For decades, it has been called the Sonoma County harvest fair and the main reason is that it is held every year at the time of California’s wine grape harvest.
The fair is more than just about wine, of course. But since wine is the most important business in the county, the harvest fair wine competition is one of the most important for local wineries and grapegrowers, and its results are kept a secret until a week after the judging.
Results typically are released at a celebratory evening at which consumers can try many of the gold medal winners. That evening last Sunday included a sensational dinner coordinated by chef John Ash at Luther Burbank Center.
A great benefit of the event is that results announced at it give attendees a day or two a head start to buying the wines they like best. Some may well be bronze medal winners, which some consumers may prefer more than the judges did!
Results are always meaningful since the harvest fair brings in excellent wine judges, from as far away as Minnesota and Florida, and wines are all judged double blind, so no information can be imparted that would tilt judges in one direction or another.
Staging the judging at this time of year is important because, unlike competitions staged earlier, white wines from the year-ago harvest are usually all bottled and have had time to develop interesting characteristics.
As a judge this year, I tasted some superb 2016 white wines, many of which had not been seen at prior 2017 wine competitions. And many red wines also had the benefit of additional time in the bottle.
However, it’s next to impossible to make a valid comparison between competitions. That’s because the several dozen wine competitions staged around the United States each year are often radically different from one another, with different rules and judging systems.
There are no uniform rules dictating them all, and some seem to do things out of synch with the others. Because rules for each differ greatly, the results can as well.
For example, most major wine competitions these days long ago abandoned judging wine by price categories, which can lead to inexact results. Their directors argued that such an archaic system leads to odd results that are not necessarily as precise as they could be.
(Wines that are known by the judges to be low-priced often are disparaged by a few of them for no reason other than the fact that they are reasonably priced! And those who judge high-priced wines occasionally say, “I’d never pay $30 for that!” and give an otherwise excellent wine a bronze medal when a silver or a gold would have been a better result.)
Another difference between various competitions: Some competitions inform judges of the vintage dates on all wines; others reveal only some vintage dates, and restrict such information on other wines. And others do not reveal vintages at all.
And some competitions assign wines to judges who have preferences to judge particular varietals (Sauvignon blanc experts are asked to evaluate that varietal), and decline to serve certain judges wines they feel uncomfortable with. Other competitions simply randomize how wines are evaluated.
The harvest fair is one of the most interesting of judgings for me because I live here (I have for 31 years) and am well acquainted with all of the county’s subregions.
As such, my tasting notes have great meaning when I coordinate my tasting sheet with the final result code sheet. It tells me a lot about how each region is performing, especially with certain varietal wines, and it also allows me to determine which wineries need assistance with their production techniques.
I don’t write about these technical issues, but I occasionally communicate with wineries to let them know why a particular wine got a bronze medal instead of a gold, to help the winery determine how to improve.
This year, my panel judged, among other wines, primitivo, a grape variety closely related to zinfandel. For several years, Sonoma County has planted a lot of acreage of this Southern Italian grape. At this year’s judging, I was surprised not only that the wines were so good, but also that there were so many.
Our panel was asked to evaluate 16 different Sonoma County primitivos. I had no idea so much was being made.
Some of the wines did, in fact, come across tasting like zinfandel, but the best wine of the flight on my score sheet had a charming uniqueness that really wasn’t as much Zinfandel as it was something different and truly appealing. It is listed below.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Soda Rock Primitivo, Chalk Hill, Los Amigos Vineyard ($36): Cranberry and spiced oak with a trace of jam in the aroma leads to an exciting, fruit-driven mid-palate that has wonderful structure, and works beautifully with red meat pastas in tomato sauce. Soda rock also makes a $55 edition of this wine, but I preferred the less expensive version.