Daryl Groom, chief judge of the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge, is determined to present the most balanced set of judging panels for any wine competition in the United States. This year, each of the nine panels consisted of a winemaker, wine buyer or sommelier, and a wine writer. Groom also wants to guarantee a steady stream of new blood into the judging pool, so this year, nine associate judges (from a list of 40 applicants) were welcomed to the judging panels. It made for a vivid learning experience for all, especially the young trainees, who brought their enthusiasm and viewpoints, and left with ever more open minds.

“I don’t think any other wine competition can boast the caliber of judges we have assembled,” says Groom. “With 28 judges, we have close to 1,000 years of wine experience in the room. I feel personally very rewarded by the introduction of our Associate Judge program—the only one I know of. To have a great wine competition of utmost integrity and at the same time help mentor young professionals in the wine industry, definitely puts a huge, warm smile on my face.”

Sponsored by The Press Democrat (a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper and sister publication to Spirited magazine), the competition pits wines from Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, Marin, and Solano counties in Northern California against one other in categories based on grape variety, winemaking style, and county of origin. This year, from a pool of 1,014 entries, 177 gold medals were awarded, with multiple wines achieving near perfect scores of 97 and 98 points—and one even scoring 100.


Top prizes

When the judges sat down to the sweepstakes round, they faced a total of 31 wines, including more red varieties than ever—Lagrein, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Tannat among them, as well as standouts from smaller classes like Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.

The big winner of the day was the 2016 Kokomo Winery Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Peters Vineyard, Gopher Hill Block, which achieved a 100-point score from the judging panel and won not only Best Pinot Noir and Best of Sonoma County, but also went on to win Best Red and Best of Show.

But before it took the crown, the Kokomo Pinot had to battle through 17 other red wines, which had each won Best of Class in their respective categories. Among the top vote-getters in the first sweepstakes round were: 2016 Kokomo Pinot (14 votes), 2015 Imagery Estate Winery Barbera, Upper Ridge, Pine Mountain, Cloverdale, Sonoma (10); 2015 St. Anne’s Crossing Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley (10); 2015 St. Francis Winery & Vineyards Cabernet, Lagomarsino Vineyard, Russian River Valley (9); 2015 Imagery Estate Winery Lagrein, Cloverdale, (9); 2015 Trentadue Winery La Storia Merlot, Alexander Valley (8); 2015 Thirty-Seven Wines Malbec, Sonoma County (8); 2015 Imagery Estate Winery Sangiovese, Cloverdale (8); and the 2014 Carol Shelton Wines Petite Sirah from Florence Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley (8). The three top vote getters then faced off, with the Barbera and the Zinfandel each garnering 8 votes, and the Pinot 12, crowning the Pinot Best Red.

The Best White was a seven-way contest between a 2017 J. Rickards Winery Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley (13 votes on the first ballot); 2017 Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery Pinot Grigio, Russian River Valley (12); 2016 Anaba Wines Turbine White, Sonoma Valley (a blend of 40% Viognier, 31% Grenache, 22% Roussanne, 7% Marsanne; 11 votes); 2016 Simi Winery Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast (11); 2017 Harts Desire Semillon, Dry Creek (6); 2016 Francis Coppola Reserve Viognier (1); and 2017 Greenwood Ridge Vineyards Riesling, Semi-Dry, Mendoncino (1). The J. Rickards Sauv Blanc won the category in a face-off.

Three wines vied for Best Rosé, including a 2017 Kokomo Winery Grenache Rosé, Dry Creek, and a 2017 Russian River Vineyards Rosé of Petite Sirah. With 15 votes to the Kokomo’s nine and the Russian River’s three, a 2017 Rodney Strong Vineyards Pinot Noir Rosé prevailed.

The Best Dessert Wine was a two-way dust-up between the ultimate victor, a 2015 Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards Late Harvest Chardonnay, Sonoma County, and a 2015 Elk in Velvet Petite Sirah Dessert Wine from Cache Creek Vineyards & Winery, Lake County.

The Best Sparkling had already been determined as the 2013 Domaine Carneros Brut, Napa. It proved not only a worthy winner in its category but also a refreshing palate cleanser for judges making their way through the truly daunting lineup of reds.

Then came the showdown between the five Best Of’s, with the Pinot Noir easily besting the others with 19 votes.


County winners

The vote for Best of Napa County pitted two Cabernet Sauvignons, a 2016 BNA Wine Group Volunteer, and a 2014 Mudita Wines, Circle S Ranch, Atlas Peak, against the Domaine Carneros sparkling, with the Mudita taking the honors.

Best of Mendocino County was a four-way showdown between a 2016 Soda Rock Winery Chardonnay, Anderson Valley (11 votes); 2015 Tollini Vineyards Rhone Blend (7); 2015 Ferrari-Carano Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley (6); and 2016 Greenwood Ridge Riesling, Mendocino Ridge (3). Soda Rock Chardonnay takes it.

Best of Lake County came down to a Cache Creek Petite Sirah Port; a 2014 Cache Creek Cabernet Sauvignon; and a 2014 Brassfield Estate Proprietary Red called Eruption. In the end, the Cabernet prevailed with 13 votes to the Port’s 8.

Best of Marin County went to a 2015 DeLoach Vineyards Pinot Noir from Boisset Collection.

One of the big winners of the competition was Benziger’s Imagery Estate Winery, which delivered the most wines into the sweepstakes round (five) and the most golds over all, with eight. Congratulations!

Asked his overall assessment of the competition, Groom replied, “The 2018 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge was another very successful and fun judging. The wines that rose to the top, with gold status or better, were all fantastic wines—a credit to the wonderful climatic conditions we’re blessed with and the very talented winemakers who make wine in this region.”


A time to celebrate

One of the highlights of the competition was a seated dinner, hosted by the gracious Clos du Bois staff in its beautifully lit 30,000-barrel wine cave. Press Democrat Publisher Steve Falk addressed the crowd of judges, newspaper and media group representatives, and competition back room staff and their guests, saying, “Holding this competition was a way to return to our ‘new normal.’” He was referring, of course, to the devastating wildfires that tore through the region last October.

He continued, “After all this community went through last fall, the first thing we do when we see one another is to ask, ‘Is your family OK?’ ‘Is your house OK?’ ‘Is your neighborhood OK?”

“It’s good to come together to celebrate.”

In that spirit, raise a glass to all the winners, winemakers, and hardworking vineyard and cellar staffers, who helped bring these wines from their fields to your table.


The public is invited to a public awards ceremony and tasting of the competition’s big winners, Saturday June 9, from 1-4 p.m., at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park, Calif. Tickets are available at northcoastwineandfood.com.