The Foire aux Vendanges wine competition starts with more than 900 entries

In our new post-COVID-19 world, 18 unmasked judges entered the Showcase Cafe at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa on Tuesday for the first day of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Contest.

And after two years of canceling those iconic Sonoma County events — the Harvest Fair Grand Tasting, which is open to the public to try the winning wines, and the Gala — organizers have restored them this year. The competition took place in 2020 and 2021, but without these events.

“It’s like night and day,” said Bob Fraser, the competition’s chief coordinator, referring to the relaxation of health protocols. “There is more of a relaxed feeling among the staff and the judges. There is no major fear of being in danger.

The judges are responsible for evaluating a wealth of wines – 938 wines from 124 producers. The two-day competition will end on Wednesday and organizers will announce the winning wines on Sunday, including the competition’s top prize winners. They will be published on and contest winners will be reported on and in The Press Democrat.

All competition wines must be produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County and have only one US Sonoma County wine-growing area listed on the bottle.

There is a slight increase in the number of contenders this year – 938 from last year’s 935 entries. Fraser said he was happy with any increase in attendance. The medals can help wineries overcome the challenges posed by the wildfires and the pandemic by improving their visibility and increasing their sales, he said.

There are still some sanitary protocols in place this year, even though all the judges have been vaccinated. Panelists sat at their socially distanced tasting stations on Tuesday, with three per table. And the judges emptied their own glasses, protecting Harvest Fair staff from touching the wines that had been tasted.

Last year, for the second year since the Harvest Fair’s inception in 1975, the fair canceled the public tasting and gala due to the booming delta variant.

This year, the public tasting will return on October 15 at the Grace Pavilion at the fairgrounds and the gala will take place at the Richard & Saralee Kunde building at the fairgrounds on October 27th.

At the Showcase Cafe, the panelists were polite, like delegates to the United Nations, but still differing in their opinions.

The judges represented a wide cross-section of the industry, including wine writers, winemakers, educators, wine buyers and retailers, sommeliers and restaurateurs.

A panel, sipping a flight of rosés, found themselves disagreeing with an entree. Mark Elcombe, who oversees the Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards tasting room in Windsor, awarded the rosé a silver medal. Mike Dunne, a former wine columnist at the Sacramento Bee, was even more enamored with the wine and awarded it a gold medal, but Jennifer Kelly of Luxury Wine Partners, headquartered in San Rafael, didn’t budge from the bronze.

“I think what a consumer is looking for in a rosé, and this one didn’t measure up,” Kelly said. “I found the finish bitter with a bit of warmth, as opposed to energetic and bright, and I consider that a fault of the rosé.”

Dunne conceded that the wine deviates from what is expected of California rosés, but he wanted to reward it for being “different, bold and exotic”. As the sweet fight unfolded, Dunne surprised his fellow panelists by citing a “quick fix” to get the rosé gold.

A “quick fix” is a rarely used privilege that gives judges an extra golden vote to use only once per day of the competition to increase a wine’s score. The system was designed to keep the peace between the panelists, Fraser explained.

The rosé in question ultimately won a gold medal, despite a silver and a bronze medal from the other panelists.

In the entry range, zinfandel was the most popular, with 213 entries, 124 entries from pinot noir and 123 from cabernet sauvignon. Red mixes followed, with 94 contenders. As for some of the other entries, the chardonnay had 85, while the sauvignon blanc and rosé each had 39.

“I was surprised that we had 70% red wine entries, with 30% whites,” Fraser said. “I can only assume that the producers lacked the inventory to participate in the competition. If the contest were held in May or June, I think the sauvignon blanc and rosé entries would be double what they are.

As for the awards, Fraser said he expects 18% to 25% of entries to land a gold medal or rank even higher. By comparison, he said, most national competitions award 15% to 18% of entries with gold medals.

“(Sonoma County) is one of the most prestigious wine regions in the country,” Fraser said. “In national competitions, you have wines from all states, and they’re not as prestigious as Sonoma County.”

The top three wines in last year’s competition – the competition winners – were Breathless, Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma County for specialty wine; Imagery Estate Winery 2020 Albariño, Sonoma Valley, Silva Vineyard for the white; and Plus, 2019 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley for the red.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5310.

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