Bender on Wine: Judge wines for yourself at California wine events

Wines lined up for judging at the California State Fair.
Wines lined up for judging at the California State Fair.

Over the past couple of months wine consumers have had an opportunity to peruse the results of a number of wine competitions. Recent judgings have ranged from nearby Amador, Alameda, and Calaveras County fair events to the bigger statewide competitions such as the California State Fair, Sunset Magazine, Central Coast and Orange County tests.

Throwing in the recent annual rosé judging in Sonoma or Taste of the Coast competition means several judges I know could have conceivably and most likely judged upward of six or seven competitions since early April. With potentially as many as 70-80 wines evaluated by a judge each day, you might think that there must be some palate fatigue.

But most judges are vigilant about spitting along with consuming water and bits of various foods, and generally have down-time between rounds. Most competitions utilize a variety of professionals as judges including wine makers, educators, industry writers, and more recently, restaurant sommeliers.

I think one of the biggest challenges to judges is whether they have had full exposure to the growing number of grape types and regional styles. Do individuals judge the wine in comparison to its European counterpart? I hope not. And what about natural wines, which have become darlings of many restaurant somms?

These cloudy, less handled, and slightly odd wines have a niche among some consumers but seem out of place in mainstream wine lineups at competitions. I recently judged a flight of a dozen roses and one was cloudy and smelled very different from the others. For craft beer drinkers, think Hazy NE IPA in appearance. Our panel gave it no award because it was odd and out of place.

While the first three events mentioned above are primarily made up of their localized wineries, the other four are more wide ranging and could compile upward of 2,000-3,000 entrees. These bigger statewide competitions still only garner a fraction of the eligible California wines produced or possible competitors. But they stand as a marker for what is happening in our state.

One thing that caught my eye in these larger competitions is the number of non-mainstream grape varieties getting best-of honors, showcasing our diversity of wines and growing interest by winemakers and growers. And many winemakers continue to experiment in a number of ways including development of blends, the crushing and fermentation process and taking a nontraditional approach to production techniques. This is evident with the Amador County Fair judging where foothill winery, Cielo Estate was awarded Best White for its 2018 White Barbera. When is the last time you tried a White Barbera? I don’t think I have tasted many.

At the Calaveras County Fair Judging the Best of Show White went to Ironstone Winery’s 2017 Obsession, an off dry white made from the rarely seen Symphony grape.

Lewis Grace Winery in El Dorado County received the California State Fair Best of Show Dessert Wine. Its 2018 Fashionably Late, Late Harvest White Wine received a Double Gold medal and a 99 point score. The wine is a combination of 67% Pinot Gris and 33% Muscat Alexandria and is 11% residual sugar and 12.9% alcohol. This dessert wine is on a roll, having won Best of Show Dessert at Amador last year with the 2017 vintage.

At the Alameda competition Las Positas Vineyards in Livermore picked up Best of Show White for its 2018 Albarino, a Spanish grape that is getting more and more attention around California.

And hats off to local Jeff Runquist and his continuing winning streak of garnering an astounding number of gold medals at every competition he enters. At the California State Fair competition his winery, Jeff Runquist Wines won Winery of the Year. Jeff picked up a Double Gold and Best of California Region Red for his 2017 Syrah to go with the 11 other gold medals he garnered at the state competition.

If you would like to check out some of these winners for yourself or learn more about judging wines, you need to move quickly and check out the following tasting and educational opportunities over the next week.

Livermore Valley’s annual Taste Our Terroir takes place on Thursday, July 25. The premier food and wine affair has winemakers partnering with Bay Area chefs to compete for honors at Casa Real Event Center from 6 to 9 p.m. You can be a judge for a night of while tasting pairings and cast your vote for the coveted People’s Choice award. Friday through Sunday, wineries across the region host food and wine events including more food and wine pairing, sparkling wine and rosé events, a falconry demonstration, sustainable garden tours and a blind tasting seminar.

Last year the Judge’s Best Pairing, which was also our winning combo, went to Longevity Wines’ 2017 Livermore Pinot Blanc with Back Door Bistro Shrimp Aguachili and local Melon on a Chili Dusted Potato Chip with Avocado Crema. For reservations and more info go to

Up in the Sierra Foothills you can taste a number of the winners at the Amador Fairgrounds on Friday, July 26, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. as part of the annual fair activities. Tickets are available online at, at the fair office, or at the event entrance. More than 36 wineries showcase award-winners sourced from Amador wine grapes along with an assortment of appetizers. Included are a commemorative wine glass and a silent auction to win gift packs consisting of these award-winning wines.

At the California State Fair in Sacramento the new Taste of California Education center is an extended sensory evaluation and educational experience. Industry experts lead ticketed classes to educate visitors with tasting and sampling activities. I found two classes that would give you insight to the judging format.

Join Mark Chandler, the Chief Judge of the California State Fair wine competition, to taste award-winning wines and learn how to use your senses of sight, smell and taste to add pleasure to your wine enjoyment at Learn to Taste Wine like a Pro on Sunday, July 21, at 3 p.m.

Join California State Fair wine Judge Jim Twiford to taste wines that received silver or gold medals in the 2019 State Fair Commercial Wine Competition on Sunday, July 28, from 3 to 4 p.m. Learn what judges taste for, and what makes the difference between a silver or gold award. Wine awards may not necessarily agree with your individual tastes.

Reservations are available for events online at All the above tasting events are open to participants 21 years old and older.

Tom Bender is a wine instructor at Columbia College and wine steward for O’Brien’s Market in Modesto.