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Judges sip and spar at Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition

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Nineteen judges practiced the art of persuasion as they sipped through a pool of more than 1,000 wines at Tuesday’s 2018 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition.

The three-day contest, which began on Monday and ends today, tests the judges’ capacity to sway fellow panelists and ultimately determine sweepstakes winners. Every entry is vying for a top spot with the hopes of snagging a sweepstakes win in the categories of red, white or specialty wines.

“We’re like mini lawyers making our case,” panelist Christopher Sawyer said. The wine writer and sommelier at Sebastopol’s Gravenstein Grill said, “If you really like a wine, you take better notes to make your argument.”

The sweepstakes winners will be announced Sept. 30 at the Awards Night Gala at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Tickets are $150 per person and the crowd will include participating wineries, their industry partners and the public.

The majority of the winners will be announced Sept. 23 on the Harvest Fair website (harvestfair.org) and in the Press Democrat newspaper. These awards include the best of class, double gold and gold. Members of the public will be able to taste the top winners at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Oct. 5-7.

Bob Fraser, the contest’s chief coordinator, said the goal is to have top experts in many fields cross-examine the wines, elevating the best. Most panels, Fraser said, include a winemaker, a wine journalist, a retailer and a wine educator.

Sipping through a flight of wine in the Showcase Café at the Sonoma fairgrounds, the judges were deeply engrossed in tasting, with some even swooning over particular entries.

Referring to a malbec, Jennifer Jespersen, head sommelier at Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn, said “that’s the kind of wine I want to drink while binge watching ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”

Jespersen gave the wine a gold right out of the gate, but said sometimes patience is required to fairly evaluate wine.

“Even when you don’t like a wine,” Jespersen said, “you have to give it a second chance because in the course of sitting, a wine can evolve.”

Earlier in the tasting, fellow panelist Ken Landis, former chef and chief operating officer of Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn in Half Moon Bay, invoked his most powerful weapon — a judge’s so-called “silver bullet” — to champion a merlot. The silver bullet gives a judge an extra gold vote to be used once during any given day to raise a wine’s score. The scoring system was designed to maintain harmony on the judging panel, Fraser said, although most judges don’t use them.

Landis said, “The silver bullet is like the Lone Ranger. The merlot was rich and deep, and we were equally divided.”

Sawyer said, with a laugh, “he pulled out his weaponry and we submitted.”

Overseeing the sparring was tasting coordinator Linda Hagen.

“Fifty percent of the time when a judge talks up a wine, he can show other judges what he sees in it and then raise its score,” Hagen said. “I’m a home winemaker and I volunteer because I like to listen to what the judges are looking for in a wine.”

Aside from sipping through a pool of 1,032 wines, the judges are consuming 10 pounds of rare roast beef, 15 loaves of French bread and 15 cans of Graber green olives to offset the consumption of wine. This year judges came from all over the country, including Florida, Virginia, Washington state and San Francisco.

The number of entries is roughly the same as last year in various categories.

“A small increase in pinot noir,” Fraser said, “correlates with the pinot noir houses doing more vineyard-designated wines and special branding to increase their portfolio.”

All entries are produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County, bringing the pedigree of the region into play.

“I think Sonoma County is still the premiere wine-growing region in the country,” Fraser said. “The higher number of awards is due to the high quality of wines you find here.”

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