Winemaker Gio Balestreri of Russian River Vineyards, has a lot to celebrate in 2020—notably, back-to-back Best of Show victories. First, his 2019 petite sirah rosé (from the Wedge Family Vineyard in the Fountaingrove AVA in Sonoma County, Calif.) beat out several hundred entries to take Best of Show in the 2020 Experience Rosé Competition. Then, his 2016 Horseridge Vineyard pinot noir took Best of Show at the 2020 International Women’s Wine Competition. It was also Best of Class at the 2020 SF Chronicle Competition in January.

Last September, Balestreri took Best of Show White at the Sonoma Harvest Fair for his outstandingly juicy 2018 Petersen Vineyard chardonnay, done in stainless.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

Delayed, but worth it

Many competitions have been delayed or outright canceled by the COVID epidemic, but Debra del Fiorentino, owner of Wine Competitions Management & Productions, was determined to make the International Women’s contest, judged by all women (well, mostly) happen. Because of pandemic-related delays, the women’s competition was run concurrently with Experience Rosé. As such, a few male judges were sprinkled in as travel restrictions limited the judging pool. The new health protocols due to COVID made things a little awkward, but the wines most certainly got the full attention they deserved.

My panel was blessed with three categories that are always a hoot to judge: Other Whites, Merlot less than $20, and Pinot Noir more than $40. We discovered a lovely roussanne and picpoul blanc from Acquiesce Winery (Lodi, Calif.) which gave our eventual Best of Class winner, a raucous, ripe petit manseng from Virginia (Maggie Malick Wine Caves), a romp for its money.

Our top pinots ranged from a racy 2017 cranberry, underbrushy, edgy classic from Pennyroyal Farms of Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, Calif.); to a floral, elegant, ballet dancer by Jaclynn Renee Wines from the Bacigalupi Vineyard (Healdsburg, Calif.); and a mouthwatering fruit salad from the Rogue Valley of Oregon, a 2016 Coventina Vineyards Reserve Estate. In the end, though, the velvety, juicy cherry 2016 RRV Horseridge Vineyard was named BOC. It then faced off against two other BOC-winning pinots from other panels, where it prevailed handily to go on to the sweepstakes.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

In the past, the less than $20 merlot category was like being in purgatory—stranded between the wasteland of kitchen sink red blends and the desperate shores of seriously suck-awful syrahs. But we were pleasantly surprised: so much so, that my panelmate, Professor Liz Thach (Sonoma State University), commented, “If these are really under $20, I’m going to buy a whole lot more merlot!” Nods went to our BOC winner, a 2017 Goldschmidt Vineyards beauty from Alexander Valley, Calif., called Embankment, and a Pomerol-like 2017 Chloe from The Wine Group that hails from Monterey, Calif. Both top-notch values, singing the beguiling siren song of merlot.


On to sweeps

When we got to sweepstakes, we were faced with a world of reds, literally.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

Entrants included a Wakefield/Taylors St. Andrews shiraz from Clare Valley, Australia; a Tinta de Toro from Bodegas Familiares Matarromera, Spain; and a fascinating 2018 Holesinsky malbec from Idaho, whose label reads, “Mile high wine by down to earth people.”

There was also a mighty fruit punch-like 2019 Le Douleur Exquise grenache from Pays d’Oc (France); a searingly bright-fruited acid queen 2017 Imagery Barbera (Cloverdale, Calif.); a dark cherry vanilla coffee sundae of 2018 merlot from Francis Ford Coppola Winery (Geyserville, Calif.); a beautifully spicy 2017 The Conspirator cabernet sauvignon from Oakville, Calif., by Goldschmidt Vineyards; and blue-fruited stalwart 2014 70s Love Wine petite sirah from Napa, Calif. Other choices garnering votes in the Best Red fight were the pine and cedar incense-laden 2017 Imagery cabernet franc (Cloverdale) and the well constructed ONE HOPE Red Blend from the Adelaida district of Paso Robles, Calif., made by winemaker Mari Coyle for a Napa-based consortium dedicated to social causes and charities. The 2016 Horseridge Pinot prevailed, narrowly beating out Wilson Family’s Sydney zinfandel.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

The contest for Best White was a horse race between an excellent 2019 pinot gris and a 2019 riesling, both made by Navarro (Anderson Valley); a sensational 2019 Bordeaux Blanc from Les Hauts de Lagarde (Bordeaux, France); a 2018 Viognier from Crux (Geyserville); a classic 2018 Sonoma Coast chardonnay from Sonoma-Cutrer; and the winner, a seriously grassy and sassy 2019 Chloe sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, made by The Wine Group. In acclimation voting, the sauv blanc beat out the pinot gris by three votes.


Bragging rights

Navarro winemaker, Jim Klein, scored a Best of Show for his 2019 pinot noir rosé from Anderson Valley, which beat out a biodynamically grown 2019 Biokult Zweigelt rosé from Austria by a single vote. They were both wonderful.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

Klein also went home with bragging rights for Best Dessert of Show for his Navarro late harvest riesling.

Best of Show Cider went to Black Apple’s Cucumber Mint hard apple cider from Arkansas, of which judges said in their notes, “It knocks your socks off.”

Taking Best of Show Sparkling was the NV Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé, which beat out Bricoleur’s Flying By The Seat of Our Pants North Coast Sparkling Brut (made by Sonoma County’s Rack and Riddle of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier), by one vote.

Sweepstakes voting is usually close, especially for Best White and Best Red; judges vote by acclimation, meaning they can vote for more than one wine. A runoff only occurs if there’s a tie. It’s always fascinating to see which horse the judges jump on when the chips are down in the final round, where you have Best Rosé, Best White, Best Red, Best Dessert, Best Sparkling, and Best Cider facing off from even footing.

2020 Women’s International Wine Competition [Duncan Garrett Photography]

This time, though, there was little contest, with that stunning 2016 Horseridge pinot barnstorming its way to the top of the podium, taking 13 out of 20 votes. Did we mention we miss sports?

Diane Wilson, winemaker for Wilson Family Wines, was named Woman Winemaker of the Year for outstanding results at the competition.

It was interesting to note the strong showing of Oregon wines this year, with a Best of Class, Double Golds, and Golds going to wines from Airlie (women-owned and -operated; Elizabeth Clark, winemaker); Bryn Mawr (Rachel Rose, winemaker); and King Estate, which took a Best of Class for pinot gris.

Congratulations to all the winning winemakers! We sure could use something to celebrate.