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Close Calls as 44 Best of Class Wines Clash in Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition Sweepstakes

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By Laura Ness

Laura Ness
Laura Ness, Judging at Dan Berger’s IWC

As we gathered for the judging of the sweepstakes wines at the Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition earlier this month, the suspense was killing us. Did any of the wines we loved on our panel make it? Not that it really mattered. We trusted all the wines would be great. And we knew there would be some Berger ringers: we anticipated a Gamay Noir, as he mentioned it the night before at the judges dinner, graciously hosted by the generous Cline Family at their stunning Jacuzzi facility, where they served grass fed beef from their Meadowbrook Ranch accompanied by a panoply of produce from their Green String Farms. The meal was as memorable as the bottle of 1978 Ahlgren Zin brought by long-time judge Tom Bohr.

What started out as the Riverside International Wine Competition 37 years ago, eventually moved north to Santa Rosa, becoming Dan Berger’s IWC. It’s fitting, as Dan was among the founders of the original Riverside event. This year’s DBIW competition was managed by Debra del Fiorentino of Wine Competitions, Inc. who, along with her expert backroom staff, is bringing a new world order to the wine competition scene.

With 1,278 entries from all over the world, the nine panels of judges, each of which included a winemaker, had their work cut out for them, eventually sending up 44 wines, each of which had earned Best of Class, to the Sweepstakes. Daunting.

First, was a taste off of two sparklings: a Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Sparkling Brut Rosé vs. the J non-vintage Blanc de Blanc. The Sofia Rosé took it by one vote. Tough crowd.

Then it was on to the 17 whites, which were a grand mélange of intercontinental beauties from across the globe. The winner was a 2017 Echo Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand with 13 votes, followed by the runner up, a 2017 Albarino from Horton Vineyard in Virginia with 12 votes, and third place finisher, the 2015 Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay, with 10 votes.

Dan Berger, Jeff Slankard, and Tom Bohr with 2017 Echo Bay Sauvignon Blanc

Other popular white wines were the 2015 Langhart Hill Dry Riesling from Sonoma (9 votes), the 2016 Thirsty Owl Traminette from the Finger Lakes (NY) with 9 votes, a Seyval Blanc “Prairie Fumé” from Wisconsin with 7 votes and two white blends, a 2016 Seyval Blanc and Vidal blend from Cellar Door Winery in Maine, and a perky blend of Cayuga, Valvin Muscat, Vignoles and Aromella, from St. James Winery in Missouri. If any of those varieties are new to you, welcome to the club. Let’s just say they work together like a well-tuned string quartet.

Next up was a faceoff between two rosés, the 2017 Miro Grenache and the 2017 Draxton Pinot Meunier rosé that won the Experience Rosé competition earlier this year. The latter won 14 to 10.

Twenty reds now vied for our collective attention, again hailing from far and wide. The top vote-getter, with 17, was the spicy 2016 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, followed by the smooth operator 2016 Trentadue La Storia Reserve Zinfandel from Geyserville with 11 votes, and the 2016 Miro Petite Sirah from Dry Creek with 10 votes, exhibiting beautiful weight and drive. Winemaker Miro Tcholakov (of the Trentadue and Miro labels) surely had a hard time deciding between his Zin and Petite Sirah on this one.

Sweepstakes wines

Four wines garnered 9 votes each: the 2015 Miro Pinot Noir from Conzelman Vineyard in Anderson Valley, the 2016 Jeff Runquist Sangiovese from Amador County, the 2016 Scott Harvey Barbera from Amador County and the 2015 Reustle Prayer Rock Syrah from Umpqua Valley, Oregon.

The Merlot-, Sangiovese- and Montepulciano-dominant Cuvee 32 La Storia Reserve from Trentadue topped the red blends with 8 votes, while the peppery excitement of the 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir from Michigan and the 2016 Jeff Runquist Charbono from the Sierra Foothills, each also garnered 8 votes.

Miro Tcholakov
Miro Tcholakov, Trentadue and Miro Cellars

In the dessert wine category, there were three finalists: a St. James Winery (Missouri) Sweet Red made of Chambourcin, Norton, Chardonel, Valvin Muscat and Traminette, which brought in two votes, and the St. James Blackberry dessert wine and Hazlitt Vineyards Late Harvest Vidal Blanc from the Finger Lakes which were initially tied with 11 votes each. It turned out winemaker Nick Goldschmitt had either forgotten to vote or had abstained. He subsequently cast the deciding vote for the Blackberry, and the folks at St. James could be heard cheering all the way across the country.

As always, some winemakers seemed to have hit the sweet spot, with multiple wines in the Sweeps. This time, it was Miro Tcholakov of Trentadue and Miro Cellars, with a total of five wines in the Sweepstakes. St. James Winery had three, and Jeff Runquist, two.

Sweepstakes Winners Recapped:

  • Best Sparkling: Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Sparkling Brut Rosé
  • Best White: 2017 Echo Bay Sauvignon Blanc
  • Best Rosé: 2017 Draxton Pinot Meunier Rosé
  • Best Red: 2016 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Best Dessert: St. James Winery Blackberry wine

Note: Berger does not believe in a “Best of Show,” saying, “That would be pitting apples against oranges.”

Congratulations to all the Sweepstakes winners and to the Best of Class winners. As Berger remarked of the Sweepstakes lineup, “Every category had amazing wines, and you found them all!”

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