The 24 judges who swirled and sipped through the Press Democrat’s 2015 North Coast Wine Challenge in mid-April chose a classic white varietal — the Roche 2013 Carneros Chardonnay French Oak Reserve — as its Best of the Best winner this year, marking the first time in the competition’s three-year history that a white wine has triumphed over a red wine.
Roche Estate Winery is a historic, family-run winery in Sonoma that sources almost all of its grapes from the Roche Family's ranch in southern Sonoma Valley off Highway 121. Their grapes are grown in the cool, foggy micro-climate of the Carneros region renowned for producing top-notch chardonnay and pinot noir.
“The wine was delicious,” said Daryl Groom of Healdsburg, chief judge of the contest held at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa. “It was a classic chardonnay … without too much oak or too much on the lean side. It was rich, creamy and beautifully balanced.”
This year, a record-breaking 1,054 qualifying entries were judged from a total of 210 wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, as well as parts of Marin and Solano counties. The North Coast Wine Challenge is only open to wines with at least 75 percent of their grapes sourced from the North Coast.
View a searchable list ofNorth Coast Wine Challenge winners
“There were over a thousand qualified entries, which was up about 20 percent from last year,” Groom said. “We’re definitely seeing more entries in the luxury class of wines over $75 (for chardonnays, pinot noirs and cabernet sauvignons).”
The contest, a blind tasting co-hosted by The Press Democrat and the trade organization Vineyard & Winery Management of Santa Rosa, was launched in 2013 by Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
“When we envisioned a new wine competition three years ago, we had one goal in mind: make it the best of the best,” Falk said. “Our goal … was to identify the very best, and recognize only those wines given gold medals and 90-plus points.”
This year, the total number of gold medal winners rose to 174, up from 160 last year and 121 during the initial year of the contest, when there were fewer entries. While the percentage of gold medal winners this year was 17 percent, it was 19 percent in the pinot noir and the cabernet classes.
“That shows they are wines that are really strong, and we can be proud that we excel at them,” Groom said. “Across the board, there are a lot of rock-star wines.”
In addition to gold medals, the contest also gives Best of Show awards in the categories of red, white, rosé, sparkling and dessert/late harvest wines. This year, there were Best of County awards for Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Marin and Solano counties.
“It’s not about quantity, it’s about bringing the best wines of the North Coast together to be judged by some of the best judges in the industry,” said Robert Merletti, owner and chairman of Vineyard & Winery Management. “I think the quality of these wines is by far the highest in the country.”
Competition was most fierce this year in the four most crowded categories: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel.