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SF Chronicle Wine Competition 2014 breaks all records!

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Sometimes one has to be in the story to write about it! Consequently this Examiner agreed to spend 56 volunteer hours to help make the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, American's largest wine competition, work like a finely oiled machine!

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The competition was held at Cloverdale's Citrus Fair from January 6th through the 10th. All previous records were broken with 5825 entries, from 25 states, with 72 judges, 125 volunteers providing 7,000 hours of labor and handling nearly 35,000 bottles of wine about 8 times each in order to assure the most accurate and fairest wine judging possible.

Of course, the public will get to taste many of the winners (over 800 wineries will participate) at a public tasting of the premier winners at Fort Mason Center's Festival Pavilion on February 15th from 1:30pm-5pm. Thousands of people will flock to this event and taste some of the hundreds of award winning wines. Tickets are still available for $65.00 each at winejudging.com/event_tickets.htm . This is usually a sellout but, if available, tickets are $80.00 at the door.

The Cloverdale Citrus Fair, the locus of this event, was established in 1892 as a simple country fair focused on the wonderful citrus fruits grown in the area. The Citrus Fair remains the earliest fair (February 14-17, 2014) in California complete with a parade, floats, a King and Queen and a carnival. The Citrus Fair organization, headed up by CEO Bonnie Wlodarczyk, becomes an integral member of the team delivering and removing tons of materials including tables, partitions, chairs, assisting in the movement of the nearly 120 pallets of wine, washing and rewashing thousands of glasses, dishes and other service items.

Again, as it has over the past 15 years, the competition has been name sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle|SFGate.com. A wide range of other sponsors provide financial, media and other support for the event to include the judging and the public tasting. To name a few: Bevmo!, Stella Artois, KGO News, NBC Bay Area, Wine & Spirits Magazine, Wine & Vines and Santa Rosa Junior College.

The heart of the competition is the organization, the leadership team, the volunteers, the judges and, of course, the wine. Beginning the day after the Pubic Tasting in February 2013 a virtual army of volunteers, led by a small corps of 5 paid staff, began the planning and preparations for the this year.

The volunteers and the judges were provided breakfast and lunch each day of the judging week. Patti and Friends Catering of Cloverdale, augmented in the kitchen by the Citrus Fair staff, prepared and served 2400 meals. The food was fresh, wholesome, varied and delightful. Closely related to the catering team was the dish/kitchen team from the Citrus Fair (augmented by volunteers) who washed and dried the thousands of glasses used over and over again as well as the dishes and silverware for all those meals.

In addition to the small paid staff and the 125 volunteers there are interns. This year the interns came from Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) and the Sonoma State Wine Business Institute, both of which have well regarded oenology and business programs. Each intern is expected to provide at least 88 hours to the event. The benefit for these students is reflected in their resumes.

Through this inclusive and diverse process small new wineries like 3 Steves Winery in Livermore, California (licensed in 2010) are invited to participate and make their name by achieving a medal status. In their first year in the competition, 3 Steves Winery was awarded one Silver and two bronze Medals. This year they upped the ante and achieved a Best of Class Sweepstakes win for the 2011 Ancient Vines Zinfandel from the Cienega Valley, San Benito County. In fact, wineries from all over the United States participate including the Finger Lakes in New York, Arizona, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and at least 19 other states.

This year there were 17 judging panels. Each panel had 3-5 judges (always an odd number) and 1 volunteer coordinator to manage the process and record the judging results. Judges are selected based upon a wide criteria including noted reputations as professional judges, winemakers, wine buyers (restaurant/hospitality and retail), academia, media, food and tourist industries and the wine industry. All intended to provide the consumer a good sense of what might be perfect for them. Some widely known professionals included Wilfred Wong, Diane Teitelbaum, Jon Bonné, Carl Brandhorst, Catherine Rabb, Kent Rosenblum and Charles Mara.

This Examiner had the opportunity to speak with DeWayne Holmdahl, a veteran of eight Chronicle competitions and Jessica Altieri who just finished her sophomore year. DeWayne and Jess could not be more different nor could they be more perfect in representing today's wine aficionado.

DeWayne is a long time Santa Barbara County resident and radio show host. His focuses his judging on finding excellent wines for the consumer. He is less interested in the wine being true to the varietal's classic characteristics and more on the consumer quality of the wine...will the general public find it approachable. His favorite element of the Chronicle competition is the truly independent nature of the judging.

Jess, a Chicago native who has done a stint in New York with MSNBC is a digital age entrepreneur who has founded the first Wine TV Channel and written her first book, 'Kiss My Glass'. Her description of the competition was, 'The Super Bowl of wine events' as she reflected on the world class process and the amazing number of wines. Like DeWayne, Jess loved being surrounded by the amazing swath of wine industry professionals and judges. She had nothing but praise for the volunteers and the organization.

On Friday, the judges selected the winners of the 88 Best of Class Sweepstakes winners. Wines were all re-tasted by the judges to select the Sweeps winners by class. Those winners were:

Sparkling (co-winners):

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2009 Brut

Korbel Champagne Cellars NV Brut Rosé

White: Baldacci Family Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay

Pink: Barnard Griffin 2013 Rosé of Sangiovese

Red (co-winners):

3 Steves Winery 2011 Zinfandel

Calcareous Vineyard 2010 Syrah

Dessert: Ferrante Winery 2012 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine

The Beneficiaries of the proceeds are the non-profit Cloverdale Citrus Fair and the wine and culinary arts programs at Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University, Fresno State University, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Napa Valley College and other non-profits.

The Bottom-line

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is an event of epic proportions both in the judging in Cloverdale and the much anticipated public tasting at Fort Mason. The 5,500 guests at Fort Mason will never quite know of the army of volunteers and judges who toiled to bring these wines to their attention.

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