Volunteers for for the North Coast Wine Challenge sort wines to be judged, Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. [Photo by Kent Porter / The Press Democrat]

The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC) has become one of the most respected wine competitions in the nation since its inception in 2013, due to its unique focus on high-quality wines made exclusively with premium grapes grown in northern California’s Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Marin, and Solano counties. This year saw a record number of entries, representing a vast array of styles and strong vintages. The breadth of these high-quality contenders was reflected in the 334 gold medals awarded. Following two days of open judging, 29 of the highest-rated Best of Class wines moved on to the sweepstakes round.

After squeaking past Dry Creek Vineyard 2019 Sauvignon Blanc to win the Best of Show White prize, the Sangiacomo 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay received two more votes than the Best of Show Red contender, the Papapietro Perry 2017 Clone 777 Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley, to win this year’s coveted Best of the Best and the Best of Sonoma County awards. In doing so, the Sangiacomo wine became only the second chardonnay to win this coveted honor (the first was a Roche 2013 Reserve Chardonnay from Carneros that won the Best of the Best award in 2015).

Okapi 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Other top awards handed out during the sweepstakes round, included: Domaine Chandon NV Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé, Los Carneros (Best of Show Sparkling Wine); Rodney Strong 2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley (Best of Show Rosé); and the Navarro Vineyards 2019 Cluster Select Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, Anderson Valley (Best of Show Dessert and Best of Mendocino County). The Best of Lake County went to the bright and vivacious Boatique 2019 Rose of Malbec, Red Hills (94 points), while the Best of Napa County went to the powerful and well-balanced Okapi 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley (99 points).

Here are some of the highlights.


Top Five Best of the Best Wines

Best of the Best / Best of Show White Wine / Best of Sonoma County

Sangiacomo 2018 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast

Sangiacomo 2018 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Winning top honors from luminary wine judges is quite an accomplishment for only the third release under the Sangiacomo label (started in 2016). The deeper, more profound story is how the dynamic fruit flavors and unique characteristics of the two estate vineyards used in the blend represent the family’s 50-year history of growing ultra-premium chardonnay grapes in the cool-climate, sub-appellations that now make up the southern end of the larger Sonoma Coast AVA.

The Green Acres Vineyard, part of the Carneros appellation since 1983, is where the family planted its first chardonnay vines in the late 1960s. It’s sustainably farmed and the well-drained soils and warmer midday temperature contribute classic notes of tart Meyer lemon, a suede-like texture, and give the wine a natural richness.

The slightly cooler Roberts Road Vineyards is part of the Petaluma Gap appellation. Past the natural balance of unique soils, warm days and foggy mornings, this region is best known for its powerful maritime winds that blow in each afternoon giving each cluster plenty of time to slowly develop complex flavor, bright acidity, minerality, and structure.

Guided by a light golden hue, the characteristics of each vineyard come to life with alluring aromas of spring flowers, ripe tree fruits, fresh citrus, banana pie, chamomile, cinnamon, nutmeg, and roasted nuts. As the wine opens up, the palate is filled with notes of caramel-dipped green apple, ripe pear, fresh papaya, quince, and lemon meringue, then balanced with plenty of lively acidity and a kiss of fine French oak on the finish. Balance and harmony in every sip. (99 points)

Domaine Chandon NV Methode Traditionnelle Sparkling Rose, Sonoma/Napa Counties [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Best of Show Sparkling

Domaine Chandon NV Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé, Los Carneros

Using the classic methode traditionale technique made famous by its parent company, Moet Chandon in the Champagne region of France, this sophisticated sparkling rosé-style wine from the Yountville-based Domaine Chandon is composed of 80% pinot noir, 10% chardonnay, and 10% pinot meunier grapes, all grown in the cool climate region of Carneros between the cities of Napa and Sonoma. Stylish and sexy, with an attractive pale salmon hue, this wine opens up myriad fresh fruit aromas mixed with hints of fresh citrus, fennel, white chocolate, and toasted brioche. With a rich and creamy texture, the generous core flavors of ripe cherry, cranberry, and plum are enhanced with lively notes of peach, citrus rind, mineral, and subtle spices, leading to a long, dry finish. The end result is a world-class sparkling gem that’s elegant, complex, and extremely satisfying. (98)


Best of Show Rosé

Rodney Strong 2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

Rodney Strong Vineyards 2019 Rose of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Made with ultra-premium pinot noir grapes grown on the Rodney Strong estate properties in Russian River Valley, this complex rosé is no stranger to high scores, as proven when the previous two vintages won gold medals at this competition in 2018 and 2019. Ripe and lively, with a shimmering pink hue, it opens up with fragrant aromas of fresh-picked berries integrated with notes of exotic melon, jasmine, mineral, and a light touch of rustic spice. On the palate, the vibrant flavors of wild strawberry, ripe melon, fresh peach, and watermelon are layered with hints of tropical fruits, ruby grapefruit, and a burst of racy acidity that carries all the way through the long, dry finish. Equally important, the wine has plenty of depth, which means besides tasting good on its own, it also has enough weight and vibrant flavors to match up with everything from chilled gazpacho, fresh salads with goat cheese and tangy dressing, gourmet sandwiches, fresh fish dishes, grilled chicken with tangy sauce, and paella. (98)


Papapietro Perry Winery 2017 777 Clones Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Best of Show Red

Papapietro Perry 2017 Pinot Noir, Clone 777, Russian River Valley

Capturing the unique characteristics of the diverse soils and microclimates that have become trademarks of the Russian River Valley winegrowing region of Sonoma County, this young and vibrant wine is made with the special Clone 777 of pinot noir planted at four distinctive vineyards owned by the Leras, Peters, Bucher, and Nunes families. With a brilliant deep crimson color, the wine features lofty scents of ripe berries, lavender, allspice, pipe tobacco, forest floor, and roasted walnuts. Broad-shouldered, chewy and mouth filling. As the wine opens up, generous flavors of wild strawberry, raspberry, ripe plum, and dark cherry are interlaced with earth tones, savory spices, and a kiss of fine French oak. Like a world-class wine, it only gets better as it opens up in the glass. Outstanding. (99)


Navarro Vineyards 2019 Gewurztraminer Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley [Photo by Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat]

Best of Show Dessert / Best of Mendocino County

Navarro Vineyards 2019 Cluster Select Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, Anderson Valley

An impressive follow-up to Navarro’s 2018 Late Harvest Riesling, which won Best of Show Dessert honors in 2019. Navarro Vineyards has been making this ripe, rich, and tangy style of sweet wine with botrytized clusters of gewürztraminer grown in the enchanting Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. In the glass, this immediately wowed the judges (myself included) with its lovely golden hue and distinctive aromas of ripe tree fruits, exotic melon, coconut, raw honey, and toasted cashews, as well as some intriguing notes of terpenes, petroleum, and gun flint. On the palate, notes of candied pineapple, ripe mango, passion fruit, and white peach are layered with notes of dried apricot, golden raisin, and noticeable hints of white pepper and fresh ginger on the finish. Instead of being too rich or cloying, it’s energetic and tangy—a fabulous wine to serve with fresh fruit parfaits, baked tarts, waffle treats, and tangy cheeses with dried fruits and nuts. (99)