Union Democrat staff

And the wine Oscar goes to …

More than any other wine judging, I look forward to the results of the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition that has taken place the first week of January since 2000.

Now in its 16th year, it has grown to be the largest competition in America. This year's competition featured a record 6,417 wines from upward of 1,500 wineries and 28 states.

That's one reason why I find this to be my favorite competition to follow.

Judged by a solid mix of wine educators, industry leaders, media and winemaking experts from around the country, it must be very challenging to find specific judges qualified to evaluate some of the obscure grape types entered from across the country.

Individual judging panels are usually a mix of four to five qualified evaluators. When an unusual grape type or one unfamiliar crosses your path, it is difficult to make a sound decision. Commercial wineries now exist in every state, and so do some very unusual wines. It might be easy for California-based judges to become accustomed to what's in our backyard.

But how many have had the chance to taste a Blanc du Bois from Texas. There were five entries of that grape this year.

Another reason for following this competition is that the wines are separated by price categories and judged accordingly. For instance, the Chardonnay class, one of the largest, had eight categories for entries: Under $9.99, $10 to $14.99, $15 to $19.99, and on up to the $40-and-over class.

Every year, I find myself checking out the more obscure categories or out-of-state winners to see what unusual winners caught the judges' attention.

For instance, a New York State semi-dry 2013 Riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery tied for Best of Show White this year. Having grown up in upstate New York, I have followed the development of this region. Frank was an early premium grape-growing pioneer who planted Riesling in the Finger Lakes district of New York more than 30 years ago. It tied with a favorite winery of mine, ZD Winery in Napa, whose 2013 Chardonnay shared the Best White award. And top-winning dessert wine went to an Ohio winery, Debonne Winery, for its 2013 Vidal Blanc Ice wine. It's interesting seeing the new grapes that emerge from unsuspecting states.

How about that Gold-medal-winning Blanc du Bois from Texas. Or gold for a Hiwassee from Tennessee.

On the local front, red wines were once again the big winners. But several whites garnered medals, including a gold for Ironstone Winery's popular Symphony Obsession. Gianelli Vineyards near Jamestown in Tuolumne County scored two golds. One for its 2013 Bella Rosatto Rose and another for its 2013 Fiano, an Italian grape it has pioneered for several vintages. A number of local producers won silver medals for white wine entries.

The biggest winning local winemaker was Nathan Vader, who oversees winemaking at three wineries. He scored wins at the competition in various red categories. His own label, Vina Moda Winery in Murphys, took a Gold medal for his 2011 and 2012 Barbera, along with the 2012 Venus, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Barbera.

But his biggest win came as winemaker for Villa Vallecito Winery, where the 2010 Barbera won Double Gold and Best of Class-Barbera.

The Villa Vallecito 2011 Syrah also won a Double Gold medal. And finally, Nathan scored a Double Gold and Best of Class-Syrah over $40 for the 2011 Syrah from Euclid Wines of Napa Valley, where he makes the Syrah.

Other local wineries scoring Gold or better included a Double Gold for Milliaire 2013 Primitivo, and Golds for Black Sheep Winery 2010 Calaveras Zinfandel and Chatom Vineyards 2010 Merlot.

There were numerous silver medals won by local producers including Inner Sanctum Winery, Milliaire Winery, Chatom Vineyards, Gianelli Vineyards, Renner Winery, Black Sheep Winery, Villa Vallecito Vineyards and Zucca Mountain Winery.

The entire list of wineries and their medal-winning wines can be seen at www.winejudging.com.

This is also the site for information and tickets to a public tasting event on Feb. 14 from 1:30 to 5 p.m. in San Francisco at the Fort Mason Center. Tickets cost $65 in advance.

Congrats to all our local wineries!

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College's Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at wineguy@goldrush.com .