By Tom Bender

Vine to Wine

In this season of handing out music, movie and TV awards, the country’s biggest wine judging and resulting wine awards took place early last month in Sonoma County.

Winners at the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition were announced last week, and foothill wineries that entered have a lot to be proud of. Now in its 20th year, it has grown to be the largest competition in America.

This year’s competition featured upward of 6,800 wines from over 1,130 wineries representing 30 states along with several wineries from Canada and Mexico. I always look forward to this list of awards, because there are always surprise winners from states from outside the usually dominate number of California winners. Commercial wineries are in every state, and so are some very unusual grapes and wines.

Judged by a solid mix of 65 wine educators, industry leaders, medi and winemaking experts from around the country, I imagine it can be very challenging for some who are saddled with evaluating an obscure grape type, such as the awarding winning Vignoles from Missouri or the top Petit Manseng from North Carolina. Don’t go looking for these winners on our local store shelves.

It is also a popular competition because the wines are separated by price categories and judged accordingly. There is not a chance of a limited production $75 Cabernet Sauvignon losing out to big production $10 Cab based upon price. Unlike many of the other statewide competitions, I think this structure brings together a number of wine entries from across the price board. For instance, the Chardonnay class, one of the largest, had 13 classes or categories for entries: Under $9.99, 10-13.99, 14-15.99,16 – 17.99 and on up to the $45 and over classes.

Every year I tend to grumble about there being too may categories. The Cabernet Sauvignon number of price-specific classes has grown to 17 divisions. And for the second year, they have included “Grape Dominated” classes with multiple price ranges each for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Barbera, Petite Sirah Zinfandel and five other grapes that make up the larger portion of these individual grape blend classes. It just stretches out the overwhelming number of “Best of Class” winners. There are now upward of 170 potential classes for entering wines.

Locally, only a handful of wineries entered the competition. And red wines make up the biggest number of nearby winery entries. Notable winners included Inner Sanctum Winery, which won gold for its 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 Verdejo, 2014 Cuatro Port and Silver for 2017 Rose. Vina Moda Wines achieved gold medals for its 2016 Barbera, 2016 Syrah, 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon and a silver for 2016 Grenache. Black Sheep Winery picked up gold for its 2016 Calaveras Zinfandel. Villa Vallecito scored a gold medal for its limited production 2016 Sagrantino, an Italian varietal, along with silver for its 2016 Grenache.

A silver medal went to Calaveras County’s Val du Vino 2016 Old Vine Zinfandel and Frogs Tooth Winery 2016 Sangiovese.

Several Amador County wineries took home “Best of Class” honors, including Sobon Winery 2017 Barbera, Jeff Runquist 2016 Alicante Bouschet, and Wilderotter Winery 2017 Vermentino.

You can taste these winners at the competition’s big tasting in San Francisco at Fort Mason from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16. Get your tickets in advance, because the event has sold out the past several years. For more details, go online to

And if you go to the tasting, be adventurous and seek out winners from New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and even Georgia. Unless a road trip is in your future, it might be your only chance to taste these wines from a distance.

Watch out California.