North Coast Wine Challenge winners announced
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.