecting the best and the brightest from a pool of 900-plus entries.

Now in its sixth year, the blind tasting selects winning wines that can be tasted by the public at the North Coast Food & Wine Festival on June 9 at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park.

While the Master Sommelier said he’s an unabashed combatant, he also knows the virtue of détente.

“What you hope for in a tasting panel is that the wisdom of Solomon prevails, so you don’t kill the baby to make your case.”

Dame, 64, is one of only 236 people in the world to hold the title of Master Sommelier. He earned it in 1984 when he passed a grueling exam, which includes tasting, theory and service. It takes most people four to seven years to earn the title, but it only took Dame one.

“Having the title gives you a lot of confidence,” he said. “They don’t give these away. This isn’t like Little League where they give you a participation medal. You work hard for this.”

Dame’s studies have taught him that wine, to a great extent, is subjective — a matter of likes and dislikes. He concedes that when he was first developing his palate, if he came across a wine he didn’t like, he was convinced it wasn’t good.

“There are certain styles I don’t like, but during a competition, judges have to set that aside,” Dame explained. “You have to look at the craftsmanship and the result.”

Over the years, the Master Sommelier has learned the art of negotiation.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and there are two ways this level of experience develops,” Dame said. “You become jaundiced or you become more open-minded. And I’ve become more open-minded.”

When a disagreement festers and is not resolved, Dame said sometimes you “kick a wine forward,” awarding it a gold medal so you can see what other judges think about it should it make it to the final round.

“Something has to be really spectacular or really bad for the judges to agree,” Dame said, with a laugh. “Everything else is a discussion.”

The judges will be playing point-counterpoint with roughly 30 varietals from the 2014 to 2017 vintages. They will endure seven hours of tasting on Wednesday and two hours on Thursday for the final, sweepstakes round. Judging a flight of wine typically takes about 20 to 25 minutes, and to cleanse their palates, panelists will snack on roast beef, crackers and water.

As for scoring, the judges will evaluate wines in the preliminary round as gold, silver, bronze or no award. Gold medal wines are scored between 90 to 100 points and will compete to win Best of Class status. In the final sweepstakes round, these Best of Class finalists have a shot at winning “Best of Show” for red, white, sparkling, late harvest and rosé. They also could win a “Best of” award for each county represented. The finale, of course, is when the highest-ranking wine of the entire contest wins the top prize, the coveted title “Best of the Best.”

Last year, top honors went to the Taft Street, 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir, surprising some that a rosé could edge out the competition. This year, who knows what wine will most impress those pugnacious judges?

Everyone, Dame said, has big opinions about wine, particularly judges, who are trained palates on a mission to find the nectar of the gods.

“Wine is not apples and oranges,” Dame said. “It’s terroir. It’s technique. It’s style. It’s philosophy. You’re taking Mother Nature and adding the human element to produce a wine that reflects the culmination of the terroir and winemaking talent. The beauty of that is that everybody has a different vision.”

Winemaker and judge Heidi Barrett said that unique “vision” among judges typically translates into higher scores.

“Often a score will go up if one judge notices something special about a wine the others may have overlooked,” she said.

As the vintner of Barrett & Barrett Wines of Calistoga, she’s best known for her winemaking prowess with cult cabs. She, in fact, shocked the crowd under the white tent at the Napa Valley Auction in 2000 when her 6-liter bottle of the 1992 Screaming Eagle cabernet sold for $500,000, setting a record.

Barrett is convinced a tasting panel is at its best with judges from different backgrounds.

“It’s not so much ‘potential for disagreement’ as it is taking into account a broader scope of experience to be fair to the wines with more than a single point of view,” she explained.

When Barrett evaluates a wine, her top three criteria are: 1) The wine should be true to its varietal (“If it’s a zinfandel, it should jolly taste like one.”); 2) The wine should have clean aromas and flavors with proper balance; and 3) The wine should be well-made and tasty.

Barrett said she contributes to her tasting panel with technical experience in wine production, a deep understanding of flavor dynamics and several decades of wine judging and tasting experience.

What the public at large would find surprising about the contest, Barrett said, is that it’s truly a blind tasting.

“We have no idea who made what,” she said. “We only know vintage and variety.”

What Barrett finds most intriguing about the competition is the extraordinary nature of the grape itself.

“I’m still in awe of how many flavors and aromas you can get from essentially one fruit — grapes,” Barrett said. “What is surprising is the direction some winemakers will take this ... it keeps it interesting as a judge.”

The public will get a chance to taste the award winners from the North Coast Wine Challenge — the gold medal winners and all the high-ranking wines — at the Press Democrat’s North Coast Food & Wine Festival June 9 at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park.

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