By Tom Bender, for The Union Democrat

Wine judging competitions are big in California and growing in popularity across the country. With wine being made in all 50 states, it is a challenge for wineries to decide on which competition to participate in. Wineries look to these competitions for recognition, evaluation, and marketing exposure.

Fees for submitting wines in commercial competitions can run as high as $100 per entry with all the sideline expenses. And some require you to pour, and even charge wineries a fee to pour, at the public event highlighting your winning wine! This can become very expensive for small properties producing small quantities of various wines.

The largest — a favorite — and one of the most popular judging is the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. It is the year’s first of several major wine judging competitions that gets serious attention. Now in its 17th year, it has grown to be the largest competition in America. The 2016 competition received 7,164 entries. With close to 30 states represented, this is the highest number of wine entries to date, outdoing 2015’s previous record of 6,417.

The majority were from California wineries, and the Sierra foothills continue to come away with a high number of medals. The judging takes place the first week of January and is judged by wine educators, industry leaders, media and winemaking experts from around the country.

A popular reason for entering this competition is that the wines are separated by price categories and judged accordingly. For instance, the Chardonnay class, one of the largest, had 10 classes or categories for entries: Under $9.99, $10-$3.99, $14-$17.99, and on up to the $42 and over classes. While this is an effective way to judge the wines, it also seems to stretch out the competition, and one might say leads to an inflated number of “Best of Class” winners.

The Cabernet Sauvignon number of price specific classes has grown to 16 divisions!

Every year I find myself first checking the smaller or underappreciated classes, which fit with some of the foothills’ most successful wines. For instance the Viognier, Barbera, Tempranillo and Sangiovese classes only had two price divisions to enter. But don’t underestimate our foothill wines’ successes in the larger categories. Central Sierra counties of Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado won more than 25 double-gold medals overall.

A double-gold medal is awarded when all four judging panel members have awarded the wine gold. The biggest overall foothill winner was Jeff Runquist Winery, which nailed the competition top honors with his “Sweepstakes Red” win for his 2013 Amador “Nostro Vino” Zinfandel along with five other gold and double-gold winning wines. And Helwig Vineyards and Winery in Amador County scored two double-gold medals and six gold medals at the event.

And I have fun looking at “out of state” winners to see what unusual grape types or locations are finding success and caught the judge’s attention. These grape types must be a big challenge for some judges who do not have the opportunity to taste other state offerings on a regular basis. It was also interesting to see a Michigan Riesling along with Texas Cabernet Franc, Montepulciano and Aglianico respectively winning “Best of Class” medals. Or what a “Best of Class” Petite Noir from Tennessee even tastes like!

Locally, congratulations to several wineries.

Villa Vallecito Vineyards won a double gold for its 2013 Barbera along with a gold for its Rhone Blend, the 2013 Payaso. Its winemaker, Nathan Vader, was a big winner with his own label, Vina Moda Winery, having also won double gold for his 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to golds for his 2013 Grenache, Barbera and Syrah and three silvers!

Zucca Mountain won double gold for its 2014 Dry Rose along with four silver medals.

Gold medals were awarded to Black Sheep Winery 2012 Cinsault, Frog’s Tooth 2012 Barbera, Hovey 2013 Barbera, Milliaire 2012 Zinfandel and Ironstone 2013 Zinfandel. Multiple Silver medals were won by Black Sheep Winery, Frogs Tooth Vineyards, Hovey Wines, Inner Sanctum Cellars, Ironstone Winery, La Folia winery, Milliaire Winery, Villa Vallecito Vineyards, Vina Moda Wines and Zucca Mountain Vineyards.

And I should mention the increasing number of wineries outside of our local counties who won Best of Class, double gold and gold medals while using fruit from our foothill vineyards. Or all the wines from other foothill counties that did extremely well.

Congratulations to the many growers who continue to become recognized as prime sources of quality grapes.

You can taste a number of the winners at a big tasting in San Francisco on Feb. 13.

For more details and the list of winners, go online to

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 .