The San Francisco Chronicle's Wine Tasting is one of the big events of the wine-lovers calendar. Held at Ft. Mason Center every February, it has been a sold-out event for the last five years - and will likely sell out again - as oenophiles try to get the jump on the year's top releases.
Who would know that its roots lay in far northern Sonoma county, in Cloverdale?
For the past 13 years, the SF Chronicle has been the brand sponsor of what started out as the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition, founded in 1983. Ten years later, it had grown to over 100 wineries, a number that seems ridiculously low by today's standards. For the past two years, the competition has exceeded 5,000 wineries from all over the United States, making it one of the country's largest tasting events.
"This is the biggest tasting of American wines in the United States," said Ray Johnson of SSU, one of the assistant directors of the Cloverdale event. "That's our niche." No Canadian, no Australian, no French. Just U.S.A.
And what a niche it is. With entrants from over half of the States - with California, Oregon, Washington and New York heading the list, and Virginia not far behind.
There are 20 additional states with wineries, including Texas, Idaho, Missouri and Kansas. (Hawaii and Alaska are still not on the list, I was told.) And what started out as the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition has grown in 30 years to one of the largest in the country, if not the world.
This week, 56 judges sipped their way through 5,500 wines -- in panels, so each judge had a partial number to absorb - from Monday through Thursday in the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds exhibit hall for the closed tasting. Then they gathered at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Friday Jan. 11, to taste and announce the Sweepstakes winners.
Among the judges who slaved all week before a bright raft of tasting glasses included Tim McDonald of Napa's Wine Spoken Here; Christopher Sawyer of Petaluma, who is the sommelier at the Lodge at Sonoma's Carneros Bistro; Sue Straight, the Wine Wench blogger from Occidental; Tom Simoneau of Healdsburg, wine voice of KRSO; as well as a number of sommeliers and critics from New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other hotbeds of haute cuisine.
They were tasting through the "double-gold" medal winners in each category, looking for the coveted Sweepstakes wines - sparkling, white, rose, red and dessert. Most of them were finished in an hour, and at 10:30 Bob Fraser, executive director of the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Tasting Competition, strode out between the two long tables sagging under wine glasses,
After the thanks and gratitudes were expressed, and Bevmo was duly cited for this year's sponsorship, Fraser pulled the sweepstakes-winning wines out of plain brown paper bags, one at a time. There were a couple surprises.
The first was the Sweepstakes Sparkling Wine: Korbel's $11 NV Blanc de Noir, an affordable wine in a sometimes expensive category - it even outscored Korbel's own $25 Reserve Blanc de Noir. More than a few eyebrows were raised.
It was followed by the Sweepstakes White, another surprise: From the Finger Lakes region of New York, Keuka Springs Winery's off-dry 2011 Reisling. There were audible gasps of disbelief, from many in the crowd used to either an aromatic sauvignon blanc or creamy chardonnay taking this category.
Sweepstakes Pink ("I don't like that name either," grumbled Fraser) turned out to be from the Lodi appellation in the Central Valley, Sorelle Winery's 2011 Rosata Sangiovese.
Next up was the coveted Sweepstakes Red, and once again a surprise: It was a tie. Fraser explained, "Unlike the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, we don't break ties." Hence two Sweepstakes Reds, both from Sonoma County.
Terlato Family Vineyards won for its 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, sharing with Wilson Winery's Dry Creek Vineyard 2009 Petite Sirah from Molly's Vineyard. (Again, a voice nearby expressed what many were thinking: "What, no zin?")
The Sweepstakes Dessert was from the Anderson Valley AVA (Mendocino County) from a Napa winery - the 2011 Costella di Amarosa late harvest Gerwirtztraminer. This was not a surprise, as it had won in the same category last year.
The judges broke apart, the volunteers cleared the exhibit hall in a racket of clatter, the empty wine boxes were recycled and, somehow, the partially empty bottles redistributed, and it was not yet time for lunch. Full results will be announced this afternoon on the CCFWC website.
Even with the celebrity judges, the plethora of fine wines, and the high profile of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, you can't overlook Cloverdale, now celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Citrus Fair Wine Competition.
The competition provides financial support for the annual Cloverdale Citrus Fair -- scheduled for next month, Feb. 15-18 -- as well as other wine education programs throughout the state. But that's not all.
"A lot of volunteers from Cloverdale help out here all week," said Johnson. Just then the sound of cheering came from the next room, where the volunteers were being rewarded for their participation as the event ended. "It's quite a community event."
The next time you'll see these wines together in one room will be at the S.F. Chronicle's 2013 public tasting, held at Fort Mason Center's Festival Pavilion on Saturday, Feb. 16. Tickets are $81.
We'll be at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. Probably with an umbrella.