Chief Judge Darryl Groom, Spirited Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Russell, Wine Competitions Management & Productions’ Debra Del Fiorentino, Spirited Publisher/President Michael Zivyak, writer Ellen Landis, and Sonoma Media Investments CEO Steve Falk (Duncan Garrett Photography/DGP)

Before committing to a competition, vintners typically ask themselves the key question, “What will it do for me?” The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge offers a compelling feature that many vintners love: only gold medal winners are published. This is a significant attractor for wine producers that may not be willing to risk being awarded a bronze medal.

In April, industry professionals gathered to judge this year’s entries. California’s North Coast AVA, originally established in 1983, covers more than 3 million acres and counts about 50 sub-AVAs within its borders. Eligible wines include those labeled with an AVA in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, and (parts of) Solano counties. The task at hand was to identify the best of the best among the 1,107 wines entered from this vast viticultural area, which encompasses a wide diversity of climate, soil, elevation, and proximity to the coastline, among other characteristics.

Coppola winemaker Corey Beck offers judges a few welcoming remarks (DGP)

Now in its fifth year, the North Coast Wine Challenge continues to get better and better, agree Sonoma Media Investments CEO Steve Falk and Chief Wine Judge Daryl Groom, who both feel the competition thrives due to the impressive wines it attracts as entrants and strong support from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which sponsors the competition. (The PD is owned by Sonoma Media Investments, which also owns Spirited magazine.) Thanks to Wine Competitions Management & Productions founder Debra Del Fiorentino, who organizes and runs the two-day judging, this year’s challenge again came off without a hitch. The delectable and lively judges’ dinner was hosted this year at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, a charming burg in northern Sonoma County.

Groom, a renowned winemaker who’s been honing his craft in the USA and Australia for more than 30 years, continued his mentoring program for young members of the wine industry by placing an associate judge at each panel (associate judges taste and review each wine, but their scores are not tallied).

Coppola wines flow freely at the judges dinner (DGP)

This year, 225 gold medals were bestowed upon deserving recipients. Below is a sampling of winners; click here for a full list of all awardees. And if you live in the North Coast area, consider attending the North Coast Wine & Food Festival on June 10; it’s a delicious opportunity to taste gold medal wines, chat with winemakers and vintners, and enjoy cuisine from 18 local chefs.



E.& J. Gallo J Vineyards & Winery NV Brut Rosé; Russian River Valley, California: Delicately floral and yeasty on the nose, this snappy sparkling weaves an intricate tapestry across the palate. Bountiful, sun-kissed strawberries, Rainier cherries, and raspberry fruit join warm baked pastry notes and a dash of herbs. Fresh squeezed lemon-lime citrusy accents bring it to an effervescent, extended finale. GOLD/Best of Class (BOC)/Best of Show Sparkling 98 points

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2013 Blanc de Blancs; Carneros, California: This shimmering sparkler caresses the palate with crunchy Granny Smith apples, crisp pears, baking spices, yeasty elements, quince tart, and orange blossom notes. Feminine and elegant with an endless stream of tiny bubbles and impressive complexity. GOLD/BOC 97 points


Deliberating over the rosé category (DGP)


Taft Street Winery 2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir; Russian River Valley, California: This exquisitely fragranced, meticulously balanced dry Rosé paints a glorious masterpiece on the palate. Sassy and vibrant with aromas and flavors of juicy summer strawberries, red cherries, pomegranate seeds, spiced tisane, and lemon accents. A wide brushstroke of crisp acids carries this lip-smacking wine to a persistent and colorful finish. GOLD/BOC/Best of Sonoma County/Best of Show Rosé 98 points


The competition is serious, but the atmosphere is jovial (DGP)

White Wines

Anaba Wines 2014 Chardonnay; Sonoma Coast, California: Orchard fruit and pleasing oak nuances greet the nose with this impeccably balanced Chardonnay. Beautifully textured and pure, with layers of butter-basted sautéed pear, honeysuckle, lemon custard, and immaculate oak integration melding in harmony across the palate. Complex with refined tannins and a magnificent finish that goes on forever. GOLD/BOC/Best of Show White 98 points

Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Sauvignon Blanc; Dry Creek Valley, California: Spot on Sauvignon Blanc aromas waft from the glass. As dynamic and expressive as a just lit firecracker, stunning flavors of guava, succulent melon, hints of freshly mowed grass, ripe kiwi, and lemon verbena accents cavort with racy acidity on the palate. Pristinely balanced, nervy, pure, and brilliantly refreshing. GOLD/BOC 98 points

After tasting individually, judges join to discuss and debate scores (DGP)

Husch Vineyards 2016 Chenin Blanc; Mendocino, California: The engaging, fruit-driven aroma draws you into the glass, where you’ll find tropical notes of pineapple, star fruit, and banana chips joining lemon-splashed green apple and a subtle trace of honey. Streamlined and in precise balance, clean and vivacious through the memorable, uplifted finish. GOLD/BOC 94 points

Landa Vineyards 2015 Viognier; Sonoma Valley, California: Inviting aromas of lavender fields and sun-ripened stone fruit fill the senses. Luscious and vivid in the mouth with layers of juicy white peaches, nectarines, baking spice, lemon drops, and Creamsicle notes. A nice level of acids keeps the generous fruit lively and fresh from start to long lasting finish. GOLD/BOC 93 points

Hart’s Desire Wines 2016 Semillon; Dry Creek Valley, California: Perfumed dusting powder aromas segue to gorgeous tree fruit flavors on the palate. Yellow apple, spice-dusted poached pear, honeysuckle, pineapple, and bright citrus notes mesh deliciously. Well balanced and vibrant, with a lanolin character adding further complexity. GOLD/BOC 92 points

Balletto Vineyards 2016 Pinot Gris; Russian River Valley, California: Perfumed stone fruit aromas are reminiscent of an sunny spring day. Elegant, with pure flavors of nectarine, creamy Bosc pear, tangy lemon meringue pie, and subtle herbs gliding with ease onto the palate. Smooth, mouth-filling, and well balanced, finishing with a perky touch of orange zest. GOLD/BOC 92 points


Red Wines

Associate judge Alex Alper of Square Peg Winery (DGP)

Trinchero Family Estates Folie à Deux 2014 Pinot Noir; Sonoma Coast, California: A whiff of dark cherries and a tinge of campfire smoke engage the nose. Flowing onto the palate are tempting layers of cherry-cola, raspberry puree, wild mushrooms, spiced oak, and underlying forest floor notes. Full bodied and rich with a silky texture, a striking acidity keeps it radiant and exactly balanced through the lingering finish. GOLD/BOC/Best of Show Red 98 points

Imagery Estate Winery 2014 Upper Ridge Vineyard Sangiovese; Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, California: This enticing wine brings together Old World and New World characteristics. Brimming with zip and personality, dried cherries, plums, red currants, earthiness, and herbaceous elements marry harmoniously. Sleek, full flavored, and balanced to perfection, with fine grained tannins and classic Sangio acids holding firm through the never-ending finish. GOLD/BOC 98 points

Judge Randy Ullom of Kendall-Jackson Winery (DGP)

Brassfield Estate Winery 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; High Valley, California: Broadcasting highly expressive aromatics, this well-defined Cab is poised and confident. Multi-layered, it coats the palate with cassis, black currant and plum, tobacco leaf, meaty notes, a touch of leather, and nicely integrated oak. Complex and deep with refined tannins, it drinks well now, and exhibits good aging potential. GOLD/BOC/Best of Lake County 98 points

Truett Hurst Winery 2014 Old Vine Burning Man Petite Sirah; Dry Creek Valley, California: Intensely structured, this muscular Petite Sirah is built to last. Alluring aromas and focused flavors of dark plum, Bing cherry, and brambleberry are enhanced by savory spice and toasty oak. A solid backbone of tannins and high-spirited acids are nicely aligned, capping off the bold, powerful, ageworthy package. GOLD/BOC 98 points

Don Sebastiani & Sons B Side 2014 Napa Valley Red Blend; Napa Valley, California: Deep, dark, and delicious, this sophisticated Bordeaux blend steps out with a seductive aroma. Floral notes join black currant, blueberry, plum, loganberry, understated oak, tobacco, herbs, and spice, knitting an intricate pattern on the palate. Complex with firm tannins framing the finely tuned fruit, and the finish is remarkably long. GOLD/BOC/Best of Napa County 98 points

Jesse Katz of J. Katz Wine Consulting (DGP)

Trione Vineyards & Winery 2013 River Ranch Road Syrah; Russian River Valley, California: This well-crafted wine opens with aromas of dark fruits and savory spices. Unfolding on the palate are layers of herb-crusted roast meat, blackberry, black cherry, allspice, and understated oak. Full-bodied and dense, with a solid frame of structured tannins and nice offsetting acidity bolstering the deep core of rich fruit; approachable now, and cellar worthy. GOLD/BOC 97 points

Testa Vineyards 2013 Black Sei; Mendocino County, California: Dusty earth notes open the gates to this deeply fruited red blend, crafted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. Imagine the evocative scents of an exhilarating walk in the woods. Rich and joyful as dark purple plums, wild blackberries, earthiness, and heady spice converge on the palate. The mouthfeel is velvety, with supple tannins providing nice support all the way through the lengthy finish. GOLD/BOC 96 points

Boisset Collection Buena Vista Winery 2015 The Sheriff of Buena Vista; Sonoma County, California: This alluring blend of Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache will win you over with an irresistible aroma. Deep, dark, and decadent, with blackberry, Santa Rosa plum, black raspberry, charcuterie, and a generous grind of fresh multi-colored peppercorns. Structured tannins and skillful balance suggest this is one for the cellar. GOLD/BOC 95 points

Treasury Wine Estates Chateau St. Jean 2014 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Franc; Sonoma Valley, California: Expressive and varietally spot on, this wine boasts charming scents and mouth-pleasing flavors of wild berries, cassis, black olives, graphite, and stylish Old World earthy characteristics. Robustly structured with firm tannins and fine balance, it’s approachable now and promises years of gratification ahead. GOLD/BOC 95 points