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North Coast Wine Challenge Winners

Best of the Best
Taft Street 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir

Best of Show Rosé
Taft Street 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir

Best of Sonoma County
Taft Street 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir

Best of Show Red
Folie à Deux Sonoma 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Best of Show White
Anaba 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Best of Show Sparkling
J Brut Rosé

Best Dessert/Late Harvest Wine
Navarro Vineyards 2016 Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Cluster Select Late Harvest Muscat Blanc

Best of Lake County
Brassfield Estate Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

Best of Marin County
DeLoach Vineyards 2014 Marin County Pinot Noir

Best of Napa County
B Side, 2014 Red Blend, Napa Valley


Tasting Room blog: Behind the scenes at the North Coast Wine Challenge

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.

The Folie à Deux Sonoma 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir won Best of Show Red. Made by a family winery with deep roots in the region — Trinchero Family Estates of Napa Valley — the wine impressed the judges as a “wonderful example of pinot noir.” Gently pressed and fermented then aged in French oak barrels, the wine was described by judges as “a shake of spice on top of vibrant cherry fruit.”

Best of Show White went to the Anaba 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, which the judges rewarded for being a “fantastic chardonnay that shines.” The Sonoma winery sourced the grapes from distinct areas within the Sonoma Coast AVA, from the wind-swept southern end to the foggier regions in the north. “Everything is in balance and just delicious to drink,” the judges said.

The J Brut Rosé, a non-vintage pink sparkler made by J Vineyards & Winery of Healdsburg, won the Best of Show Sparkling award. Crafted from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from Sonoma County, the wine has a strawberry fruit aroma and finishes with a crisp acidity. The judges praised it for being “seamless from start to finish.”

The Navarro Vineyards 2016 Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Cluster Select Late Harvest Muscat Blanc won Best Dessert/Late Harvest Wine as well as Best of Mendocino County. The late harvest wine was described by the judges as simply “Perfect! Pure liquid diamonds.”

Best of Lake County went to the Brassfield Estate Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was estate grown by the Clearlake Oaks winery in the Volcano Ridge Vineyard, more than 2,000 feet above sea level, in the pure, volcanic soils of Round Mountain Volcano. The judges described it as a “meaty, food wine ... savory, rich and complex.”

Sexy and approachable

Best of Marin County went to the DeLoach Vineyards 2014 Marin County Pinot Noir. The winery, which is part of the Boisset Collection of wineries, sourced the grapes from two mature vineyards bordering the Petaluma Gap. The judges praised the wine as “sexy and approachable.”

Best of Napa County was awarded to B Side 2014 Napa Valley Red Wine Blend, a Bordeaux-based blend made from mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot by Don Sebastiani & Sons of Sonoma. The judges described the wine as having “sultry, seductive, sexy tannins” and “big, juicy, dark fruit. Stunning with food,” they added. “A big steak wine.”

Overall, entries in the competition were up 10 percent, Groom said, and there were 40 new wineries entering this year. While the rosé category saw the biggest increase, followed by pinot, there was an decrease in both the chardonnay and zinfandel entries.

“The rosés and pinots were no surprise, and the chardonnay drop-off didn’t surprise me, because white wine drinkers are turning to other varietals,” Groom said. “But the fact that zinfandel was down — that surprised me.”

This year, the judges awarded a total of 225 gold medals, with 20.5 percent of the wines winning golds. Last year, the challenge’s judges awarded 184 medals, with 18.5 percent winning gold. “That reflects the quality of the wines and the appellations,” Groom said.

Luxury class added

Under Groom’s leadership, the contest continues to evolve from its launch five years ago. Groom added a luxury class for wines retailing for over $75 in 2014. This year, he invited young, associate judges to serve on each of the nine panels. Although their votes did not count, the young judges were mentored by the other judges in the fine points of professional wine competitions.

“This is great,” said associate judge Alex Alper during the judging last week. “I’m learning how to really focus on single attributes and zoom in on the flavor. It’s just going with your gut feeling.”

This year, the competition dropped price categories for most of the wines, so that the judges didn’t have to struggle with whether to go easy on a $20 pinot or expect more from a $60 pinot.

“It’s an even playing field now,” Groom said. “And that’s the way it should be.”

Randy Ullom, winemaster for Kendall-Jackson, was in favor of the new format, since the price categories often create conflict for the judges.

“If you know that the price category is high, you expect more oak, more everything,” he said. “This creates an even playing field.”

The competition did keep the luxury category for wines priced above $75, however. That category usually includes the high-end Bordeaux blends, cabs, pinots and chardonnays.

“I want to keep that because I really want to attract some of those wines,” Groom said, “And I want the judges to know these are luxury wines.”

On June 10, the public can sip samples of 90 gold-medal wines and enjoy 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 northcoastwineandfood.com.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-481-5027 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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