Sonoma zinfandel takes top prize at North Coast Wine Challenge
St. Francis Winery in east Santa Rosa, founded in 1971 by Joe Martin and now owned by the Kopf family of New York, was awarded the top prize - Best of the Best award - in the 2019 North Coast Wine Challenge for its St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County, which scored 99 out of 100 points.
This year marked the first time a zinfandel came out on top in the blind tasting competition presented by The Press Democrat.
For the wine, St. Francis Winemaker Katie Madigan said she blended old vine zin from three heritage vineyards (hence the name, tres viejos, or “three old ones”): one located in a toasty corner of Alexander Valley, one from east side of the cooler Russian River Valley and one from the southern reaches of Sonoma Valley.
“This is one of our top zinfandels,” said Madigan, who makes eight zinfandels for St. Francis, known as the “House of Big Reds.” “Most of the zinfandels for the wine club are vineyard designates, but it’s really nice to showcase the sum instead of the parts.”
Now in its seventh year, the North Coast Wine Challenge has in the past awarded three top awards to a pinot noir, one to a Bordeaux-style red blend, one to a chardonnay and one to a rosé of pinot noir. The contest only accepts wines grown in the six North Coast counties of Lake, Mendocino, Marin, Napa, Sonoma and parts of Solano counties.
Red wine entries comprised 70 percent of the total entries this year, with zinfandel entries up 50 percent from last year, according to Chief Judge Daryl Groom.
“After seven years of the competition, it was refreshing to see a zinfandel win the Best of the Best for the first time,” Groom said.
“With the old vines and 150 years of growing this grape, it was no surprise that a zinfandel would eventually win the Best of the Best.”
During the first day of judging on April 9, Truett-Hurst/VML Winemaker Ross Reedy said he was impressed with the quality of the zinfandels he was tasting, but not surprised.
“That’s expected of Sonoma County,” he said. “It’s our bread and butter, and the best place in the world to grow zinfandel.”
Best of Show awards ?by category
As the top-scoring red wine, the St. Francis 2016 Old Vine Zinfandel, Tres Viejos also won Best of Show Red.
The Best of Show White went to Geyser Peak Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley, which earned 97 points. Judges praised its complexity and “tropical to citrus type of fruits.” Founded in 1880, the winery with roots in the Alexander Valley recently relocated to the Dry Creek Valley appellation near downtown Healdsburg, and is owned by Accolade Wines North America.
The J. Rickards Winery 2018 Ava Rae Rosé of Grenache, Alexander Valley, won the Best of Show Rosé, scoring 98 points and boasting “a delicate pink” color and fruity aroma of “cherries and fraises.” The family-run winery founded in 2005 by Jim and Eliza Rickards is located toward the northern end of the Alexander Valley.
The family farms grapes for many renowned wineries in the area and produces small lots of its own hand-crafted wines.
“It’s an estate-grown grenache that we pick from both our main property and a neighbor’s property that I farm,” said owner Jim Rickards. “We pick the grapes early, when they have brilliant acidity, and we really like to let the fruit speak.”
Best of Show Sparkling this year went to the Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards NV Blanc de Noirs, Carneros, which received 99 points from the judges for being an “Old World wine with a New World sensibility.” The non-vintage blush sparkler gets its rosy color and berry flavors from leaving a small portion of the grapes in contact with the skins for up to 24 hours. The wine is 92% pinot and 8% chardonnay.
“Back in the ‘80s, the Ferrers found the right spot for growing pinot and chardonnay ... and we put the time and energy into putting in the right grapes, and how to grow them,” said Gloria Ferrer Winemaker Steven Urberg. “And then we take that fruit into the winery to make the best expression of that fruit. So each one builds on each other.”
The Navarro Vineyards 2018 Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley, won Best of Show Dessert Wine as well as Best of Mendocino County, scoring 97 points from the judges for its “essence of riesling” and “honey notes.” It also won Best of Mendocino County.
“The residual sugar is 20.4, so it’s pretty unctuous and sweet,” said Navarro Vineyards co-owner Deborah Cahn. “But the acidity is high ... I think that’s one of the secrets of dessert wines from the Anderson Valley. Even when they’re sweet, they have a lot of beautiful acidity, so they don’t come out cloying.”