Dunne on Wine

Dunne on wine: Surprise, affirmation at the nation’s largest competition in Cloverdale

Bottle shot of Helwig Winery 2015 Sierra Foothills Gold Country Red, which of 954 blended red wines in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition was the only one to make it all the way to the sweepstakes round.
Bottle shot of Helwig Winery 2015 Sierra Foothills Gold Country Red, which of 954 blended red wines in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition was the only one to make it all the way to the sweepstakes round.

The yearly San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition provides a wide-angle snapshot of the aesthetic state of wine in North America.

It is, after all, the nation’s largest wine competition. The 2019 edition drew nearly 6,900 entries from the United States, Canada and Mexico to the fairgrounds in Cloverdale earlier this month, where some 60 judges over four days passed judgment on the wines.

Judges don’t know the identity of producers or where the wines originated. They know entries by variety or style and the price niche in which they are marketed, but that’s it.

At any rate, here’s my snapshot after tasting all 170 best-of-class wines:

California winemakers need not be rattled by the results, at least not yet, unless they make sparkling wine. In recent years, California sparkling-wine houses like Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer and Korbel dominated the sweepstakes round. Not this year. Two sparkling wines from outside the state tied for sweepstakes, the pretty and crisp Goose Watch Winery Finger Lakes Pinot Noir Brut Rose from New York ($17) and the bold, precise and persistent Trump Winery 2014 Monticello Blanc de Blanc from Virginia ($34).

On the other hand, the results affirm that California pretty much has a lock on award-winning chardonnay. Of the 13 best-of-class chardonnays, all were from California, and they were fairly spread across regions recognized for doing well by the variety, such as Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Sta. Rita Hills. Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg accounted for two of the best-of-class winners, for its floral, citric and lively 2017 California Chardonnay ($10) and its much more muscular, complex and sassy 2017 Clarksburg Phantom Chardonnay ($18). (Bogle also won best-of-class for its lean and adroitly structured 2016 California Cabernet Sauvignon, $12.)

Three California wineries to watch

Lewis Grace Winery on Apple Hill in El Dorado County turned in an especially strong performance with four best-of-class wines. Two were under the Lewis Grace brand, the supple and zesty 2016 El Dorado Estate Zinfandel ($28) and the lean and subtly complex 2018 Alta Mesa Torrontes ($24). The other two were released under a second winery label, Trevor Grace — the agile and propulsive 2017 El Dorado Estate Grenache ($27) and the ample and buoyant 2016 El Dorado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($30). Lewis Grace wines also won three double-gold medals, four golds and five silvers, while the Trevor Grace brand won one more gold medal. (A double-gold medal is awarded when all judges of a panel concur that a wine deserves gold. At the Chronicle competition, three to five persons constitute each panel.)

Batia Vineyards, based in Cameron Park but with a tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, came away with two silver medals, four gold medals and two best-of-class wins, the latter for its 2017 Sierra Foothills Vin Blanc ($32), an uncommonly composed and charming blend of roussanne and marsanne, and for its ripe and long 2017 Sierra Foothills Marsanne ($39), the second straight year that Batia’s marsanne has been declared best of its class at the Chronicle and with a different vintage.

Dancing Crow Vineyards is based at St. Helena in Napa Valley but draws its grapes from Lake County, which produced its two best-of-class wines, the 2017 sauvignon blanc ($18), which captures all the lemon and lime, vital acidity and spice for which Lake County is recognized in the varietal, and the high-value 2017 cabernet sauvignon ($24), which by its accessibility, character and balance shows why cabernet sauvignon is being planted so industriously in Lake County.

Striking syrah-based blend

No best-of-class wine turned in a more striking performance than the Helwig Vineyards & Winery 2015 Sierra Foothills Gold Country Red ($18), a durable and layered syrah-based blend. In recent years, blended red wines have become immensely popular among American consumers, trailing only chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in sales, and ahead of pinot grigio and pinot noir. Red blends accounted for 954 entries at the Chronicle, grouped into 24 classes based on leading grape variety and price range. For example, the Helwig was one of 27 entries in the class of syrah-based blends priced up to $25. After it first topped its class it rose through a series of taste-offs to become the only red blend in the competition to be nominated for the concluding sweepstakes round. Don’t rush up to Helwig in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley to buy some, however. It’s a wine that Helwig doesn’t carry at the winery but distributes to wine shops and restaurants. In the Sacramento area, it is to be available in some branches of Nugget Market, Total Wine, BevMo and Safeway.

And speaking of the Sierra foothills, the competition appeared to validate the confidence that many of the region’s winemakers have in barbera as a red-wine alternative to zinfandel, long the varietal most closely identified with the Mother Lode. Both best-of-class barberas to reach the sweepstakes were made by Sierra foothill wineries, though just one relied on grapes grown in the area. That would be the floral, fruity and brisk Sobon Estate 2017 Amador County Barbera ($17). The other sweepstakes contender was the plush and sweet Wise Villa Winery 2017 Alta Mesa Barbera ($39). Wise Villa Winery is at Lincoln, while Alta Mesa is part of the Lodi appellation.

A longtime knock on wine competitions is that impact wines – very ripe fruit, high alcohol, generous oak, assertive tannins, sweetness – win a disproportionate share of honors. Leanness, nuance and grace, in other words, get overwhelmed by mass and power. That’s true up to a point, and it was evident at the Chronicle competition, especially in the sweepstakes round, where one of two wines to tie for best red was the uber-ripe, jammy and sweet St. Anne’s Crossing 2016 Dry Creek Valley The Ranch Zinfandel ($36). On the other hand, the wine to tie with it for best red was the fresh and lilting Las Positas 2016 Livermore Valley Estate Malbec ($55). The St. Anne’s came in at 15.2 percent alcohol, while the Las Positas carried 14.4 percent alcohol. I tracked alcohol levels for best-of-class wines and found that while some did indeed weigh in at around 16 percent alcohol, far more were closer to 14.5 percent.

While heavyweight wines still have an advantage in wine competitions, judges today are more aware of this potential bias and are checking themselves to watch more closely for entries that are leaner, drier, better balanced and more persistent – elegant, in short.

What to look for

Finally, of the 170 best-of-class wines, which one do I most eagerly look forward to tasting again? That would be the exceptionally lithe and charming Alapay 2017 Santa Barbara County 12:01 Cinsault ($36). Not much cinsault is cultivated in California, but more will be as word gets around that it can produce a red wine with so much cheery upfront fruit, punctuating spice and zingy acidity. The “12:01” of the label, incidentally, is a time stamp to signify that the wine is styled to be savored in the afternoon.

A tasting of award-winning wines from the Chronicle competition will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 16 in Festival Pavilion at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. More information: winejudging.com.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.