Home Wine Business Editorial Sales & Marketing A Winning Tradition: Looking Back at the North Coast Wine Challenge

A Winning Tradition: Looking Back at the North Coast Wine Challenge

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Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge Continues to Identify the Best of the Best

 

In 2012, when organizers were planning the first North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC), they could not have known the import that the competition would come to have for Northern California Wine Country.

Debra Del Fiorentino, founder and president of Wine Competitions Management & Productions
Debra Del Fiorentino, founder and president of Wine Competitions Management & Productions

“We knew it was a good idea — focusing a competition only on wines from our local area,” says Debra Del Fiorentinio, whose Sonoma County-based Wine & Spirits Competitions Management and Productions established the event all those years ago. “But none of us anticipated how iconic it would become. In a lot of ways, this competition has helped define the North Bay’s wine culture and establish us as a global leader.”

The attention the competition commands year after year, and the goodwill and respect given to top scorers, translates to boosted sales, club memberships and tourism dollars. Because of this, says Daryl Groom, chief judge at NCWC since its debut year, “We’ve become a ‘must enter’ competition for local wineries. They get a huge amount of benefits. It’s not only medals. It’s point scores, judges comments and feedback for gold medal-winning wines and above. They get their wines in front of the who’s-who in the local wine and restaurant industry. They also get expansive and multiple coverage in the The Press Democrat newspaper [media sponsor of the competition]. 

NCWC also works with The Press Democrat to present the North Coast Food & Wine Festival every summer. Wineries that earned gold medals or higher at NCWC are invited to pour for the public at a day-long event that also spotlights local chefs and features live music and entertainment.

Growing in reputation

Since the first NCWC contest, thousands of wines from Napa, Sonoma, Marin, Lake, Mendocino and (parts of) Solano counties have garnered accolades and press attention. Winning a medal at NCWC is an honor that attracts both curious customers and savvy media. 

Ken and Diane Wilson

Just ask Diane Wilson of Wilson Artisan Wineries, which owns three of the wineries that have earned the most gold medals since the competition began, including Wilson of Dry Creek, which tops the list with 66 golds. (A list of top gold medal winners follows this story.)

“We put everything we have into releasing wines of the best quality from the best growers in Sonoma County,” she says. “We know that it can be a challenge for our out-of-town customers to feel confident in a purchase without tasting and, over the years, we’ve found that, in addition to our established reputation, awards and points assigned by professional judges and critics mean a lot for someone spending their hard-earned money with us.”

Even established wineries, with robust wine clubs and name recognition, can benefit from an NCWC awards boost. Wilson Artisan Wineries, which owns 11 highly regarded North Coast wineries, including Mazzocco Sonoma, deLormier and Greenwood Ridge Vineyards (in addition to those listed below) regularly enters competitions, with NCWC being among the go-to’s for the group.  

“We appreciate the North Coast Wine Challenge is unique to wines in our region, specifically,” says Wilson. “A large number of our wine club members live in the region, and we know they understand the prestige that comes with a rating.

“We use gold medals throughout our sales process,” she continues. “On the menus at the tasting room, we produce banners to alert passersby of the gold-medal wines we have to offer, we send out email campaigns and promote on social media along with select print media. Our staff is always excited to hear about a new gold medal they can use in their sales efforts to guests in-person and customers over the phone.”

Small winery successes

A win at NCWC can be life changing for a small winery. In 2023, for example, Vaughn Duffy winery took the top prize for its 2021 Pinot Noir from Bacigalupi Vineyards. “After we were announced as the winner, we saw an immediate response,” says winery co-owner Matt Duffy. “It was a very exciting time for us. We had an immediate uptick in sales, visitors to our tasting room and new club sign-ups.”

Matt Duffy of Vaughn Duffy Wines


With a tasting room in the tiny Sonoma County village of Kenwood, Vaughn Duffy was an unlikely victor against the heavy hitters that populate the area. But this isn’t the first David V. Goliath story at NCWC. Over the years, myriad smaller producers have benefitted from a strong showing at NCWC. Some, such as Kokomo Wines, Papapietro Perry and Gowan’s Heirloom Cider, have since become recognizable names in their own rights.

“One of the things we’re known for is bringing greater attention to new and smaller producers,” says Del Fiorentino. “Our blind tasting flights level the playing field so judges identify the best wines without prejudice [for label or reputation]. Lesser known wines often jump to the front of their categories.”

“The win definitely set us on an upward trajectory for the year and hopefully beyond,” says Duffy. “We feel very grateful and fortunate to win the Best of the Best award. We’re looking forward to participating in the North Coast Wine Challenge again this year.”

Competition and camaraderie

“We certainly love to win — who doesn’t?,” says Wilson. “But a rising tide lifts all boats. There are so many tremendous winemakers [in the North Bay], and successful winemaking and delicious wines that are judged accordingly serve to provide more confidence in wine as a category.”

Over the years, NCWC has grown in size and reputation. Today, it’s considered a harbinger for the area’s shifting wine trends, and wine lovers far and wide look forward to the announcement of winners every year.

Groom agrees, adding, “For consumers, the competition is great. Our judges do the hard work evaluating all the wines and simply letting [them] know what the best are. I think consumers love the results and the recommendations.”

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For information about how to enter the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge, go to www.pdncwc.com.

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NCWC Top Gold Medal Winning Wineries (2016-2023*)

*earlier data not available

  1. Wilson of Dry Creek (Wilson Artisan Wineries), 66 gold medals
  2. Imagery Estate Winery, 53 gold medals
  3. Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, 47 gold medals
  4. Rodney Strong Vineyards, 39 gold medals
  5. Navarro Vineyards & Winery, 37 gold medals
  6. Pezzi King (Wilson Artisan Wineries), 35 gold medals
  7. St. Anne’s Crossing (Wilson Artisan Wineries), 33 gold medals
  8. Benziger Family Winery, 32 gold medals
  9. (tie) Balletto Vineyards, Dry Creek Vineyard, E&J Gallo, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery; 30 gold medals each
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