North Coast Wine Challenge adds mentorship program

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The 27 judges of the 2017 North Coast Wine Challenge were joined by nine young associate judges Tuesday at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in a new program that allowed the judges to share their knowledge while tasting through the record-breaking 1,107 wines entered in this year’s contest,

Now in its fifth year, the regional wine competition hosted by the Press Democrat continues to evolve under the leadership of Chief Judge Daryl Groom, who launched the mentorship program this year as a way to reach out to a new generation of wine professionals.

“We’re breaking new ground with this format, which is exciting,” Groom said. “I don’t know of any other contest in the U.S. that does this.”

During last year’s contest, Groom tested the waters by placing three associate judges alongside experienced tasters on the judging panels. Since the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, he launched the program in earnest this year as a way to introduce up-and-coming wine professionals to the world of wine competitions.

“When I look back, I see it was my early mentors in life that helped me,” Groom said. “I wanted to be able to help people the same way.”

Groom handpicked the associate judges from a field of about 60 or 70 candidates who, like the other judges in the contest, work in various aspects of the industry, from sales and marketing to hospitality and winemaking. He hopes the program will give the associate judges a new appreciation for wine competitions.

Associate Judge Reed Ackerman, 30, tasting room assistant manager for Trione Vineyards & Winery in Geyserville, hopes the experience will help him understand the process of judging wines.

“I’m taking a lot of it in and just trying to keep up,” said Ackerman, who has taken the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 test. “It’s nice to hear how they go over disputes.”

In addition, Groom expects that participating in a major wine competition will give the associate judges a new appreciation for the process.

“I want the next generation ... to see the credibility and to see that it’s completely blind and unbiased,” he said. “Nobody reads the label or gets any favors out of rewarding a wine highly.”

Associate Judge Megan Bainbridge, 27, works in marketing and sales for Apriori Cellar in St. Helena, is looking forward to meeting a few of her idols.

“Some of the judges are people I’ve been following for years,” she said. “So it will be exciting to meet them and spend a whole day with them ... and interesting to see how the whole process works.”

Although the associate judges are asked to evaluate, give opinions and score the wines, their scores will not factor into the final tally leading up to the awards.

“I’m a strong believer in wine competitions ... I like the results better than an individual reviewer,” Groom said. “When 27 prominent people from all facets of the industry say this is a great wine, that’s way more compelling than an individual reviewer.”

The contest accepts only wines grown in appellations within the premium AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of the North Coast, including Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties, plus parts of Solano County.

Groom hand-picked the 27-member judging panel and arranged them into balanced groups of one winemaker, one wine buyer and one media person or wine sommelier. This allows each panel to look at the wines from different perspectives.

The judges are drawn from the top echelons of the industry, from Master Sommelier Fred Dame and Bottle Barn Wine Director Barry Herbst to Randy Ullom, winemaster for Kendall-Jackson of Santa Rosa.

Being able to rub shoulders with the experienced judges is a unique opportunity for the young associate judges.

“I’m hoping they will get a really great learning exercise,” Groom said. “They get to sit with the likes of Doug Frost, Master Sommelier, and Heidi Barrett from Screaming Eagle.”

Associate Judge Alex Alper, 27, the sales and marketing director for his family’s Square Peg Winery in Sebastopol, said he was looking forward to seeing how the judges dissect the wines and hearing all the subtleties that he may not pick up on.

“I’ve got my opinions on certain wines, but I’m really interested to hear what the pros think,” he said. “I’m looking forward to learning from the best in the field and being able to go through such a wide variety of wines.”

Associate Judge Saman Parsa, 32, who works as an enologist for Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor, tastes a lot of chardonnay in her job since that’s mostly what the winery produces. She is looking forward to being able to fine-tune her palate with a variety of wines.

“I call it a competitive sport,” she said. “It’s training your palate in a marathon ... You learn about the different descriptors of the varietals, and your palate gets refined to those specific varietals.”

At the tender age of 22, Fresno State senior Luke Goldschmidt expected to be the youngest associate judge at the contest. Although he has done competition-style tastings (for flavors), he has never done any judging (tasting and ranking the wine.)

“I’m looking to expand my knowledge ... but I also want to be confident enough to speak for myself as well,” he said. “I’m interested to see how the other judges are clearing their palates.”

Associate Judge Nicole Bacigalupi, 34, works at her family’s Bacigalupi Vineyards in Healdsburg. She divides her time between the tasting room and the vineyard, where she helps her mother sell grapes to about 25 wineries. She has experience tasting fruit from the vineyard, wine from the barrel and bottle, and samples from winery partners.

“I want to stay focused ... and pull from my knowledge,” said Bacigalupi, who is certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. “I’m hoping they (the judges) will see me more as a peer, and I’ll get a little more credibility as an expert.”

On Tuesday, each judging panel was assigned several varietals to evaluate, with each judge tasting through 100-plus wines.

The judges awarded gold medals to the best wines and assigned a point score to each of those award-winning wines.

Today, the judges will give Best of Show awards to the Best Red, Best White, Best Rosé, Best Sparkling and Best Dessert/Late Harvest wines.

A “Best of the Best” wine will be named as the ultimate winner from those five wines. In addition, the best wine from each North Coast county will receive a Best of County award.

On both days, the associate judges will be along for the ride, tasting and evaluating alongside their mentors.

“I’m hoping that one day, ... they will look back on this and say, ‘That was a big turning point in my career, where I got really, really passionate about what I’m doing,’” Groom said.

The Best of the Best, Best of Show, Best of County and gold medal winners will be published in Sonoma Feast and on

On June 10, the public can sample 90 gold-medal wines and enjoy delicious bites from 20 top chefs from the region during the North Coast Wine & Food Festival, a tasting held from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Sonoma Mountain Village Event Center in Rohnert Park. To reserve tickets, go to

The North Coast Wine Challenge was launched in 2013 by Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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