By Tom Bender

We are only a few weeks into the new year and we are already weighing in on a wine judging competition.

The country’s largest wine judging event is the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and it took place the first week of the month in Sonoma County. It has grown to be the largest competition in America with upward of 6,900 entries this year.

I always find this judging fascinating because it draws wines from around the country, and this year there were 33 states represented, and the Sierra Foothills usually score big with a number of medal winners. Wines were judged by a number of highly regarded industry leaders, wine educators and winemaking experts from around the country.

Once again, my only complaint is the exaggerated number of classes in which wineries can enter a specific wine. The premise is good because the competition divides the wine classes by price categories, which are judged accordingly.

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. It is overkill.

The Cabernet Sauvignon number of price-specific classes has grown to 17 divisions. And this year they have added “Grape Dominated” classes to include multiple price ranges for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. It just stretches out the overwhelming number of “Best of Class” winners. There are over 150 potential classes for entering wines. No wonder it takes more than four days to judge all the wines.

This year, I did not see a number of larger U.S. wineries entering wines made from grapes grown outside the country, such as Malbec from Argentina or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. This was a problem with last year’s competition.

It is still a favorite judging, especially when I see a winery or region from outside California win some big awards.

Overall, the top winners and sweepstake awards included: Sparkling Sweepstake, Rack and Riddle (CA) N/V Sonoma Blanc de Noir; White Sweepstake, Brick Barn Wine Estate (CA) 2016 Vermentino; Rose Sweepstake, Bernard Griffin (WA) 2017 Columbia Valley Rose of Sangiovese; Red Sweepstake, O’Shaughnessy (CA) 2014 Napa Valley Howell Mtn Cabernet Sauvignon; Specialty/Dessert Sweepstake, Merritt Estate (NY) 2015 Lake Erie Vidal Ice Wine

Several Sierra foothill producers took home “Best of Class” medals in various categories, and others scored Double Gold, which is awarded when a panel of four judges all agree on the wine being worthy of a gold medal.

The biggest foothill winner was Amador County’s Jeff Runquist Wines, which like last year, picked up the most Double Gold and Gold wines.

And I always have fun looking at the out-of-state wineries and what they are producing. I was surprised to see there was only one California winery among the top 10 medaled for their medium sweet Riesling. Once again, there was Viognier from Virginia and Texas along with Cabernet Franc from New York and Virginia.

If you look at a number of wineries with listed grape appellation, you will see a number of references to Sierra Foothill vineyards. So congratulations to the many growers who continue to become recognized as a prime source of quality grapes for both our local wineries and winemakers outside the foothills.

You can taste these winners at the competition’s big tasting in San Francisco at Fort Mason from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Feb. 17. Get your tickets in advance, because the event has sold out the past several years.

For more details, 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 .