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North Coast AVAs Take Center Stage in Wine Competition to Decide “The Best of the Best”


By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

“Arguably, some of the best wines produced in the world are made right here, in our own backyard.”

So declares Press Democrat’s North Coast Wine Challenge Chief Judge, Daryl Groom, the recipient of eight Winemaker of the Year awards, and who has judged more than 100 wine competitions across the U.S.

The prestigious competition rates wines produced from the six Californian North Coast AVAs: Lake County, Mendocino County, Napa County, Sonoma County, Marin County and parts of Solano County. “It’s the most exclusive wine competition in the country, simply because of the regional focus,” Groom explains. “It really is judging the best of the best.”

All gold medal winners are converted to a score of 90+ points and receive the advantage of descriptive comments from the judging panel, which can be leveraged to improve their marketability.

Daryl Groom

Groom’s responsibility is to set up the panels of professional judges to, as he says, “conduct a tasting that is a perfect competition for the judges and the fairest of competitions for the wines.”

To that end, Groom selects panels of three judges each per panel that contain a meticulous mix of winemakers, sommeliers, media representatives and wine buyers. His logic is that winemakers tend to favor full-bodied wines, sommeliers look for lighter, food-friendly varieties, members of the media are looking for “what’s charming,” and wine buyers want commercial appeal. 

“The entries are judged from three different perspectives to ensure that all wines are treated fairly, to make that gold meaningful,” Groom clarifies. “They’ll be looked at three different ways, really be picked apart.  And thus, a gold medal winner is judged to be a perfectly fantastic wine.”

One of the more unique aspects of this competition is a mentoring program that Groom initiated three years ago, allowing for each panel to include one Associate Judge. The participants tend to be younger professionals, currently working in some aspect of the wine industry, eager to advance their careers. The Associate Judge is allowed to sit on their selected panel, be included in the discussion and scoring, even though their scores are not officially “counted.”

Groom says the feedback on the apprenticeship program has been nothing but positive. According to Corey Beck, winemaker, contestant judge and CEO of Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Groom is right.

“There’s nothing like having world class wines judged in our own back yard by local winemakers, as well as trade professionals from around the world,” Beck enthuses. “Recently Daryl Groom has also designed a mentorship program which allows aspiring new wine professionals to taste with icons in the industry.  I think this is one of the best parts of this competition as we are inspiring the next generations.”

Debra Del Fiorentino is the Competition Director of the Press Democrat’s North Coast Wine Challenge. It’s her job to coordinate all of the complex, “back room” logistics of the event to make sure the judging proceeds efficiently.

No stranger to competition management, Del Fiorentino is an International Wine Judge, Sommelier, Certified Wine Professional, and Certified Specialist of Wine. She is currently the producer of eight different craft beverage competitions, yet still claims that the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge is unsurpassed.

“With the AVAs in this competition, you just can’t get any better,” Del Fiorentino confirms. “Every one of the judges are great. When you have the best judges and the best wines, why wouldn’t you put your wines in? These wines are like your babies, they’re your kids … and this is the best competition there is.”

Doug Frost, Wine & Spirits Consultant, Master Sommelier, Master of Wine, and one of the competition judges this year, couldn’t agree more.

“I eagerly attend the North Coast tasting because this show includes a high level of judges. I really enjoy interacting with this group of wine professionals. And the expectation is that the wines have been vetted in advance, and so we spend time arguing about good and great wines, rather than simply rejecting wines with flaws or of little character,” Frost reports.

“Wineries have to make hard choices about which competitions to enter; I think they look for the highest possible level of judging experience. This competition is replete with experienced judges and professional palates.”

Competition organizers are expecting 1,000 plus wines to be entered into the Wine Challenge this year. The judging itself takes place April 11 and 12 and gold medal winners will be featured at the Press Democrat’s North Coast Food and Wine Festival on June 9, from 1-4 PM at Somo Village in Rohnert Park.

For more information and entry details, go to www.northcoastwinechallenge.com.



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