CLOVERDALE, Calif. — This week’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition won’t break last year’s record, but the 6,850 entries still makes it the largest in the United States.
In terms of national importance, the competition founded 1983 in Sonoma County is arguably the No. 1 marketing tool for Pacific Northwest wineries in the first half of the year. There were 678 wines from Washington, Oregon and Idaho to merit a medal from judges a year ago at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
“Washington and the Willamette Valley are probably the two strongest areas outside of California in terms of entries,” competition director Bob Fraser told Great Northwest Wine on Tuesday. “Usually, the entries mirror what the production is around the country. California is about 80 percent, and Washington is the next number, then Oregon and the Finger Lakes.
“We’re getting a lot of excitement from Washington and Oregon, which tickles me pink because I love both areas — and the consumers love it as well.”
5,000 attend Fort Mason tasting of top wines
The Cloverdale Citrus Fair fundraiser checked in 7,160 entries a year ago, which created some unwelcomed pressure, Fraser said.
“We had pretty close to 7,200 entries last year, and we felt that we didn’t want to go over that for the 2017 competition,” he said. “We came up with an earlier deadline in order to give us more time during the Christmas holidays to process the wines, and if we ended up a little bit under 7,000, then that would still be fine for us — and probably a little more manageable for us. Any more than 7,200 entries would be a breaking point.”
Their competition has more than doubled since the 3,318 entries in 2006, when it became the world’s largest judging of American wines. Fraser and his Sonoma County team that blends a dozen part-time paid workers with more than 100 volunteers established the deadline as Nov. 20.
“And we didn’t really push for entries after the deadline,” Fraser said.
There’s plenty of wine for his 20 panels of judges to work through during the course of three days leading up to Friday morning’s sweepstakes. That’s when the most of the 60 judges will determine the competition’s best red white, best white wine, best dessert wine, best sparkling wine and best rosé. Those wines will be poured for 5,000 wine lovers Feb. 18 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. That event requires another 100 or so volunteers.
“Some of the Washington wineries do come down to the Bay Area for distribution and pour at the public tasting,” Fraser said. “Wineries that have good marketing programs know how to utilize winnings. It’s just another conversation point for your winery personnel, especially for direct sales.
“The wine industry is such a competitive business out there today,” Fraser added. “You can use the competition results as another marketing tool — your point of sales materials, having a plaque on the wall, having a big notice in the Chronicle special section which goes out to 1 million Bay Area consumers.”
Northwest shines at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Comp
A year ago, Pacific Northwest wines earned two of the five superlatives. Barnard Griffin’s 2015 Rosé of Sangiovese was selected the top rose, marking the 10th time in the past 11 years that owner/winemaker Rob Griffin’s historically superb pink wine earned a gold medal or better at the Chronicle. It was the fifth time the rosé from the Richland, Wash., winery has won the top trophy.
“You could see a Sangiovese rosé again,” Fraser said with a chuckle.
Claar Cellars in Pasco, Wash., took the top dessert wine with its 2013 White Bluffs Vineyard Riesling ice wine.
“I’ve made a lot of trips up to the Northwest,” Fraser said. “This past year it was Oregon. The year before I went up to Washington, visiting the wineries and seeing their plaques on the wall. The excitement of meeting the owners and principals of the wineries has been a lot of fun for me.”
His recent visit to the Willamette Valley merely verified what he knew to be as the region’s most important varieties. “The quality of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris is absolutely outstanding,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fraser has noticed the increase in proprietary red blends from Washington wineries.
“It’s big,” he said. “The numbers of entries for our competition have ultimately tripled, so for the first time I’ve put in a Cabernet-dominant red blend category, Merlot-dominant, Grenache-dominant, Syrah-dominant, etc., just to give the judges an idea of what is actually in that red blend for them to better judge that red wine. We’ll see how that works out.
“There’s also the resurgence of rosés, and Pinot Noir is almost matching Cabernet Sauvignon,” Fraser said. “Of course, Chardonnay is the queen. We get huge numbers of Chardonnay.”
Northwest entries spark growth in 2005
It was the opening up of the California competition to Washington, Oregon and Idaho in 2005 that sparked the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition’s rise to national prominence.
“There is a lot of value for the regional competitions,” Fraser said. “You get a sense for regional pride and get the consumers comparing their local wines. Those are all valuable. When you get up to the national competitions, that’s where a few of the competitions are foundering a little bit. There are even rumors that a few will be disbanding. There are quite a few of these national/international competitions, and how many of those do you really need?”
And yet there’s growing support for the Daytona 500 of wine competitions. The San Francisco Chronicle has remained the title sponsor in its partnership with the Cloverdale Citrus Fair since 2000. BevMo is the presenting sponsor. Safeway has joined, as well as American AgCredit, NBC Bay Area TV and KGO Radio. Among the winery association partners listed on WineJudging.com are the Oregon Wine Board and the Willamette Valley Wineries.
Fraser remains the eye of the hurricane for the competition he was hired to take over in 1984, but he now shares responsibility as director with son, Scott, and teaches only part-time at Santa Rosa Junior College. The former department chair also tends Jago Bay Vineyards in Lake County with his son.
“I love the Washington region, and I want to go back up there this next summer to make some visits,” Bob Fraser said. “Tell your wineries that I may be calling them.”