North Coast Wine Challenge set for April 4-5

The Press Democrat will host its 11th annual North Coast Wine Challenge on April 4 and 5 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.|

The Press Democrat will host its 11th annual North Coast Wine Challenge on April 4 and 5 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, with more than two dozen judges, including sommeliers, wine writers and other industry experts, evaluating roughly 1,000 wines made in the North Bay.

The winning wines, including the best white, red, rosé, dessert and sparkling wines and the overall winner, will be announced at approximately 10:30 a.m. on April 5 on The Press Democrat’s Facebook page (

In addition to the winners in each broad category, the competition awards dozens of wines gold and double gold medals. That’s due to the high caliber of entrants, said chief wine judge Daryl Groom, who organizes the North Coast Wine Challenge.

“Last year, the contest had 30% gold medal winners, and 95% of the wines got an award,” Groom said. “It’s not because we’re generous. It’s because the wines are that damn good, and we only allow wines from the premium North Coast wine-growing regions.”

The contest is open only to wines produced and bottled in the North Coast American Viticulture Area (AVA), which includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin and Lake counties and parts of Solano County. Entries for this year’s competition will be accepted until Saturday.

Right after the announcement on Facebook, the top winners will be posted on and published in the newspaper April 6. The top awards, as well as all the gold- and double-gold-winning wines, will be posted on and published in the newspaper’s Feast & Wine section April 12.

Then, on June 17, the top-rated bottlings will be poured at the North Coast Wine & Food Festival at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. Tickets can be purchased at Tickets are $95 for general admission, $50 for designated drivers and $160 for VIP admission.

Groom said the festival is popular because all the wines showcased have been vetted by an esteemed group of judges who spend hours discussing (and sometimes arguing) over the merits and flaws of the entries.

At the end of the competition, Groom said, many medal-winning wines will find their way to store shelves.

How judges assess the wines

A handful of the 30 judges for this year’s competition are new to the contest this year: Kris Anderson, wine buyer at Santa Rosa’s Wilibees Wine & Spirits; Bekah Schloss, sommelier at Healdsburg’s Matheson restaurant; Paul Coker, sommelier and wine buyer at the Montage Healdsburg resort; and Kimberly Charles, owner of San Francisco’s Charles Communication Associates.

“I’m excited about our new judges, who are not only respected tasters, but they’re influential buyers for premium restaurants and retail,” Groom said.

The new judges gave The Press Democrat an insight into their approach by talking about the wine that first won them over.

Anderson of Wilibees Wine & Spirits, said the first wine that captivated him was the Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard, 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.

“That particular wine changed me forever,” said Anderson, who tasted it in 1984 when he lived in Ft. Myers, Florida. “I can’t tell you exactly what the flavor profile was because it was a very long time ago. But I do remember that the wine had loads of bright, dark fruits and a sublime balance of tannins. ... It was this wine that had me going to the store often to try everything I could coming out of California at the time.”

When evaluating wine, Anderson said, he gives high marks to balanced wines and entries that adhere to the characteristics expected for their varietal.

“But I also look for small things that may put a wine on the edge of what is conformity,” Anderson said, “as long as they lead to enhanced flavor without going too far outside the box.”

Anderson said he tastes 30 to 50 wines a week.

“At a competition, when tasting through 30 to 40 wines of same variety and price point, it’s very interesting to get a sense of trends,” he said.

Schloss, sommelier at The Matheson, said she was hooked on wine after tasting a Rafanelli Zinfandel. She was a server at the now-defunct La Vera Pizza in Santa Rosa when she tasted it in 2013.

“I was 22 and new to wine,” she said. “I didn’t have the accurate words to describe my feelings other than ‘yum.’”

Two years later, Schloss said, she fell in love with the Hartford Court, 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Haily’s Block when she was working at the Forestville winery.

“I didn’t realize that you could have such a balance of gentle intensity,” she said. “I’m a sucker for bright red fruits and very subtle lingering textures. The pinot is still one of my favorites.”

Balance is important in judging wines, she said. She tends to be critical of highly extracted wines (extracted refers to drawing out the flavor, tannins and color from grape skins during and after the fermentation process).

“Complexity is intriguing and makes me want to take sip after sip to see what happens next,” Schloss said. “But let’s be real. What matters most is, would I sit down with a glass of this or not?”

Coker, of Montage Healdsburg, said the first wine that deeply impressed him was a Bordeaux, the 1995 Chateau Pichon-Longueville au Baron. He tasted it while working at the wine bar Amazing Grapes in Rancho Santa Margarita in 2005.

“This was not a wine for hedonistic pleasure,” Coker said. “It was a wine that took time to think about and process. I fell in love with the mental exercise.”

As a wine judge, Coker said, varietal correctness is fundamental — except when it’s not.

“Sometimes the point is varietal correctness, and then you’re trying to be an ace,” he said. “Sometimes the play is to go rogue and show what can be achieved or a flavor to be exhibited. ... A risk-and-reward play might intrigue the more adventurous consumer.”

Learning, the sommelier said, is the most exciting part of evaluating wine.

“There are thousands of little nuances involved in every sip, and I love to delve into that,” Coker said. “When I taste a wine that’s balanced, I think about what the viticulturist and the winemaker did to get it there.”

Charles, of Charles Communication Associates, said she remembers a Chateau Giscours, a classified Bordeaux from Margaux, that made a big impression on her.

Charles said tasted the Bordeaux at sunset with a friend — also a wine lover — when she was in Scotland working a summer job during college.

“The aromas and taste of the wine were the most complex and thought-provoking I’d ever experienced,” Charles said. “What I love most about that moment, and all the moments since, is how wine makes one very present and appreciative.”

When evaluating wine, Charles said, varietal correctness — when a bottling adheres to the characteristics expected for its variety — is most important. She has been a wine judge at other competitions for more than two decades.

“We have a culture that likes to know what we’re paying for,” Charles said. “Yes, there are regional expressions like a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand versus a Loire Valley sauvignon blanc. But a wine should express what it’s labeled.”

What’s exciting about evaluating wines, she said, is how high the bar is for wines across the board today.

“I also like learning about new varieties, keeping my mind open to different flavors and regions,” Charles said. “I think the job of a judge is to be inclusive and objective. Personal bias is different from personal expertise.”

Alex Sarovich, executive wine director at Healdsburg’s Little Saint, is relatively new to the North Coast Wine Challenge, having judged it once before. She said the wine that won her over was an off-dry Lambrusco (a sparkling red wine from Italy) she tried in 2013 at the now shuttered Colicchio & Sons restaurant.

“The sweet yet crisp characteristic in the wine, with the lifted effervescence and red berry notes, really balanced out the richness of the dish,” Sarovich said. “Once I realized that food could make wine taste better and that wine could make food taste better, I found my calling.”

Balance and finish are key to evaluating a wine, she said.

“These are two things that I pay close attention to when designating a good wine from a great one,” she said.

You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.