By Laura Ness
Mendocino County is a big place. And yet, it’s a very small community. Despite the tremendous increase in vines planted throughout the AVA in the last 20 years (now almost 17,500 acres, with 2500 of those being in the Anderson Valley), there have been around the same number of entries in the annual Mendocino Wine Competition. Only wines made from grapes grown in the Mendocino AVA can be entered in the competition, the 42nd of which was just held in Boonville, a place that defies the passage of time as stubbornly as the steady stream of supply trucks on Highway 128 defies the speed limit.
Brands come and go, but the stalwart remain. Graziano, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Husch, Navarro, Sharffenberger and Roederer: they’ve all been here for decades. The wines, too, are like sitting down with old friends, familiar and welcoming. There is the tantalizing spice of aromatic whites: Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling. There’s the effervescent thrill of bubbles, the ever broadening spectrum of rosés, the seemingly boundless breadth and depth of Pinot Noir, the peppery zinginess of Zinfandel, the black velvet couch cushions of Petite Sirah and the chocolatey tannins of Redwood Valley Cabernet. There’s the comforting reassurance of a well made, delicately scented Anderson Valley Chardonnay, perhaps not from one of the usual suspects.
Every year, there are surprises. A new brand strolls in and turns heads. A variety not tasted in prior competitions suddenly elbows its way to the forefront. But, though there may be new furniture on the porch, that porch still belongs to Navarro.
This year, it was once again not a surprise that the 2020 Navarro Edelzwicker won Best of Show White. It’s a repeat favorite. What was surprising is that it won by a single vote over a fantastic 2020 Gruner Veltliner, also made by Navarro. This was the first time a Gruner had appeared in Best of Show contention here. All five whites in the Best of Show round were in fact Best of Class winners and deserving to wear the Best White crown in their own right, including a sassy 2020 Navarro Gewürztraminer, a silky yet intense 2020 Greenwood Ridge Sauvignon Blanc and a softly floral and delicate 2020 Fathers + Daughters Chardonnay. Tough choice. It came down to the air-dried linen freshness of the Gruner Veltliner versus that smack of sweetness in the Edelzwicker. The 2020 version of this wine is 40% Pinot Gris, 32% Gewürztraminer and 28% Riesling, making it a bit drier than previous bottlings.
The Best of Show Red was a truly headturning 2018 Thomas T Thomas Pinot Noir Reserve Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley, made by Randy Schock of Handley Cellars. Appearing for the first time in this competition, this stunning Pinot Noir handily outclassed the field of 8 Best of Class reds, which featured two other gorgeous Pinots (2017 Fathers + Daughters Cellars Ella’s Reserve and 2019 Greenwood Ridge Vineyards “Above the Fog”), along with a thrilling lineup of everything from Grenache (2018 Jaxon Keys) to Cabernet Sauvignon (2017 Husch) to Brutocao’s 2018 “Quadriga” blend of Italian varieties.
Ohio born winegrower Thomas T. Thomas has spent all of the pandemic with his wife sequestered in their second home in the Anderson Valley, surrounded by vineyards. He admitted he was quite shell-shocked at the news of winning Best Red of Show, his very first time entering the Mendocino Wine competition. “I am just thrilled and happy for my family and those people who have really supported us. I want to thank Randy Schock, the Handley family and the wonderful people of Anderson Valley. This wine thing started as a crazy dream born in Burgundy, France in 1999, and to see your dreams come true…there is just no feeling like it.”
That his 2018 Reserve Pinot Noir won the John Parducci Award made it even more special. Says Thomas, “How fitting!! When my wife and I moved to California in 1989, I didn’t drink red wine. I didn’t understand it and so it just tasted like battery acid to me. The first time red wine made sense to me was at a dinner in the fall of 1989. The wine we had with our steak was a Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend. For some reason, red wine made sense that night. I could taste all of the different flavors, and I have never looked back.”
This is the second time Thomas has taken home Best of Show this year. He’d just about given up on wine competitions when, as a fluke, he entered his 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir into the Monterey Wine Competition in March. It garnered him a Platinum medal, 97 points, and the coveted Wine of the Year Award. Although Thomas thought he might do well in the Mendocino competition, he never once suspected he would win, thinking the 2018 Pinot was just too young and tight. But that’s where professional judges come in. Some can pretty accurately predict a wine’s trajectory. (The 2018 Thomas T. Thomas, Buster’s Hill Pinot, which he describes as bigger and more muscular, scored Silver. It will probably score Gold on its next outing.)
The second highest vote getter in the Best of Show Red contest was the 2018 Boonville Road Syrah, a stunning, white pepper laden example made by Ed Donovan from the Broken Leg vineyard in the Deep End of Anderson Valley. Other standouts were the 2018 Barra Zinfandel from the hillside Bella Collina ranch, and the 2018 Denier-Handal Vineyards Petite Sirah from the Venturi Family, who dry farms their vineyard in Calpella. Suffice it to say, choosing from among these 8 winning reds was really, really hard.
Both Navarro and Husch had three Best of Class wines in the Best of Show round, and both Fathers + Daughters and Greenwood Ridge each had two. Talk about consistent excellence.
Guy Pacuar of Fathers + Daughters was completely shocked and delighted to hear that he had both a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Best of Show round. “We were surprised and honored with the recognition Fathers + Daughters Cellars received from the judges at the 2021 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition. As a small family collaboration, it was exciting to be included in the same company as some of our favorite wineries. We are fortunate that the combination of Ferrington Vineyard fruit and the extraordinary skills of our winemaker, Phil Baxter Jr., provide us with age-worthy wines of great character.”
Brad Holstine, Husch winemaker, and Zac Robinson, CEO, were thrilled to have entered 14 wines, winning five double golds, seven golds and two silvers. Three Husch wines were in the Best of Show round, among them the 2018 Merlot from La Ribera Vineyards, on the east side of Russian River. Sadly, 2018 marked its last year in production, so this wine was crafted to pay tribute to the vines quality performance over the years. Let’s hear it for Merlot!
Filled with classic cigar box, leather and cassis, the 2017 Husch Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of clone 6 and 337 from La Ribera Vineyard, and clone 15 sourced from Dark Horse Vineyards, a neighboring biodynamic hillside vineyard in the Ukiah Valley. A Best of Class winner, in every way.
The 2019 Husch Heritage blend came from their Garzini estate on the Talmage Bench in Ukiah Valley, and is 50% Petite Sirah, 40% Zinfandel and 10% Carignane. Says Holstine, “These are old vines, with some blocks dating back to the 1940s. We are currently working to keep these old blocks in production by replanting the holes, employing T-bud grafting of original budwood on newly planted St. George. Nobody ever said getting old was easy, right? The concept of the Heritage bottling was to mimic the Old World field blend, but incorporate more modern winemaking techniques.”
Best of Show Sparkling went to McFadden Farm Cuvée Brut from Potter Valley. It was the second time in the last two years that a McFadden sparkling took the honors. In 2019, proprietor, farmer and spirited Irishman, Guinness McFadden, was delighted to win Best Sparkling with his Sparkling Cuvée Brut Rosé, and in 2015, he was stoked to receive his first Best of Show Sparkling award for the McFadden Cuvée Brut, putting a stop to the sole domination of bubbles by Roederer and Sharffenberger. The more the merrier!
Taking Best Rosé of Show was the 2020 Lula Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir from Day Ranch Vineyard, farmed by local viticulturist, Casey Hartlip, who also farmed the Navarro Gruner Veltliner, as well as the Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling that went into Navarro’s winning Edelzwicker. Lula’s winemaker is Matt Parrish. This is Lula Cellars first Best of Show win at this competition.
Best of Show Dessert wine went once again to Navarro, this time for their 2019 Anderson Valley Cluster Select Late Harvest Riesling, another perennial favorite. Winemaker Jim Klein just keeps knocking it out of the park.
For the record, there were 233 wine entries from 46 wineries at the 2021 Mendocino Wine Competition. Since the Olympics just wrapped up, we should mention medal counts. This year, there were 46 double golds, 62 golds and 103 silvers.
Competition Director, Allan Green, commented, “Overall, I have to say that the quality of the wines this year was excellent across the board, judging by the number of medals awarded!”
Navarro entered 23 wines, the most of any winery, scoring medals for each, garnering two Best of Show awards, nine double golds, five golds and nine silver medals. Greg Graziano entered 17 wines under his various labels, coming away with three double golds, four golds and ten silvers.
Judges were Dan Berger, Jim Gordon, Laura Ness, Chris Sawyer, Greg Richtarek, Ziggy Eschliman, Amanda Slade, Marsella Charron, and Wilfred Wong.
The Best of Class wines that vied for Best White and Best Red honors were:
- Navarro Vineyards Gruner Veltliner 2020
- Navarro Vineyards Gewürztraminer 2020
- Greenwood Ridge Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2020
- Fathers + Daughters Cellars Chardonnay 2020
- Navarro Vineyards Edelzwicker 2020 – Best of Show White, Charlie Barra Award
- Jaxon Keys Grenache Estate 2019
- Fathers + Daughters Cellars Pinot Noir Ella’s Reserve 2017
- Thomas T. Thomas Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2018 – Best of Show Red, John Parducci Award
- Greenwood Ridge Vineyards Pinot Noir “Above the Fog” 2019
- Husch Vineyards Merlot 2018
- Boonville Road Syrah Anderson Valley 2018
- Husch Vineyards Old Vines Heritage Blend 2019
- Brutocao Cellars Quadriga 2018
- Husch Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017
- Barra of Mendocino Zinfandel 2018
- Denier-Handal Vineyards Petite Sirah 2017
Gold medal winning wines will be poured at the Mendocino County Fair, which takes place in Boonville, September 17—19, 2021.
The complete list of the 2021 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition awards can be found here: www.mendowine.com.
Kudos to all those who entered and scored medals: you can’t win if you don’t play.