Judging bottles at the Harvest Fair

“Gold.”

“Silver plus.”

“Gold.”

And so it went during the Professional Wine Competition last weekat this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

This was my first time judging wine at this competition, and my three-person team was in the process of assessing 19 sparkling wines. All wines in the contest must be produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County and have only a Sonoma County American Viticultural Area listed on the bottle.

“The mousse on wine No. 10 is incredibly elegant,” said Liz Thach, Master of Wine and a fellow judge.

The mousse she was referring to wasn’t made of chocolate — it was the fine froth that forms in the mouth after a sip of sparkling wine. Thach, an award-winning wine author, researcher and educator, is the first woman to become a Master of Wine in California and only the seventh woman to earn the title in the United States.

Ellen Landis, a certified sommelier and our third judge, agreed. “Definitely, and I’m getting lovely notes of hay, with a touch of brioche,” she said.

A highly esteemed wine judge, Landis is known for her discerning palate. She can pinpoint varietals and growing regions with impressive accuracy, as she did 25 years ago when she was a regional sales manager for 3M. During a meeting of 1,000 employees, the CEO challenged her to identify a wine, blindly. Not only did she choose the correct varietal (cabernet sauvignon), she also named the region (Napa Valley), the winery (Robert Mondavi) and the year: 1991.

The stars must have aligned for me to be teamed up with these two remarkable women and their even more remarkable palates. Just listening to them discuss the wines in both a local and global context was a treat.

The Professional Wine Competition at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair is unique in that it uses a collaborative style of judging. Instead of each judge assessing and scoring the wines confidentially, we could share our thoughts with the other panel members before giving a wine its final score. Given that no two judges have the same palate or professional wine experience, this is an incredibly valuable method of judging.

“I’ve been doing wine judging for 15 years, and it’s always a delight to taste so many new wines and discuss them with colleagues to arrive at consensus regarding the medal,” Thach said. “It’s both a quiet introspective exercise and then a social one that makes it so enjoyable.”

The judges, 18 in all this year, represent a range of the wine industry: They’re wine writers, vintners, educators, wine buyers and retailers, sommeliers and restaurateurs.

“The wine competition at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair is where collaborative wine judging was first established,” said Bob Fraser, the event’s chief coordinator, who has been involved with the fair since the mid 1980s.

“I always tell my judges to listen to every panel member, discuss the wines, then come to a consensus about the award,” he added. “I want them to be true to what this competition is all about, and that is being sommelier-collaborative.”

Fortunately, our panel agreed most of the time, with a few exceptions. Sometimes two of us would change the mind of the third panel member with our feedback, sometimes not. And that was OK.

“I find wine judging to be incredibly fascinating,” said Landis, who has been a wine judge since 2001. “No matter how much you know about wine, there’s always more to learn.”

Here’s how the judging worked:

Over the course of two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, the judges tasted and assessed 938 wines. My panel alone tasted 150 wines in four categories, including sparkling wine, dry rosé, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and “other” red varietals, like carignane and malbec.

Each sample was served in a glass, identical except for its unique number. There was no labeling and no information about the wine’s American Viticultural Area.

The judges taste approximately 10 to 12 wines per round, with numerous rounds per day. The wines are awarded either a bronze, silver or gold medal or no award. If a wine receives gold medals from all three judges, it’s promoted to “double gold.”

For me, malbec was the most challenging varietal to judge. After tasting and assessing nearly 20 malbecs in a row, I was pleading for a plate of beef brisket.

“That’s what the roast beef is for,” said Thach, pointing to a small plate on our table with four small bundles of beef. Unsalted roast beef makes an amazing palate cleanser. Who knew?

On the second and final day, the highest-ranking wines in each category — cabernet, zinfandel, “other” red varietals, etc. — are assessed by all 18 judges during the “sweepstakes” round. These are the top three winners of the competition — one red, one white and one specialty wine.

This year’s three sweepstakes winners are:

Sweepstakes red: DeLoach Vineyards, 2019 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Maboroshi Vineyard

Sweepstakes white: Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection, 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

Sweepstakes specialty: Breathless, Late Disgorged Brut, Sonoma County

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.yu765

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