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2020 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition goes on despite cancellations of public events

The 2020 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and its gala were canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the wine competition went ahead Tuesday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

The two-day contest will wrap up Wednesday and organizers will announce the winning wines over the next two weeks. Wines in the contest must be made from grapes grown in Sonoma County and have only a Sonoma County AVA listed on the bottle.

In all, there were 924 entries this year, 100 fewer than in 2019. Organizers said the decline is a result of the pandemic coupled with the wildfires.

Given the challenges facing the wine industry this year, the event may be a “shot in the arm for wineries’ wine sales,” said Robert Fraser, who oversees the competition.

“It’s a major tool for the wine industry,” Fraser said. “Especially this year with an economic downturn in wine sales, a downturn in consumer-direct sales with tasting room closures and limited winery club activities in Sonoma County.”

The top three sweepstakes winners — one wine each in the categories of red, white and specialty wines — will be announced Sept. 27 on Facebook Live and possibly other platforms. Winners in other categories will be announced Sunday on the Harvest Fair website (harvestfair.org) and in The Press Democrat.

At the Showcase Café at the fairgrounds Tuesday, the judges sat distanced from each other, spaced out four to a table. Organizers said they’re following a safety protocol approved by the Sonoma County Health Department that included giving judges health assessments and temperature checks before they entered the fair’s Showcase Café. Judges were asked to wear masks until they sat at their tasting stations. Box lunches replaced past years’ buffets.

As another safety precaution this year, all the judges are from Northern California and Sacramento and traveled by car in lieu of air travel. Last year, judges flew in from all over the country, including from Florida, Maryland and Minnesota.

This is the first year since the Harvest Fair’s inception in 1975 that the fair, including an annual event where the public can taste wines from the contest, and the gala were canceled.

“We know this is disappointing to many consumers, but we’re pleased we still have the support of Sonoma County wineries who are participating in the wine competition,” Fraser said.

The 18 judges sipped through flights of wine Tuesday and negotiated to ultimately reach a consensus.

“These are all fantastic wines,” said Pat Henderson, a consulting winemaker, as he tasted through a flight of five chardonnays to choose a sweepstakes contender. “We already rated them double golds. Now we just have to tease out which one is the best, and that’s when it comes down to style.”

Henderson’s favorite — number 2892 — ultimately was edged out by 3718, which two of his colleagues preferred.

Fellow taster Liz Thach, a wine business professor at Sonoma State University, said, “In this case, it came down to a lighter, more elegant style of chardonnay winning out over a bigger, riper style of wine. I think it’s fine to disagree.”

When negotiations falter, panelists can champion a wine by invoking an extra gold vote, to be used only once a day, to raise a particular wine’s score. The system was designed to maintain harmony on the judging panel, Fraser said, although most judges don't use those special votes.

To counter tasting nearly 1,000 wines over two days, judges will graze through roughly 12 pounds of rare roast beef, 25 loaves of French bread and 14 cans of Graber green olives.

As for the lineup of wines in the competition, Fraser said there was a slight uptick in rosé and red blend entries this year.

“They were up 5-10% (of the total entries) for each and it was strictly market-driven,” he said. “Consumers are buying more rosés and red blends today.”

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

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