Sonoma County Harvest Fair competition features 1,000-plus wines and 18 judges

Eighteen judges practiced the art of palate diplomacy as they sipped through a pool of more than 1,000 wines at Tuesday's 2019 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition.

The two-day contest, which began on Tuesday, asks judges to reach a consensus and ultimately determine sweepstakes winners. Every entry is vying for a top spot with the hopes of snagging top honors in the categories of red, white and specialty wines.

“At the end of the day, we're all professionals and we can agree to disagree,” said Sean Brosnihan, wine and beverage manager at Santa Rosa's John Ash & Co. “Wine is very subjective, and our job as judges is to take the subjectivity out of it and put a single voice to a three-person panel.”

The sweepstakes winners will be announced Sept. 29 at the Awards Night Gala at Santa Rosa's Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Tickets are $150 per person and the crowd will include participating wineries, their industry partners and the public.

Winners in other categories will be announced Sunday on the Harvest Fair website ( and in The Press Democrat. These awards include the best of class, double gold and gold. Members of the public will be able to taste the top winners at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, which begins Oct. 4.

Bob Fraser, the contest's chief coordinator, said the goal is to have top experts in several fields cross- examine the wines, pinpointing the best. The three-judge panels include a winemaker or a wine expert with a chemistry background, a journalist in the wine media and a wine retailer/marketer.

Sipping through a flight of wine in Saralee and Richard's Barn Tuesday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, some judges shared insight into their process.

“If I really love something, I'm going to take more notes and become a lawyer arguing my case and explain why I'm in love with this wine,” said Chris Sawyer, sommelier at Sebastopol's Gravenstein Grill.

Fellow panelist Sahar Gharai, owner and wine buyer of Petaluma's La Dolce Vita Wine Lounge, said, “If I think a wine is well balanced and varietally correct, then I'll push for it … I try to think about my customers. What is it about this wine that my customers would like?”

When negotiations stall, panelists can deploy their so-called “silver bullet” to champion a wine. That means invoking an extra gold vote, to be used 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 offset the tasting of 1,024 wines over two days, judges will graze through over 15 pounds of rare roast beef, 36 loaves of French bread and 36 cans of Graber green olives. This year judges came from all over the country, including Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and California.

The number of entries is roughly the same as last year in various categories, with the most noticeable uptick in dry rosé.

“It's not only here at the Harvest Fair, but we've seen an increase in rosé in many of the wine competitions in the last two or three years,” Fraser said. “It's a reflection of the reemergence of dry rosé among wine consumers. I think winemakers should be commended for making dry, flavorful, crisp and just delightful rosés.”

The contest typically mints more winners than you see in national competitions, Fraser said, because of the pedigree of the Sonoma County grape.

All entries are produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County, and this often translates to 10% to 13% golds. National contests, in comparison, typically result in 8% to 12% golds.

For decades the Harvest Fair has been a separate entity in the fall, following the Sonoma County Fair in late summer. However, next year organizers plan to merge the two, with the Harvest Fair as a subset of the county fair.

“The idea is to expose the Harvest Fair to more people,” said Sheila Quince, professional wine judging coordinator. “Rather than bring people to the Harvest Fair, we want to bring the Harvest Fair to the people.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at or 707-521-5310.

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