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First mother-daughter duo set to judge 2021 North Coast Wine Challenge April 6 and 7

Health protocols

Organizers of the North Coast Wine Challenge are relying on the protocols that were developed with the Sonoma County Health Department.

“We’re more experienced with the protocols, having had to do it last year,” said Daryl Groom, chief wine judge, who organizes the competition. “And a large majority of the judges in the agriculture field will have had at least their first vaccination, so that makes it a little less risky.”

Before settling into their tasting stations, the judges will wash their hands and wear masks. They’ll be spaced 6 feet apart and served boxed lunches at their tasting stations. There won’t be communal dining again this year, as was the norm in past years.

Curbing their geographic reach, organizers again eliminated any judges who needed to travel from another state. They also decided to forgo an additional nine associate judges, panelists in training. Finally, the judges’ dinner, an upscale gathering typically held at a winery, will be skipped again this year.

Backroom staffers also will be required to have a temperature check before entering the building, wash their hands, wear masks and keep a social distance of 6 feet.

The North Coast Wine Challenge, hosted by the Press Democrat, is set for April 6 and 7, with Heidi and Chelsea Barrett breaking new ground as the first mother-daughter duo to serve as judges in the competition.

“I’m proud to have a daughter who became a professional winemaker and is now also a professional wine judge,” said Heidi, 63. She described 32-year-old Chelsea as “tenacious,” adding “we’re similar that way.”

The competition, now in its ninth year, rates wines exclusively produced and bottled in the North Coast American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). That includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin and Lake counties and parts of Solano County.

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, the contest at the Sonoma County Fairground’s Showcase Café will follow the same safety protocols as last year, including temperature checks for the 27 judges upon entering the building.

The judges will rate roughly 1,200 wines, an uptick from last year’s 1,064. This year there’s a 12% increase in wineries entering the contest for the first time.

“Due to the pandemic, wineries are looking for more ways to tout the quality of their wines direct to consumers,” said Daryl Groom, chief wine judge, who organizes the competition. And winning a medal can increase their visibility. “High scores, Best of Class and gold medals from experienced and influential third-party wine professionals certainly helps and means something.”

Regarded as a Wine Country icon, Heidi is well-known for producing the 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle, a cabernet sauvignon that sold for $500,000 at Auction Napa Valley in 2000. It continues to hold the record for the highest price paid for a single bottle.

“With blind tastings, there’s no bias,” Heidi said. “Judges give a true assessment of the wines entered that particular day.”

Chelsea agreed, adding “It’s a great way to promote brands doing good work.”

Following the sweepstakes round on April 7, the top eight wines — the Best of the Best winners — will be announced in a Facebook Live event. To join in the excitement of the unveiling, tune into youtu.be/G04VSECr4QM.

The top winners — Best of the Best, Best of Show and Best of County — will be posted on the pressdemocrat.com site April 7, as well as published in the news section of the Press Democrat April 8. All of the gold medal winners will be printed in the Sonoma Feast section of the Press Democrat on April 14.

The gold medal wines typically are showcased at the North Coast Wine & Food Festival, a public event with tastings and food pairings, but due to the pandemic the 2020 and the 2021 events were canceled. The public gathering is expected to resume in the summer of 2022.

As for this year’s tasting, Groom said the contest will follow the same system as it has in past years. Nine panels will have three tasters each, each with a different background, so they can evaluate a wine with different criteria. For example, a typical panel would have a winemaker, a retailer and a wine educator. Even with judges 6 feet apart, they’re expected to voice their opinion and even debate on occasion.

Groom said he embraces debate because it has proven its merits over the years. He said he wants experts to vet a wine from every angle so every style has a shot at a gold medal.

Sizing up a wine is something Heidi and Chelsea do on a regular basis.

“Both are very talented winemakers and each deserves to be a judge in the competition in their own right,” Groom said. “The benefit of judges in their 60s is experience. It’s that 20 to 40 years of knowledge and tasting experience they bring. As for judges in their 30s, I often feel they’re open to newer styles and not set in what particular wines and varieties should taste like.”

A veteran winemaker, Heidi practically grew up in the vines. Her father, Richard Peterson, continues to be a revered Napa Valley winemaker producing his eponymous label. Today Heidi is the winemaker for La Sirena, her own brand, and co-winemaker for Barrett & Barrett, which she collaborates on with husband Bo Barrett, master winemaker and CEO of Calistoga's Chateau Montelena. She’s also the winemaker for Napa Valley labels Lamborn Family, Kenzo Estate, Paradigm and Fantesca.

A licensed helicopter pilot, Heidi occasionally tools through Wine Country during harvest to check the grapes from Amador to El Dorado County.

As for Chelsea’s credits, she’s the winemaker at Napa Valley’s Materra Cunat Family Vineyards and she’s also the co-winemaker with her mother at Amuse-bouche and Au Sommet. Finally, the duo collaborates on Aviatrix, a boutique label they own along with Chelsea’s sister, Remi Barrett, who handles the sales and marketing.

The winemakers resemble each other, yet what they most mirror in each other is their excitement in the collaborative art of winemaking.

Calling her mom “decisive,” Chelsea added, “she’s great at going with her instincts. … I always like working on blends together. When I can, I bring my 3-year-old (Violet) with me to the lab and she’ll spin on the bar stool or play with a calculator while we work.”

What’s great about working side by side on blends, Heidi said, is “our mutual respect. We each have good input.”

As colleagues, Heidi and Chelsea often have to pass the baton to one another.

“It’s great to be able to trust each other so much when dividing tasks during busy times, like harvest and bottling,” Chelsea said. “We both love the efficiency of having each other as support when it’s hard to be in two places at once.”

Groom said it’s exciting to have this dynamic pair among the judges.

“I think for all winemakers, having your kids get involved in the industry that we all love is very rewarding,” he said. “Sitting all day in a professional judging with your peers is the next step up.”

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

Health protocols

Organizers of the North Coast Wine Challenge are relying on the protocols that were developed with the Sonoma County Health Department.

“We’re more experienced with the protocols, having had to do it last year,” said Daryl Groom, chief wine judge, who organizes the competition. “And a large majority of the judges in the agriculture field will have had at least their first vaccination, so that makes it a little less risky.”

Before settling into their tasting stations, the judges will wash their hands and wear masks. They’ll be spaced 6 feet apart and served boxed lunches at their tasting stations. There won’t be communal dining again this year, as was the norm in past years.

Curbing their geographic reach, organizers again eliminated any judges who needed to travel from another state. They also decided to forgo an additional nine associate judges, panelists in training. Finally, the judges’ dinner, an upscale gathering typically held at a winery, will be skipped again this year.

Backroom staffers also will be required to have a temperature check before entering the building, wash their hands, wear masks and keep a social distance of 6 feet.

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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