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Past winners of the North Coast Wine Challenge look back on being the 'Best of the Best'

In response to steps county officials are taking to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, the North Coast Wine Challenge has been postponed. However, organizers are still accepting entries at pdncwc.com.

Past contests have drawn more than 1,000 entries from across the North Bay - Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin, Lake and Solano counties. And winemakers whose bottles have risen to the top to claim the Best of the Best title have seen their wins echo in unexpected ways.

The contest is now in its eighth year. Organizers hope judging will take place in May. The gold medal-winners will be invited to pour at the North Coast Wine & Food Festival. Hosted by the Press Democrat, the event is planned to be held at a new venue this year –– Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

Only once, in 2018, has an entry scored a perfect 100 out of 100 points in the Wine Challenge - the Kokomo 2016 Gopher Hills Block, Peters Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

“The win put us in a different category,” said Kokomo Winery co-owner and winemaker Erik Miller. A far-reaching media response followed, all the way back to Miller’s hometown in Indiana. At the winery, the winning wine sold out in three days.

Last year, after St. Francis Winery’s 2016 Tres Viejos, Sonoma County, Old Vines Zinfandel was declared the Best of the Best with 99 points, the winery also saw demand jump and supply eventually run out.

For the 2017 winner, Taft Street, which scored 98 points with its 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir, the win brought more visitors to their tasting room. It also was a reward in itself.

“We were very proud of the wine and felt it was quite good,” said Mike Martini, general manager.

“But there are a lot of good and great wines made in Sonoma County. It was rewarding that the judges agreed with us.”

Kokomo Winery

The boutique winery continues to hold a record with the North Coast Wine Challenge, scoring the highest points possible in this contest: 100 out of 100.

“The perfect score was the most surprising part and then the incredible press reaction,” Miller said. “It was very cool that it was our pinot noir because of how many entries were submitted.”

The wine came out on top of 33 other gold-medal-winning pinot noirs, culled from the contest’s largest category of entries.

“The impact of this win has been the single biggest piece of press we have ever received,” Miller said. “It really moved the needle. We ran out of the pinot within three days.”

The Healdsburg winery, co-owned by Miller and grower Randy Peters, produced 660 cases of the Best of the Best pinot in 2017 and 1,000 cases in 2018.

“What this means in terms of finances is that we sell out of our pinot noir each and every vintage,” Miller said. “And we wish that Randy Peters of ‘Peters Vineyard’ had a bigger vineyard.”

The prestige of the award, Miller said, is far-reaching.

“The win absolutely went beyond Sonoma County,” he said. “It was picked up by the Associated Press, as well as other publications around the U.S. It was printed in my hometown newspaper, the Kokomo Tribune.”

Now Miller sees the winery’s history in terms of “before” and “after.”

“We always talk about the winery in terms of ‘before the 100 points’ and ‘after the 100 points,’” he said. “The most significant part of the blind tasting is that it allows all brands - whether old, new, big or small - to compete on an open playing field with the best of Sonoma County and the North Coast.”

St. Francis Winery

After six years of other varietals winning the top prize, old vine zinfandel made its debut as the Best of the Best last year.

“What was most surprising to us is that a zinfandel won,” said Ryan Budlong, St. Francis’ marketing and social media manager. “This is truly recognition that zinfandel excels in soils, climate and in the winemaking talent of the California North Coast region.”

Budlong said the 99-point score catapulted demand for the winning zinfandel, making it the top-selling bottling from the winery’s exclusive Artisan Collection produced for the wine club and tasting room. Roughly 60% of the 1,070 cases produced at the Santa Rosa winery were depleted within a month of the announcement, he said.

“It’s hard to quantify a dollar amount that was directly influenced by the award because we didn’t increase the price of the Tres Viejos following the score,” Budlong said.

“Plus, the wine had already been produced and the quantity was finite. But there’s no doubt that this award was good for business.”

There was an influx of new customers visiting the tasting room and website, searching for the winning Tres Viejos, Budlong said. The award also heightened interest for all of St. Francis’ zinfandels, including the Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County, found in retail shops and restaurants nationwide.

On a sentimental note, the wine is a tribute to the grace of old vine zinfandel, Budlong said. All the grapes in the 2016 Tres Viejos were from vines 80 years or older, and winemaker Katie Madigan has been teasing out the best of these vines for nearly two decades.

“For a long time, old vine zinfandel wasn’t seen as a serious wine,” Madigan said.

“I hope that this recognition - beating out traditionally favored varietals - helps to further boost old vine zinfandel’s image as a fine wine.”

Taft Street

The Sebastopol winery has been the only one to win the top prize with a rosé.

The winery bottled 380 cases of the rosé, exclusively produced for the wine club and the tasting room.

“The win didn’t have a direct impact on our finances because we didn’t raise the price based on the award,” General Manager Martini said of his family-run winery.

“But indirectly it had an impact on our finances because it attracted direct consumers to our tasting room and our wine club, giving people an opportunity to sample our other wines.”

The winery’s first digs were in a backyard Berkeley garage before it settled into an old apple processing plant in Sebastopol. The family members behind this venture call their current locale a “chateau alternative.”

“Blind tastings are the great equalizer of wine appreciation,” Martini said. “Opinions are driven solely by aroma and taste and not by label, expectation or price.”

The vintner said he continues to feel the win’s prestige because it identified Taft Street as a producer with cachet.

“Praise is always nice, certainly nicer than complaints,” joked the ex-mayor of Santa Rosa and former city councilman.

“But when that praise comes from a distinguished and recognized panel of experts, it’s gratifying and a confirmation of what we’ve been doing for 40 years.”

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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