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Tickets are still available for the Awards Night Gala on Oct. 1. For more information visit the Sonoma County Harvest Fair’s website here.


Twenty-one judges sipped their way through a tidal wave of wine — 1,016 entries — at Wednesday’s 2017 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition.

The three-day contest, which began Tuesday and ends today, tests the five panels of judges’ capacity to sip, joke and ultimately determine sweepstakes winners.

The sweepstakes winners will be announced Oct. 1 at the Awards Night Gala of participating wineries, their industry partners and the public.

The bulk of the winners will be announced Sunday. These awards include best of class, double gold, and gold. Members of the public will be able to taste the top winners at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Oct. 6-8, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

In Wednesday’s early round of tasting at the fairgrounds, judges began their annual ritual of sizing up the wines with a round of point counterpoint.

“I think No. 9 is stunning,” said panelist Ellen Landis, a certified sommelier and wine journalist. “It’s so feminine. Beautiful. Mushroom. Earthy. Burgundian. Umm … beautiful.”

Kristi Mohar, another judge on the panel, wasn’t as impressed. The wine buyer for Pacific Market in Sonoma County awarded No. 9 a silver.

“It was way too earthy, and mushroomy, too much forest floor,” Mohar said. “I felt it didn’t show what Sonoma County has to offer. Right here we’re seeing that strawberry and big red fruit kind of dictates what pinot noir is for our consumers.”

Landis invoked her most powerful weapon — a judge’s so-called “silver bullet” — to champion the pinot noir, boosting it to double gold status. The silver bullet gives a judge an extra gold vote to be used once during any given day to raise a wine’s score. The system was designed to maintain harmony on the judging panel, according to Bob Fraser, chief coordinator of the contest, although most judges don’t use them.

That said, Fraser explained that disagreeing on a wine is by design. Each panel is populated by professionals with different credentials. There’s a diversity of expertise, but always at least one with a chemistry background who can detect flaws, he said.

During the competition, these diverse palates are challenged with both food and drink. Aside from sipping through a pool of 1,000-plus wines, they are consuming 8 pounds of rare roast beef, 25 loaves of French bread and 30 cans of Graber green olives.

This year, the judges came from California, Minnesota, Florida and Vancouver, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Entries were down by 78 wines over last year; Fraser said the reason was “sales are strong and inventories are lower.” The contest requires each entry to have a minimum of 50 cases on hand to sell.

Most entries held steady across the categories, except there was a slight increase in rosé bottlings.

“The majority were rosé of pinot noir,” Fraser said. “More pinot noir producers are adding rosé to their portfolio, so it’s part of that whole pinot noir craze.”

Each bottling entered is vying for a top spot, with the hopes of snagging a sweepstakes win in the categories of red, white or specialty wines.

The pedigree of the Sonoma County grape comes into play in the contest, Fraser said. All entries have a Sonoma County American Viticulture Area designation on their label.

Tickets are still available for the Awards Night Gala on Oct. 1. For more information visit the Sonoma County Harvest Fair’s website here.

There’s no set limit to the number of gold medals that can be awarded, Fraser said, adding that this contest typically produces 10 percent to 13 percent golds. National competitions, in comparison, typically result in 8 percent to 12 percent golds.

“The quality of wines from Sonoma County, as a group, is vastly superior compared to other wine competitions that are national in scope,” Fraser said. “So when we have a wine competition just from this region, we’re going to get a higher percentage of golds compared to national competitions.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5319.