Winners of the 2017 North Coast Wine Challenge announced
At the 2017 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge held last week in Santa Rosa, 27 judges sipped their way through a record-breaking 1,107 wines - weighing vibrancy and concentration, spice and herbal characteristics - while swirling and sipping everything from refreshing sparklers to deep, dark cabs and petite sirahs.
For the first time in the competition's five-year history, the top quaffer turned out to be a well-sourced, well-made pink wine: the Taft Street 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir, which took home the Best of Show Rosé, Best of Sonoma County and the ultimate prize, the Best of the Best award.
Is rosé finally coming into its own? Is it no longer regarded as a sweet “gateway” wine but as a year-round staple with nuance and acidity that can pair with everything from Thanksgiving turkey to Easter ham?
Chief Judge Daryl Groom certainly thinks so, as do many other winemakers who are taking the once-humble pinks more seriously and making them in a dedicated manner rather than as an afterthought to a red wine.
In another coup for rosé, the rosé category in this year's competition saw the largest increase in entries of any other category.
“I think that parallels the modern-day popularity of this wine style, and that is awesome,” Groom said. “The quality has risen recently with fresh fruit character and crisp acidity ... All the judges loved the clean, fresh, vibrant varietal fruit of this wine.”
The Taft Street rosé was made from pinot noir grown in the renowned Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) - specifically, the Bella Sonoma Vineyard owned by “Pasta King” Arturo Ibleto, which is located in the cool, southern reaches of that AVA's fog belt.
The family-owned Taft Street Winery is a Sonoma County story writ large, with deep roots in the region and a philosophy that marries quality grape sourcing with moderate production levels and reasonable prices for the consumer.
The winery was started in a garage in the Rockridge area of Oakland in 1979, then moved to an old apple processing plant in Forestville in 1982, where the winery started sourcing grapes from local legends such as the Duttons, Bob Hopkins and the late Saralee Kunde. In 1991, the winery moved to the old Silveira O'Connell apple plant in Sebastopol and opened its first tasting room.
“I'm personally excited that rosés are returning to the scene,” said Mike Martini, general manager of Taft Street. “They're good; that's the bottom line ... they have incredible flavors.”
Sonoma County success story
The crisp rosé was made by Taft Street winemaker Evelyn White, also a Sonoma County success story who has spent her career learning from many of Sonoma County's best. She worked herself up from a temporary harvest worker at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood to enologist at Lyeth Winery and winemaker at Clos du Bois, both of Geyserville. She was hired by Taft Street in 2007.
“Her strong point is the ability to deal with what nature gives you,” Martini said. “It's not only the grapes as they come in, but the timing ... She recognizes the grapes for what they can do, and she knows how to manage them.”
For this particular vintage, White went into the vineyard and tasted the grapes, then picked them a little early, when the strawberry and watermelon flavors of the grapes were at their peak.
“I call it the Jolly Rancher watermelon,” she said. “This wine has an off-dry finish and only about .1 percent sugar, so it's barely detectable. The procession of sweetness is coming from the fruit, not the sugar.”
The climate in the vineyard, located near the corner of Stony Point and Highway 116, is ideal for the pinot noir grape, which reaches its potential in cooler climates.
“There are really cool, foggy mornings and very pleasant, temperate days,” she said. “These grapes get a nice, gentle growth period, and I think that helps to keep the acid level and those fruit flavors.”
Although the winery has been making the rosé for the past 10 years, the pink wine has always been a labor of love for Taft Street, which produced 224 cases in 2016.
“We're not taking a lot of money to the bank, but we all love it so much,” White said. “We know our wine club and our customers love it too.”
The judges also enjoyed the wine's refreshing character, describing it as “really pretty ... like a spring day,” boasting the flavors of “ripe strawberry.”
All of the top winners in this year's competition scored 98 out of 100 points. During the final day of judging, the judges tasted through the more than two dozen of the top scoring wines and voted to determine the Best of County, Best of Show varietals and Best of the Best awards.