After 27 judges worked their way through 1,005 wines April 12, Sonoma’s Westwood Estate Winery landed on top of the 2016 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge, taking home a triple crown.
The Westwood Estate 2014 Sonoma Valley Annadel Gap Vineyard Clone 37 Pinot Noir was the judges’ top pick, receiving 99 out of 100 points and taking home the Best of Show Red, Best of Sonoma County and the Best of the Best awards.
The deep red pinot noir, with hints of raspberry, black cherry, vanilla and spice, inspired the judges to comment, “An absolute stunner. Wow!”
The contest, co-hosted by the Press Democrat and Vineyard & Winery Management, is open to wineries that source fruit from the North Coast AVA, including Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties and parts of Marin and Solano counties.
Westwood grows small lots of pinot noir and Rhone Valley varietals at Annadel Gap Vineyard, located at the far northwest corner of the Sonoma Valley AVA. The 22-acre vineyard is located in a narrow pass between the Sonoma Mountains and Hood Mountain, known as the Annadel Gap, which enjoys a cool climate due to morning fog and afternoon breezes out of the northwest.
“It’s at that pinch point as you’re starting into the Sonoma Valley from Santa Rosa,” said Chris Vyenielo, partner and general manager of Westwood. “It’s a very cold site, so it gets the full impact of the ocean influence.”
Although the vineyard was first planted in 2001 and three of the original four partners still own the winery, 2014 marked the first vintage produced by the winery’s new team, including Consulting Winemaker David Ramey, Winemaker Ben Cane, Assistant Winemaker Natalie Winkler and Biodynamic Vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey.
“There was a lot of hard work, and everybody is excited about getting this award,” Vyenielo said. “It encourages us to keep trying to find how we can really get more out of this site.”
A native of Australia, Cane honed his pinot noir crafting skills while working for Twomey Cellars in Healdsburg.
“Ben’s hallmark is impeccable balance,” Vyenielo said. “He’s able to create that generosity on the palate with fruit and texture, but he has this wonderful hand at making sure the wine remains vibrant and fresh.”
Out of the 27 judges, 21 were in agreement that the pinot noir was the Best Red Wine as well as the Best of the Best at the competition. It’s the second time in the contest’s four-year history that a pinot noir took home the top prize.
“This is the highest number of votes for one wine we have seen in the four years of the competition,” said Chief Judge Daryl Groom. The judging panel uses the acclimation voting system, which means judges can vote for as many wines as they want and the wine with the highest votes wins.
“The panel of judges are people who know wine, and they have a very high level of knowledge,” Vyenielo said. “To have that peer group have that level of alignment is the highest award.”
Westwood was one of 22 wineries entering the contest for the first time this year. Westwood Estate Winery’s production facility is located off Eighth Street East in Sonoma, and its tasting room is just off the Sonoma Plaza, in the Vine Alley complex.
In another North Coast winery coup, the Navarro Vineyards 2015 Mendocino County Pinot Blanc won two top awards: Best of Show White and Best of Mendocino County awards. It was awarded 97 points.
The delicate white wine is emblematic of the aromatic, Alsatian varietals for which the longtime Anderson Valley producer is known. The judges called the aromatic wine “floral and pretty” with a nose that “follows into the palate.”
“It is a wine that is meant to be consumed young and fresh,” said Deborah Cahn, owner of Navarro Vineyards in Philo.
Kokomo Winery 2015 North Coast Grenache Rosé won Best of Show Rosé. The delicate pink wine boasting hints of strawberries and watermelon and a silky texture was made from grapes grown at Teldeschi Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley and Tollini Vineyard in the Redwood Valley of Mendocino County. The judges compared the summery sipper to “burying your head in a watermelon” and gave it 97 points.
The Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2004 Late Disgorged Carneros Cuvée Brut, the well-known Carneros producer’s flagship sparkling wine, took home Best of Show Sparkling Wine. The effervescent bubbly, made from premium estate fruit, opens with aromas of Asian pear and apples with hints of Meyer lemon for balanced acidity. In their comments, the judges said they enjoyed its “complexity,” “tiny bubbles” and “beautiful almond aromas.” It received 97 points.
Husch Vineyards 2014 Anderson Valley Late Harvest Gewurztraminer won Best of Show Dessert/Late Harvest wine. The judges praised the wine as “floral, vibrant, grounded and elegant.” It received 96 points.
Best of County awards were given to wines from all six counties in the North Coast AVA. In order to qualify, the wines had to earn at least 90 points and a gold medal.
Hagafen Cellars 2015 Lake County Clearwater Ranch White Riesling won Best of Lake County. The judges described it as “stylish” and “well balanced,” and gave it 93 points.
The Amizetta Estate Winery 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won Best of Napa County. The judges compared it to a “cashmere sweater: silky, luxurious and elegant,” awarding it 97 points.
The DeLoach Vineyards 2013 Marin County Pinot Noir won Best of Marin County. The judges called the pinot a “classic pinot noir” with “vibrant fruit and a lingering finish.” They gave it 90 points.
Cairdean Vineyards 2014 Suisun Valley Riesling won the Best of Solano County. The judges described it as a “wonderful California Riesling.” It received 90 points.
This year, the judges gave out a total of 184 gold medals, up from 174 last year. The percentage of gold medals was 18.5 percent, up from 17 percent last year. The varietal categories receiving the most entries included pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and sauvignon blanc.
“The strongest wines were pinot by far, with 24 percent getting gold,” Groom said. “But it was refreshing to see an increase in merlot entires and also syrah from last year.”
On May 15, the public can sample all the gold medal-wining wines and enjoy gourmet bites from nine celebrity chefs between 1 and 4 p.m. at the Sonoma Mountain Village Event Center in Rohnert Park. To reserve tickets, go to northcoastwineevent.com.
BEST OF COUNTY WINNERS
Best of Lake County: Hagafen Cellars 2015 Lake County Clearwater Ranch White Riesling
Best of Marin County: DeLoach Vineyards 2013 Marin County Pinot Noir
Best of Mendocino County: Navarro Vineyards 2015 Mendocino County Pinot Blanc
Best of Napa County: Amizetta Estate Winery 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, left
Best of Solano County: Cairdean Vineyards 2014 Suisun Valley Riesling
Best of Sonoma County: Westwood Estate 2014 Sonoma Valley Annadel Gap Vineyard Clone 37 Pinot Noir