It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 35 years since the North Coast—a wide-spread winegrowing area that includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties—became an official American Viticultural Area. In 1983, the amount of vineyards planted in these emerging areas was relatively low. Boy, has that changed!

Today, the number of acres planted in these regions is at an all-time high, and the quality of the grapes and finished wines have also improved, thanks to the integration of better plant material, rootstock, canopy management, and sustainable farming techniques, as well as new winemaking methods and more state-of-the-art cellar equipment.

2019 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge [Charles Gesell Photography]

Obviously, this is great news for consumers, who now have more high-quality wines from the North Coast to choose from than ever before. But on the flipside, with so many admirable, tasty and collectible wines now available in tasting rooms, store shelves, and online, it can be hard to discern which wines are truly the best.

In 2012, Sonoma Media Investments, LLC, joined forces with long-time winemaker and wine judge Daryl Groom to launch the North Coast Wine Challenge, an exclusive wine competition focused entirely on wines produced in North Coast AVAs (which today also include Marin County and parts of Solano County). North Bay publisher of The Press Democrat and Chief Executive Officer Steven Falk, Groom, and competition producer Debra del Fiorentino assemble a talented line-up of judges, including winemakers, sommeliers, retailers, and members of the media, to taste each wine objectively and award the best entries gold medals, as well as Best of Class, Best of Show, and the highly-revered Best of the Best honors.

The success of the competition has increased exponentially, as proven by the record number (1,051) of wines entered by more than 300 wineries at the seventh annual NCWC, which took place on April 9 and 10 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Below is a list of this year’s Best of Show and Best of the Best winners. Click here for a complete list of the top wines in each category.


Best of Show Sparkling

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards NV Blanc de Noirs Brut, Carneros

Powered by the magnificent mixture of elegant bubbles, creamy texture, perky acidity, and complex flavors, the top sparkling wine at the competition was the Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs Brut. Composed of 92% pinot noir and 8% chardonnay grapes grown at the winery’s 335-acre estate property in the Los Carneros district of southern Sonoma County. With a lovely, light pink hue, the wine opens up with attractive aromas of fresh berries, ripe cherry, vanilla, and ruby grapefruit peel. On the palate, the concentrated flavors of dark cherry, wild strawberry, and red apple are enhanced with notes of lemon custard, cinnamon, roasted almonds, and a persistent finish. In the words of the judges who sent it to the sweepstakes round of the competition: “A classy Old World wine with a New World sensibility.”


Best of Show White

Geyser Peak Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley

Since the 1990s, Geyser Peak Winery has been the driving force behind the growing popularity of Sauvignon Blanc in California, and this entry proves the winery is still at the top of its game. In contrast to its extremely popular citrus-driven version (made with grapes grown in the cooler climate region of Russian River Valley) this limited-release wine is made exclusively with ripe fruit from the warmer spots in Dry Creek Valley. The end result is a lively and expressive wine with enchanting aromas of a fresh fruit medley, spring flowers, and orange blossoms. In the glass, the bright flavors of ripe melon, white peach, passion fruit, wild sage, and Key Lime pie are lifted with a burst of vibrant acidity and a light hint of sea salt towards the end. The result is a well-balanced wine that’s both complex and refreshing.



Best of Show Rosé

J. Rickards Winery 2018 Ava Rae Rosé of Grenache, Alexander Valley

A playful yet elegant Rhone-style alternative to the winery’s more fruit-forward rosé of Aleatico (an Italian variety); the J. Rickards 2018 Ava Rae Rosé is made with Grenache grapes grown in Alexander Valley. With a delicate pink hue and fragrant hints of rose petals, red fruits, watermelon, and hibiscus tea, it’s an easy wine to fall in love with from the very first sniff. On the palate, the flavors of ripe peach, plum, and fresh cherries are balanced with a blast of zesty acidity and a dash of rustic spice that matches well with the winery’s catchy motto: “Darn fine barn wine.”


Best of Show Dessert

Navarro Vineyards 2018 Late Harvest Riesling, Cluster Select, Anderson Valley

From one of the most award-winning wineries in Mendocino County, the fruit used to craft the Navarro 2018 Cluster Select Late Harvest Riesling was grown at Valley Foothills Vineyard, which neighbors the winery in Philo, Calif. Because 2018 was a large harvest and tanks were being used to finish the regular wines, the pristine Riesling grapes used in the blend were left on the vine to develop more sweet, ripe, and complex flavors via the magical process of botrytis. The end result is a rich, tangy, and sophisticated dessert wine that teases the senses with captivating scents of exotic fruits and lively flavors of ripe mango, papaya, white peach, grapefruit, and raw honey with a graceful finish. Liquid decadence with a shimmering golden hue.


Best of Show Red / Best of the Best

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards 2016 Tres Viejos Zinfandel, Old Vines, Sonoma County

When St. Francis winemaker Katie Madigan found out the 2016 Tres Viejos Zinfandel won Best of Show Red and Best of the Best awards at the NCWC, she was ecstatic.

“With so many great wines out there, I was absolutely blown away when our wine was chosen as the best of the entire competition by such a distinguished panel of judges,” says Madigan, who joined the production team in 2002 and took over the Zinfandel program in 2011. “On top of that, I was very honored they chose our old vine Zinfandel blend, which truly reflects the personality of this special grape variety and the classic heritage vineyards we work with in Sonoma County.”

In keeping with the term tres viejos (“three old men” in Spanish), the wine is made with fruit from gnarly vines located in the three historic winegrowing zones of Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. Aged in French oak barrels for 16 months (40% new), Madigan kept lots from each vineyard separate before making the final blend. In 2016, her goal was to creating a balance between ripeness and freshness: “Since it was a warm vintage, the fruit was ripe when it came in. I put all my effort toward making sure there was some beautiful acid to lift the fresh flavors in the finished wine.”

As they say, the rest is history. After winning Best of Class for Zinfandel, the wine won a sweepstakes round face-off with Buena Vista 2016 Bela’s Selection Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley and the Black Stallion Estate 2016 Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley to win the Best of Show Red. To finish off the competition, it won of the coveted Best of the Best honors by beating Best of Show contenders from the sparkling, white, rosé, and dessert wine categories.

This wine really has it all. On the nose, the lofty scents of ripe red fruits, wild berries, and licorice are accented with hints of blood orange rind, clove, allspice, earth, and smoky cedar. In the glass, the wine is bursting with deep flavors of dark cherry, ripe raspberry, blackberry, and distinctive notes of dark chocolate truffle, fresh ground pepper, cardamom, and a long, spicy finish. Not only is this a great, full-bodied expression of old vine Zinfandel, but the perfect balance of ripe fruits, bright acidity, firm structure, and silky texture lets it show more finesse and elegance as it opens up in the glass.