Sonoma zinfandel takes top prize at North Coast Wine Challenge

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North Coast Wine Challenge winners

Best of the Best: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Show Red: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Show White: Geyser Peak Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley

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

Best of Show Sparkling: Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards NV Blanc de Noirs, Carneros

Best of Show Dessert Wine: Navarro Vineyards 2018 Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley

Best of Lake County: Brassfield Estate Winery 2015 Eruption Proprietary Red, High Valley

Best of Mendocino County: Navarro Vineyards 2018 Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley

Best of Napa County: Black Stallion Estate Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release, Napa Valley

Best of Sonoma County: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Solano County: Sky Ranch 2016 Two Old Guys Red Blend, Solano County

Best of Marin County: McEvoy Ranch 2016 Montepulciano, Il Poggio, Petaluma Gap

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.

North Coast Wine Challenge winners

Best of the Best: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Show Red: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Show White: Geyser Peak Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley

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

Best of Show Sparkling: Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards NV Blanc de Noirs, Carneros

Best of Show Dessert Wine: Navarro Vineyards 2018 Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley

Best of Lake County: Brassfield Estate Winery 2015 Eruption Proprietary Red, High Valley

Best of Mendocino County: Navarro Vineyards 2018 Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest, Anderson Valley

Best of Napa County: Black Stallion Estate Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release, Napa Valley

Best of Sonoma County: St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, Sonoma County

Best of Solano County: Sky Ranch 2016 Two Old Guys Red Blend, Solano County

Best of Marin County: McEvoy Ranch 2016 Montepulciano, Il Poggio, Petaluma Gap

“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.”

Best of County awards

In the county competition, Best of Lake County this year went to the Brassfield Estate Winery 2015 Eruption Proprietary Red, High Valley, which earned 95 points. Judges described it as a “big wine” with “rich, dark fruit.”

Best of Marin County went to the McEvoy Ranch 2016 Montepulciano, Il Poggio, Petaluma Gap, which garnered 90 points. The judges described it as a “fun, classy wine with a huge mixture of aromas and flavors.”

Best of Napa County went to the Black Stallion Estate Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release, Napa Valley, which earned 98 points. The judges liked its “ripe, rich fruit “ and “silky palate framed by chocolatey oak.”

Best of Solano County went to the Sky Ranch 2016 Two Old Guys Red Blend, Solano County, which earned 93 points. The judges called it a “pretty wine” with “vanilla” flavors.

As the top-scoring wine from Sonoma County, the St. Francis Winery 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos, also won Best of Sonoma County.

“It’s about time that zinfandel won this competition,” said judge Liz Thach, distinguished professor of wine at Sonoma State University. “It is one of the great grapes, not only of Sonoma County, but of all of California. When I travel to Europe, the one item that wine professionals and winemakers ask me to bring is a bottle of high-end California zinfandel.”

In her tasting notes, Thach described the St. Francis zinfandel as “a seamless, velvet tapestry of mixed berries, spice and a hint of white pepper,” with “very pure fruit, intense concentration, and a very long finish.”

Madigan, who first worked at St. Francis Winery as in intern in 2002, studied winemaking at UC Davis, then served as assistant winemaker under former St. Francisc winemaker Tom Mackey for several years. When Mackey retired in 2011, she was named winemaker. (St. Francis has another winemaker, Chris Louton, who concentrates on the Bordeaux varietals.)

“Working with Tom, I learned to look at each vineyard individually and also how they may impact a blend,” she said. “And of course, how to really utilize old, head-trained zinfandel that may not produce a lot of fruit but is special enough to make on its own.”

Madigan, who is also in charge of the pinot noir and chardonnay program at St. Francis, said the winery keeps most of its vineyard blocks separate during fermentation, then combines them after the aging process.

“We like to see how every vineyard ... and every vintage can express itself,” she said. “It gives every vineyard a chance to be artisan wine.”

For the winning Old Vines Zinfandel Tres Viejos, Madigan sourced the grapes from three vineyards, all over 70 years old, in the Alexander, Russian River and Sonoma valleys.

“The Russian River vineyard definitely brings in more red fruit, more acidity to the wine,” she said. “The Alexander Valley brings in that ripe, darker fruit character. And the Sonoma Valley plot brings in more of that spicy, pepper-based zinfandel that is in the background.”

Old vines tend to produce grapes with more intense flavors, she said, which give the wines more complexity.

“Based on the age of when they were planted, most likely they weren’t planted to be irrigated,” she said. “They may not produce as many clusters, but what they do produce is more expressive of the site, and a little bit more complex than traditional, trellised zinfandel.”

St. Francis Winery makes a total of seven zinfandels for the wine club, plus another zinfandel blend that is nationally distributed — the St. Francis “Old Vines” Zinfandel Sonoma County.

During the harvest of 2016, Madigan knew she had a warm vintage on her hands, so she started picking in August, before the zinfandel got too high in sugar but the acid level was still at an appropriate level.

“Refreshing acidity — that plays a big part,” she said. “Picking at the right time is very crucial, especially for skin maturity, which is going to give you a lot of aromatics.”

Although the St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel Tres Viejos is at its peak now, Madison said she expects it to stay strong through 2025.

For Madigan, receiving the Best of the Best award also serves as a tribute to Christopher Silva, the former president and CEO of St. Francis Winery who died of brain cancer in 2017.

“Zinfandel was Christopher’s favorite varietal of wine,” she said. “I immediately thought that Christopher would be so proud.”

Swirl, sniff, sip, spit

On Tuesday, 28 judges hand-picked by Groom from around the country whittled the field of 1,059 entries down to 30 wines. Judges tasted about 120 wines each, Groom said.

Those 30 wines were tasted again Wednesday morning during the sweepstakes round to determine the five Best of Show awards for wine type — red, white, rosé, sparkling and dessert wines — as well as the Best of the Best and the Best of County wines.

“Many judges remarked ... that it was the strongest and highest quality flight of sweepstakes-round wines they had seen in all the years of the competition,” Groom said. “They found choosing the best was quite difficult.”

All of the winners of the five Best of Show/wine type awards scored 97 points or above. The Best of County winners all scored 90 and above, the minimum score to receive a gold medal.

From among the 1,059 wines entered, Groom said that 299 were awarded gold medals, 457 were awarded silver and 189 were awarded bronze medals, with close to 90% of the wines entered receiving medals. Only the gold-medal winners are revealed.

“Last year, there was 17.6% gold medals awarded,” Groom said. “This year 28% of wines received gold medals ... I think this is a huge testament to the talented winemakers and grape growers we have on the North Coast, and the world-class, diverse growing conditions we are blessed with.”

The public can taste the competition’s gold medal winners from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 8 at the North Coast Wine & Food Festival at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park. To reserve tickets: northcoastwineandfood.com.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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