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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.

“There were well over 100 entries of each of those,” Groom said. “Pinot noir was our biggest varietal, with close to 200 pinots entered. A lot of new wineries are doing it.”

Three wins

The Roche 2013 Carneros Chardonnay also won Best of Show White and Best of Sonoma County. The chardonnay earned the highest number of points of any wine during the first day of judging, scoring 99 out of 100 points. The entire panel of judges concurred when they tasted it the second day, during the sweepstakes round composed of 28 wines from which the “Best” winners are chosen.

“From a chief judge perspective, that was very satisfying,” Groom said. “The wine that got the highest points is the wine that shines through when all the judges taste the wine. It reinforces that my judging panels do a great job.”

The coveted Best of Show Red went to the Imagery Estate Winery 2012 Sonoma Valley Barbera, a red wine varietal that is widely planted in Italy but not frequently grown in the U.S. The fact that a little known variety won reflected that it was a “delicious example of that particular variety,” Groom said of the wine that scored 98 points.

“With the climate that we have, we can champion some of these other varieties,” he added. “There’s a diversity of climate and topography here, and a lot of other regions in the world don’t have that.”

The rosés were judged in two categories: varietal and blends. A specialized panel of judges tasted through the small group of rosés and unanimously chose the Balletto 2014 Russian River Rosé of Pinot Noir as the Best of Show Rosé. That wine earned 95 points.

“That’s my wife’s favorite summer wine,” said wine judge Teejay Lowe, CEO of G & G Market in Santa Rosa. “It has a beautiful color, a nice, aromatic nose, the fruit is big and the acid is nice.”

The Best of Show Sparkling went to Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2011 Carneros Brut Rosé Sparkling, which earned 97 points and kudos from the judges for its nutty flavor, small bubbles and complex elegance.

Finally, the Sonoma-Cutrer 2013 Russian River Valley Late Harvest Chardonnay won Best of Show Dessert/Late Harvest wine. The wine balances a sweet richness with crisp acidity, mingling stone fruit flavors with hints of honey and brown sugar. It earned 94 points.

Handley victory

In the Best of County awards, the Handley Cellars 2012 Mendocino County Pinot Noir was the winner of the Best of Mendocino County. Handley is a small, family-run winery in Philo, located at the cooler, “deep end” of the Anderson Valley.

The Best of Marin County went to another pinot noir, the DeLoach Vineyards 2012 Marin County Pinot Noir. DeLoach is part of Boisset Family Estates, which owns a collection of wineries in California and France.

The Best of Napa County went to a cabernet sauvignon in the luxury class (over $75) that scored 98 points: Amizetta 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was described by judges as “the wine with the wow factor.” The family-run Amizetta Estate Winery in St. Helena makes mostly cabernet sauvignon, merlot and red blends.

Best of Lake County went to Steele Wines 2013 Lake County Viognier, described by the judges as “crisp” with notes of honeysuckle and peach. Though it did not officially qualify for the sweepstakes round, it “was a really high gold-medal wine,” said Groom. It earned 94 points.

The Best of Solano County winner was GrapeHeart Vineyards 2012 “The Thrill” Suisun Valley Red Blend, which earned 96 points. That was a repeat win for GrapeHeart, which brought home the same award in 2013.

New judges

This year, the competition attracted a few new faces on the judging panel, which blended winemakers, wine buyers, wine media and sommeliers. New this year was Canadian-born chef Bob Blumer, the TV host of “Surreal Gourmet” and “Glutton for Punishment.”

Others judges included wine buyers from the San Francisco Ferry Plaza, Bounty Hunter in Napa, and Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa; and winemakers with experience across a wide range of varietals, including Randy Ullom from Kendall-Jackson, Chris Munsell from E&J Gallo, Mick Schroeter from Sonoma-Cutrer and Nick Goldschmidt from Goldschmidt Vineyards.

“I enjoyed seeing the wide spectrum of wines,” said judge Matt Smith, a former winemaker for Kendall-Jackson now with the start-up GrapeSeed Wines of Healdsburg. “The variety is phenomenal. You get to taste all kinds of wine, and I couldn’t believe there was a scuppernong. It’s an indigenous, American grape from the South.”

The 2015 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge public tasting event will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. May 17 at The Barlow center in Sebastopol.

The tasting will feature wines that achieve both a gold medal status and 90-plus points, along with bites prepared by local, celebrity chefs Douglas Keane, formerly of Cyrus; Dustin Valette of Valette in Healdsburg; Daniel Kedan of Backyard in Forestville; Duskie Estes of Zazu in Sebastopol; Liza Hinman of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa; Brandon Sharp of Solbar and Evangeline in Calistoga; Armando G. Navarro of El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma and Christopher Ludwick of Earth’s Bounty Kitchen and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa.

Tickets to the tasting are available at northcoastwineevent.com.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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