Now in its sixth year, the 2018 North Coast Wine Challenge launched Wednesday morning at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds with nine judging panels tackling flights of pinots, zinfandels and red blends.

Although wine competitions often start with white wines, reflecting the way people drink, chief judge Daryl Groom said he changed it up because red wines benefit from being evaluated earlier in the day.

“While your palate is fresh, it’s easier to judge the more challenging wines, which are the reds,” Groom said. “Then we break for lunch, and we judge the whites.”

This was the first year the blind tasting competition was held at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa rather than at the Hilton Sonoma Wine County hotel, which was destroyed in the October wildfires.

Inside Saralee & Richard’s Barn, the 28 judges sat at round tables faced with numbered wine glasses. The judging panels for the blind tasting were divided into a mix of palates: a winemaker, a sommelier, a wine buyer or member of the media.

The two-day competition drew 1,014 entries from 185 wineries, including 39 wineries new to the contest. Only wines made from grapes grown in the six North Coast counties of Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Marin, Napa and Solano were eligible.

The competition, presented by The Press Democrat, continues to grow and evolve under the leadership of Groom, who launched a mentorship program last year for young associate judges nominated from the wine industry. In 2014, he created an even playing field by doing away with price categories — except for a luxury class for wines retailing over $75.

At the end of the sweepstakes round today, the judges will have chosen hundreds of gold medal winning wines rated 90 points and above. From these, they will select five Best of Show awards for white, rosé, sparkling and dessert/late harvest, as well as the top winner among those.

Last year, the Best of the Best award went to a pink wine: Taft Street 2016 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir.

In this year’s competition, the biggest category was pinot noir, followed by cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and zinfandel.

Categories that grew this year include “other white varieties” (more esoteric varietals such as Arneis), malbec, rosé and cabernet sauvignon. Categories on the decline included chardonnay, zinfandel and traditional red Bordeaux blends/Meritage wines. During the first contest in 2013, a red Bordeaux from the Napa Valley won “Best of the Best.”

The Red Bordeaux blend category may be down because of the explosion of growth in the overall red blend category, Groom said, with winemakers now experimenting with other blending varieties.

“The red blends are so popular that our panel has 38 to taste,” Beck said. “They are very easy for the public to get their arms around.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.