2021 Sonoma County Harvest Wine Competition proceeds despite cancellation of public events

The two-day event kicked off Tuesday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.|

While the Sonoma County Harvest Fair and gala were canceled for a second year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the professional wine competition proceeded Tuesday, with judges scoring a tidal wave of entries — more than 900.

The two-day contest at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds will conclude Wednesday and organizers will announce the winning wines — including winners of the top sweepstakes prize — over the next two weeks. All wines in the contest must be produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County and have only a Sonoma County AVA listed on the bottle.

There is a slight increase in the number of contenders this year — 935 entries, or 14 more than last year. Bob Fraser, judging coordinator, said he’s happy about the uptick in participation. Medals can help wineries overcome the challenges posed by wildfires and the pandemic by raising their profile and increasing sales, he said.

This Friday, Harvest Fair organizers will announce the bulk of the winners — best of class, double gold and gold — on its website, harvestfair.org. The sweepstakes winners won’t be announced until Sept. 26, on social media, with the winners highlighted in a video produced by Sonoma County Winegrowers, one of the sponsors of the competition. Also on that date, all the winners will be listed in The Press Democrat, along with the winners of the professional food competition.

At the fairground’s Showcase Café Tuesday, judges were required to wear masks until they sat at their socially distanced tasting stations, with three to a table. As a safety precaution, again this year, all 18 judges are from Northern California and Sacramento and traveled by car.

“All the judges have been vaccinated, and we have the safety protocols in place that have been approved by the Sonoma County Department of Health,” Fraser said. “I feel we’re safe.”

This marks the second year since the Harvest Fair’s inception in 1975 that the fair itself, the public tasting event and the gala were canceled. Organizers said they made the decision to cancel in early August, due to the surging delta variant.

“I’m confident for 2022 we’re going to get this coronavirus beat down and we’ll be able to open our doors for all the events,” Fraser said.

Judge Ann Littlefield, a consultant for Napa’s International Wine & Spirits Marketing, said of her judging panel, “We’re pretty much in sync. It’s pretty much a matter of degrees.”

Littlefield’s panel tasted 58 zinfandels on Tuesday priced at $50 or more.

“Judging is collaborative,” she said. “I’m always willing to go back and take another look. These are experienced judges. I always listen to my experienced table mates and they listen to you. Sometimes you stay where you are, but you always want to give the wine the benefit of the doubt.”

When a panel fails to reach a consensus, a judge can invoke a special, rarely used privilege — a “silver bullet” — giving him or her an extra gold vote to use just once each day to raise a wine’s score. The system was designed to keep the peace among panelists, Fraser explained.

To counter the effects of alcohol from tasting nearly 1,000 wines over two days, judges can snack on food at their tables. They’re expected to consume 5 pounds of rare roast beef, 30 loaves of bread and 15 cans of Graber green olives during the competition.

As for the lineup of entries, Fraser noticed one surprising fluctuation this year — a 20% decrease in chardonnay entries.

“The drop in chardonnay was a pretty dramatic one,” he said. “The belief is that the fires affected the chardonnay and that forced some producers to have to buy fruit from outside Sonoma County, which wouldn’t allow them to be eligible for this competition.”

Fraser said he expects 12% to 17% of the entered wines to snag a gold medal or place even higher.

Last year’s three top wines — the sweepstakes winners — were Balletto Vineyards’ 2018 Cider Ridge Vineyard Estate, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in the red wine category; Hanna Winery’s 2019 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc in the white category; and J. Rickards Winery’s 2019 Alexander Valley, Ava Rae Rosé of Grenache in the specialty wine category.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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