Local winemaker Jeff Runquist had a lot to smile about this past week after learning about the results of the Sierra Foothill Wine Judging competition in Calaveras County.
Jeff had entered upward of 20 wines this year and when I connected with him last weekend he remarked with a smile that his tombstone will probably read “He never met a wine varietal he did not like.” He should probably consider adding “or made a wine that did not win him a gold medal.” That was almost the case at the 2019 Calaveras competition in late April.
Twenty-five judges from around the state assembled at the fairgrounds in Angels Camp to judge wines from the foothills. The crew was comprised of individuals from around the wine industry including winemakers, writers, managers and educators. The judging is open to any winery or producer located in the seven counties that make up the Sierra Foothill appellation.
It is hard to believe this was the 38th annual Sierra Foothill wine competition in Calaveras County and I have overseen 37 of them. I was assistant manager of the City Hotel Restaurant in Columbia in the early 1980s and featured a growing selection of foothill wineries on our wine list. As a result in I was asked by Calaveras winery owner Barden Stevenot to expanding the first year’s 1981 judging that consisted of a meager three participants.
Looking back on the second annual judging in 1982, the competition featured one winery form Calaveras, Stevenot Winery, along with another dozen or so from Amador and El Dorado counties. About 70 wines were entered and 19 of them were Zinfandels. The next most popular category was White Zinfandel with 10 entrees. Popular grapes at the time included Chenin Blanc and Ruby Cabernet which have disappeared from the current competition. And the judging at the time had not a single Barbera, which has now become a big player in our foothills. And the best of show winner that year was the 1979 Montevina Special Selection Zinfandel.
You have to go back 150 years to fully understand the role of the foothills in the development of the California wine scene. The Gold Rush played a significant role. European miners missed the wines of their countries and with gold fields being tougher than they thought, winemaking became a much more viable option. In the late 1850s acreage being devoted to grape growing outweighed any other crop.
According to records, Tuolumne County alone planted over 40,000 vines in 1858. It even led to a judge’s decision in 1863 to protect growers by making it illegal for miners to dig under already planted vineyards. This led to an increase in vineyards as farmers tried to protect their land. By the late 1860s there is estimated to have been more than 2,500 bonded wineries in California with a good share of them in the Sierra Foothills. Being bonded allowed the property to commercially sell their wine. A surveyors report in 1867 stated that Amador County generated almost 130,000 gallons of wine while Calaveras and Tuolumne counties topped 50,000 gallons.
Fast forward to this year’s competition with more than 250 wines entered, and over 45 different classes of wines. Not to mention an increasing number of grape varieties including 16 different types alone entered by Jeff Runquist. All of his wines medaled and most won gold or better. Every year the competition provides insight to the region’s progress and this year it seemed like a growing number of Spanish white varietals were entered with many picking up silver medals. The best of show white gold medal went to the 2017 Ironstone Vineyards Symphony called Obsession. The Symphony grape was developed by Davis University decades ago and only a handful of wineries continue to make this floral and fruity white. The best of Calaveras white went to the 2017 Black Sheep 2017 Semillon, another under-the-radar grape. Inner Sanctum Cellars picked up a double gold for its 2018 Chardonnay while gold went to Sobon Estate 2017 Roussanne, Ironstone Vineyards 2017 Viognier and Gianelli Vineyards 2017 Pinot Grigio.
Wines that win gold or better moved on to a second judging to determine the best-of category. The rose category continues to grow and show success, especially with Rhone-type grapes. Lavender Ridge 2018 Grenache picked up double gold and Inner Sanctum 2018 Grenache won gold. Best of show rose/blush went to the 2018 Milliaire White Zinfandel, the only one entered and made in a drier style than the popular style from years ago. As for the reds entered, Barbera and Sangiovese showed particularly well. Best of show red went to Jeff Runquist Wines for his 2016 The Hill Sangiovese while best of Calaveras red went to the Mineral 2016 Barbera.
Other reds in the running for best of show and were double gold winners include the Jeff Runquist 2017 Reserve Barbera, Chatom Winery 2014 Malbec, Jeff Runquist 2016 Petite Sirah, Jeff Runquist 2016 Shake Ridge Ranch Tempranillo, Jeff Runquist 2017 Dolcetto, and Amador Cellars 2016 Farmhouse Red Red Blend. A category that showed better this year than in the past was Cabernet Sauvignon with double gold going to Aloria Vineyards 2016 and Jeff Runquist 2016 Cabs. A number of other Cabs picked up gold and silver. Best of dessert wine and a double gold medal went to the Jeff Runquist Wines 2018 Muscat Canelli. Other winners included double gold for Inner Sanctum 2014 Vintage port, followed by gold for Shenandoah Vineyards Black Muscat, Ironstone 2018 Muscat Canelli, and Shenandoah Vineyards Angelica.
In the end, more than 90 percent of the wines medaled with a growing number achieving double gold or gold medals. The award-winning wines will be on display during the fair in the wine pavilion and a selection of winning wines will be offered for sale by the glass.
The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance will offer an interactive, self-guided exhibit on sustainability in winemaking and grape growing with displays of the various soils found in Calaveras County. Check out a full schedule of activities at calaveraswines.org.
Bender is a wine instructor at Columbia College and wine steward for O’Brien’s Market in Modesto.