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The judges synchronized their palates Wednesday as they launched into a daunting marathon — a blind tasting of 1,090 wines in three days for this year's Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition.

In an early round of sipping, judges began their ritual of raucous debate at the Showcase Cafe in the Sonoma County fairgrounds. Panelist Charles Mara said the sauvignon blanc in question was "like walking into a cedar closet." Mara was referring to the wine's American oak intensity. "There's just too much lumber in that wine."

Judge Dan Berger disagreed. "I think the winemaker did a good job of keeping the varietal prominent," he said.

Mara looked at Burger and joked, "I'm going out to get my boxing gloves from the car."

In the end Berger, who wanted to give the wine a silver medal, couldn't convince his colleagues to boost the wine above a bronze.

The Harvest Fair Wine Competition is a popular fall rite of passage, a Sonoma County coming out party of sorts for all things grape. Entries in the contest have one common denominator; they're produced from Sonoma County grapes.

The public gets a chance to join the ritual by visiting Harvest Fair, Oct. 1 to 3, to weigh in on the winners.

Another part of the tradition is the Awards Night Gala — the prelude to the fair — this Saturday night at the fairground's Grace Pavilion. The event has been called "The Academy Awards of Sonoma County," with the name of each winning wine pulled from an envelope.

For now the wines continue to be wannabe's and the judges will continue to sip, spit and spar, as well as twitter about their moment-to-moment negotiations. Judge Debra Meiburg twittered: "Quite a discussion on the sauvignon blanc flight. It must be due to my New Zealand cellar palate."

The competition will continue through Friday and may wrap up earlier this year because there are 124 fewer entries to sample this year.

Organizers said the decline reflects the economic downturn as well as renewed focus on the requirement that the wines be available to the public.

"The Adler Fels experience last year was a wake-up call," said Bob Fraser, the top organizer of the contest.

Fraser was referring to last year's disqualification of Adler Fels' pinot noir, a first in the fair's 35-year 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 meet the requirement that at least 40 cases be available to the public.

"This year wineries are being careful about their inventory accounts upon entering the competition," Fraser said. "It's difficult because the inventories are always changing."

To protect against a disqualification, organizers will inform each winery that has a wine nominated for the sweepstakes round, asking it to confirm it has this year's 50-case requirement available to pour at the fair.

In addition to a sweepstakes red and a sweepstakes white, there will be a sweepstakes specialty wine this year.

"The sweepstakes is really the Oscar of the competition," Fraser said. "We wanted the opportunity to showcase another wine group that may be overshadowed by the more popular red and white varietals.

The specialty 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," Fraser said. "It's not unreasonable to afford an opportunity to add one more additional category to capture wine that's usually overlooked."

Broadening the sweepstakes category is a trend among competitions, Fraser said. "The San Francisco Chronicle Competition, for instance, gives five."

In last year's Harvest Fair Wine Competition more medals were handed than in the <NO1><NO>36-history of the fair — a total of 914. That was about two-thirds of the entries.

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