North Coast Wine Challenge winners announced

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The top winner in the second annual Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge brought together the best the North Bay has to offer: grapes grown along the cool, Sonoma Coast, crafted into a classic pinot noir by boutique winery W. H. Smith Wines of Calistoga.

The W. H. Smith 2010 Maritime Vineyard Pinot Noir, made from grapes that ripened slowly over an uncommonly cold, wet season, was crowned the "Best of the Best" by the judges, who described the wine as "rare to find: the best-best-best."

W. H. Smith is owned by Bill and Joan Smith, who bought an 1898 winery, La Jota Wine Co., on Howell Mountain in 1974 and made gutsy cabernets and zinfandels for two decades before branching out into pinot noirs sourced from the Sonoma Coast.

Led by Chief Judge Daryl Groom of Healdsburg, the 26 judges sniffed and sipped their way through 881 wines during the blind tasting held April 29 and 30 at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa.

The judges awarded 160 gold medals this year, up from 121 last year. They also awarded four "Best of County" awards and five "Best of Show" awards in the categories of Best Red, White, Ros? Sparkling and Dessert/Late Harvest wines.

"This year, the judges were thrilled with the quality of the wines," Groom said. "We ended up with 19 percent getting gold medals, which was up from (14 percent) last year."

More than 900 wines were entered in this year's North Coast Wine Challenge, but some did not qualify. The competition is only open to wines with 75 percent of their grapes sourced from the North Coast, including the AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, plus parts of Marin and Solano counties.

"We actually had more entries this year than last," Groom said. "But more wines were culled."

A new category, for Luxury Class wines retailing at over $75, was added this year for both pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.

More higher-priced wines

The contest, which was co-hosted by The Press Democrat and Vineyard & Winery Management of Santa Rosa, attracted a higher number of higher-priced wines this time around.

"The number of wines entered was up over 10 percent from our inaugural year," said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. "The average retail price of wine entries was in the $50 to $60 range - more than double that of most wine competitions."

Falk launched the contest last year with the goal of bringing attention to the wines of the North Coast region while determining the region's "best of the best."

"We're trying to bring the best wines of the North Bay and have them judged by the best judges in the country," said Robert Merletti, owner and chairman of Vineyard & Winery Management. "This competition stands to be one of the most prestigious in the country."

This year's judges included winemakers, wine buyers, wine media and sommeliers from across the country, including such well-known names as Heidi Barrett of Barrett & Barrett Wines in Calistoga; William Bloxsom-Carter, executive chef for the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles; and Master Sommelier Fred Dame, the first American to have served as President of the Court of Master Sommeliers Worldwide.

"We had some good, heavy hitters in the room this year," Groom said. "I rotated out a few judges, because we always want to have fresh faces as well."

The W. H. Smith 2010 Maritime Vineyard Pinot Noir, the unanimous choice for the "Best of the Best" award, also won "Best of Sonoma County" and "Best of Show Red."

B Side 2010 Napa Valley Red Wine Blend, made from five different Bordeaux varietals grown along the east side of the Napa Valley, won "Best of Napa County." Made by Don Sebastiani & Sons, the full-bodied wine was praised by the judges as "full of black fruit, mocha and vanilla."

The Dalliance 2011 Lake County Red Wine, made by Shannon Ridge Family of Wines of Clearlake Oaks, was deemed "Best of Lake County." The judges described it as "round and juicy." The wine was made from a blend of red grapes grown along Lake County's hillside vineyards.

Husch 2013 Anderson Valley Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, a dessert wine offering a pleasant balance of sweetness and acidity, snagged two awards: "Best of Mendocino County" and "Best of Show Dessert/Late Harvest." The judges praised its "ripe fruit" and "good acidity and finish.

Kokomo wins again

For the second year in a row, Kokomo Winery won the award for "Best of Show Ros?" The Kokomo 2013 Pauline's Vineyard Grenache Ros?was made from grapes grown in the Dry Creek Valley. It was praised by the judges for its "juicy, mouthwatering" flavor.

The Charles Creek Vineyard 2010 Russian River Valley Chardonnay took home the award for "Best of Show White" and boasted fruit flavors of "Bosch pear and yellow apple." The winery, based in the town of Sonoma, sourced grapes from the Russian River Valley for this quintessential chardonnay, described by judges as "ripe on the palate," with a "long finish."

The Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2010 Brut Ros? made with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes grown in the Carneros region, won "Best of Show Sparkling." The pink sparkler offers hints of "delicate summer fruit," the judges said.

No wines from Marin or Solano counties won gold medals, Groom said, so there was no "Best of County" award for wines from either of those counties.

Groom started recruiting for the judging panel last summer, drawing upon a wide field of experts who look at wines from different vantage points.

"The winemaker is very technical and picks up any little fault," he said. "The sommelier is looking at, 'Does this go well with food?' ... and might overlook that little fault. The wine buyer and the media person ask, 'Is this something I could tell people about? Does this excite me?'"

All three judges on a panel must reach consensus that a wine is worthy before they can grant it a gold medal. Wines awarded gold medals are also assigned a point score of 90 and above.

Ten of the gold-medal winning wines earned a top score of 98, including the "Best of the Best" pinot noir from W. H. Smith Wines.

"It's a real testament to the talented winemakers that we have on the North Coast," Groom said. "But also the great climatic conditions that we're blessed with."

Groom, who judges about eight wine competitions a year, said the results did not reveal any big surprises.

"In the end, a pinot noir and a chardonnay were probably the two top wines," he said. "That's not a surprise to me, because we do those varieties fantasically in this area."

The Press Democrat will host a public tasting of the winning wines from 1 to 5 p.m. June 15 at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.

The award-winning wines will be paired with dishes prepared by local chefs such as Duskie Estes of Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol and John Franchetti of Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa.

Other activities include an interactive Blind Tasting Challenge with the Sonoma County Vintners association, seminars with chefs and winemakers moderated by restaurant consultant Clark Wolf and a cigar bar.

The event costs $125, including wine, food and seminars; $35 for designated drivers. To reserve:

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or

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