Sommelier and Judge Christopher Sawyer [Duncan Garrett Photography]

Although it’s often used in reference to a choice slice of mom’s apple pie or a great deal on a fancy new car, the phrase, “We saved the best for last,” also applies to the 1,062 wines that were tasted at the prestigious Harvest Challenge Wine Competition, which took place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., November 14 and 15. As the final large-scale international wine-judging event of the year, this annual competition has earned a reputation for providing producers of the top medal-winning wines with the true sense of accomplishment, and prestige. This critical acclaim can be used to help promote their brands (and sell more wines) throughout the holidays and into the new year.

Even though expectations were already high going into this year’s competition, what set it apart from prior years was that it happened close on the heels of the wildfires that ravaged Northern California in October. Thus, top medal winners made with fruit grown within the borders of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, and Solano counties serve as positive reminders that the wineries located in areas impacted by fires are open for business and need our support. To continue this community effort, all net proceeds from the Harvest Challenge are being donated to the #CAWineStrong organization to aid with recovery throughout he region.

[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Diversity of styles and regions

Harvest Challenge is one of the only wine-judging events in North America based on terroir—the French wine term that refers to ways in which special soils, weather conditions, and other natural phenomenon at expressive sites and famed winegrowing regions around the globe can influence the profiles of grape varieties grown there. To support the competition’s special format, participating wineries can choose to have their wines judged either by variety or appellation. Each winner represents the flavor profiles of its home region, and the top medal winners represented a plethora of wine styles, which featured layers of complexity, elegance, finesse, and balance from start to finish. Of the 1,062 eligible wines entered, 809 were awarded medals.

[Duncan Garrett Photography]

To start, there were great showings on a regional level. California’s J. Lohr Winery, for instance, won Best of Class in three different categories with grapes grown in three separate appellations: J. Lohr 2016 October Chardonnay, Vineyard Series, Arroyo Seco; J. Lohr Estates 2016 Wildflower Valdigue, Monterey; and the J. Lohr Estates 2015 South Ridge Syrah, Paso Robles.

In addition to hosting the judges’ dinner at Cline Cellars in Sonoma, Fred Cline and his family won BOC awards for its Cline Cellars 2015 Zinfandel, Lodi, and its Jacuzzi Family 2014 Arneis, Calif. “The key to capturing the pure flavors in each wine we make starts by growing grapes on sites that can produce berries with unique flavors and natural characteristics that ultimately set them apart from other new releases in the marketplace,” says Cline, who founded Cline Cellars in 1982.

[Duncan Garrett Photography]

In the non-vitus vinifera white wine category, Northern Sun Winery of Michigan received two Best of Class awards for its 2016 LaCresent and 2016 Estate Marquette. For red grapes, the Farmer’s Daughter 2016 Heartbreaker, a lush and flavorful blend of 90% LeNoir and 10% Lomanto grown in Georgia, made it to the sweepstakes round as well. For imports, online negotiante brand Wine Insiders dominated this year’s field by winning three separate Best of Class awards with its current releases, 2016 Fevdo Ducale Falaghina Beneventano IGT, Italy; 2015 Les Fiefs De Cyrano Rouge, Bergerac AOC, France; and NV Villa Amoroso Moscato, Italy.

For a complete list of winners at 2017 Harvest Challenge, visit Here’s a sampling of those winners:


[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Best Sparkling

Gloria Ferrer 2010 Anniversary Cuvée, Carneros

Although Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards is a perennial winner in the sparkling wine category, this year marked the successful debut of its Anniversary Cuvée, a sophisticated sparkling wine made with 66% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay grapes grown on the winery’s estate properties in Carneros (Sonoma County, Calif.). Ripe, elegant, and energetic, the wine is highlighted with sultry aromas and complex flavors of white peach, pear, red apple, and cherry. Subtle nuances of vanilla, cinnamon, and mineral are balanced with creamy texture and a long finish.


[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Best White

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards 2016 Estate Cuvée Blanc, Sonoma Valley

In addition to impressive showings by such popular white grape varieties as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Riesling, and Viognier, this year was marked by a dazzling array of soft, refined, and complex white wine blends—including this Best White winner from St. Francis. Crafted by talented winemaker Katie Madigan with fruit grown at the winery’s sustainably farmed Wild Oak Estate Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, this magnificent blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and a splash of Chardonnay is layered with fresh fruit aromas and lively flavors of ripe peach, apricot, zesty citrus, mineral, and toasted nuts. With a perfect combination of silky texture, crisp acidity, and a lingering finish, the end result is a dynamic wine that’s stylish, refreshing, and very food-friendly.


[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Best Rosé

Fortunati Vineyards 2016 Pranzo Rosé of Syrah, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley

Made with Syrah grapes from a single block at the Fortunati Estate (owned by Ellen and Gary Luchtel), this limited production wine displays a sexy, salmon pink hue, fresh fruity aromas, and vibrant notes of red berries, cherry, and a hint of nuttiness—all leading to a crisp, lively, and refreshing finish.



[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Best Red/Best of Show

Pezzi King Vineyards 2015 Zinfandel Estate Reserve, Estate Bottled, Dry Creek Valley

There were plenty of strong showings in the Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other categories made with ultra-premium red grapes grown in different regions throughout the United States, Australia, and Europe. But in the end, the standout red wine variety in this competition was Zinfandel. Leading this trend was the Pezzi King Vineyards 2015 Zinfandel Estate Reserve (Sonoma County, Calif.), which scored a hat trick by winning the prestigious Best of Show, Best Red, and Best of Dry Creek AVA honors. Rich, ripe, and powerful, the wine is loaded with full-bodied flavors of boysenberry, dark cherry, and black raspberry; a velvety texture; and a persistent finish accented with classic hints of licorice and black pepper that have become trademarks of the Dry Creek Valley appellation.

[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Wine judge and winemaker Miro Tcholakov, who crafted the gold medal and Best of Class-winning La Storia 2016 Zinfandel (from the special Block 303 in California’s Alexander Valley), says he wasn’t surprised by the great showing of the wines made with the state’s trademark grape.

“To me, Zinfandel is a solid varietal that can compete with Cabernet Sauvignon if it’s in balance,” says Tcholakov. “It’s exciting to see newer styles that feature concentrated flavors, low pH, and vibrant acidity. Instead of being big, ripe, and port-like, they’re flavorful wines that are intense and also naturally bright and full of life on the palate. For that reason, these more modern styles of Zinfandel reflect the new emphasis on making premium wines instead of cocktails.”

[Duncan Garrett Photography]

Best Late Harvest/Dessert Wine

Bronco Wine Company 2016 Pacific Oasis Winery Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington

From the Columbia Valley in Washington state comes Bronco‘s contemporary offering of Riesling with fruity flavors, racy acidity and only 2.8% residual sugar. The result is a well-balanced wine with fragrant floral aromas and thirst-quenching flavors of crisp green apple, ripe melon, lemon-lime, and fresh ginger. In addition to winning Best of Columbia Valley AVA for its Riesling, Bronco Wine Company also received the Best of Class honor for its Forest Glen 2016 Pinot Grigio (California) made with the Tehachapi Clone.