This Sonoma County entrepreneur is responsible for more than a dozen prestigious tasting events, including the upcoming Sunset International Wine & Spirits Competition.
By Alexandra Russell
What does it take to revive a beloved brand? Scratch that: not just “revive,” but to bring it back bigger and better? Patience, perseverance and vision. Just ask Debra Del Fiorentino, founder and president of Wine Competitions Management & Productions (WCMP), who, in 2018, set her sights on resuscitating the dormant Sunset International Wine Competition.
A bit of history
Founded in 1898, Sunset magazine was originally used as a promotional tool by Southern Pacific Railroad to convince leisure travelers to journey West on the company’s Sunset line. In the 1920s, Sunset was purchased by a pair of brothers and rebranded to reflect an idealized Western lifestyle. For almost a century, it delivered articles focused on home, garden, travel, food and adventures.
The magazine underwent a rapid series of ownership changes in the 1990s and early 2000s. The result was a severely scaled-back version of the once-mighty Western juggernaut. By 2020, the magazine had migrated to an online-only format.
Among the cutback casualties over these years was the Sunset International Wine Competition, which ceased operation in 2017, despite its popularity and stellar reputation.
A natural progression
“I’m like a pitbull when I want something,” laughs Del Fiorentino. “I don’t let go.” Proof of that statement can be found in her professional history, which reads like an aspirational how-to.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Del Fiorentino founded Vita Buona (“To the Good Life”), a gourmet grocery store, in Marin County in the 1980s. Before too long, she had expanded her offerings from cheese and charcuterie to meals to-go. That shift led to The Big Event, a catering and event production company that boasted several large corporate clients in The City and beyond.
It was around this time she started studying wine with Wilfred Wong. She sold The Big Event but stayed on as a consultant for one year, during which time she pursued her interest in wine by attending the CIA’s Wine Program in St. Helena, Calif. Inspiration truly struck in the early 1990s, when she heard winemaker Carol Shelton speak about judging a competition.
“I knew I wanted to judge,” says Del Fiorentino. “I just wasn’t sure how to get started.”
A chance opportunity opened that door, and Del Fiorentino stepped through enthusiastically. “A sick friend who was supposed to judge a nearby competition called me to take their place last minute,” she recalls. “I was really nervous at first, but I loved it. I knew right away I wanted to keep going.”
Her studies had, by then, paid off with a WSET Level 3 sommelier designation; she’s also a certified specialist of wine (CSW) and a certified wine professional (CWP). “Once I started, I wanted to learn everything there was to know about wine,” she says. “And, it turns out, I have a really good palate.”
By 2012, Del Fiorentino was judging regularly and was working with Rob Merletti, owner of the now-defunct Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, helping organize the four competitions owned by the publication: International Women’s Wine Competition, International Eastern Wine Challenge, West Coast Wine Competition and the Harvest Wine Challenge.
When the magazine hit dire financial straits a few years later, Del Fiorentino purchased the competitions branch of the business from Merletti and set about building her next company. Today, WCMP owns and operates 13 competitions across the wine and spirits spectrum and is widely acknowledged to be a top-notch operation. Its competitions include The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge, Harvest Challenge, East Meets West, International Women’s Wine Competition, International Women’s Spirits Competition, Experience Rosé, Craft Distillers Spirits Competition, Los Angeles Invitational Wine and Spirits Challenge, Sunset International Wine Competition and Sunset International Spirits Competition (Sunset is the naming sponsor for these last two).
Sunset rises again
When Del Fiorentino first approached Time Warner about bringing back the Sunset Wine Competition, she was met not with resistance, but with apathy. “[They] didn’t want to bother. It took almost a year of meetings before we started making progress…and then the magazine sold again and I had to start over.”
This time, armed with hard-earned knowledge from her previous attempt, Del Fiorentino succeeded in her mission. In 2018, WCMP put out a call for entry to the new and improved Sunset International Wine & Spirits Competition.
Typically, a new wine competition starts modestly, but not Sunset. That first year took Del Fiorentino and her team by surprise with an overwhelming number of entries — more, in fact, than the competition had ever received in its previous iteration. “We knew we had a hit,” she says now. “Entries just kept coming and coming.”
Incorporating a spirits arm into the contest only added to the appeal. “It just made sense,” says Del Fiorentino. “We revived Sunset right at the first peak of the craft spirits boom. Distillers were looking for ways to stand out and attract consumers.”
According to Sunset, the wine and spirits competition is designed to attract all producers interested in reaching the Western drinking audience and juried by the region’s best judges, who bring an understanding of the Western palate and lifestyle to their task. This competition also makes its winning wines part of the most influential wine program in the country, as Sunset is committed to promoting its winners.
Since 2018, the Sunset International Wine & Spirits Competition has grown exponentially, even through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Del Fiorentino worked with her local county board or health to develop and implement safety protocols for hosting a wine competition (judges, backroom and support staff) during the shutdown. Her work — which includes distancing, temperature and vaccination checks, mask protocols and shifting responsibilities within the onsite group to minimize cross contamination — has since been adopted by similar events across the country.
When judges are called to their tables this June, they’ll be met with safe and professional accommodations, as well as thousands of potential winners. “I get excited every time,” says Del Fiorentino, referring to the start of a competition. “There are all these entries, and any one of them could be the best. I love the process of evaluating, discussing, debating — sometimes arguing — and slowly narrowing the field until only one wine or spirit is left.”
The 2022 Sunset International Wine & Spirits Competition will take place June 7-8 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Deadline for entry is May 30. For more information, visit https://sunsetcompetitions.com/sunset-international-wine-competition.
Alexandra Russell is Managing Editor at Wine Industry Advisor. She can be reached at [email protected]