Were the judges tougher, or the wines weaker? Both, perhaps? Or maybe something else entirely? At any rate, I'm looking over statistics from this year's California State Fair commercial wine competition, and they're intriguing. The judging, at Cal Expo in Sacramento earlier this month, drew 2,786 wines, all from California, an increase of 163 entries over last year. Fewer gold medals were awarded, but more silver and bronze medals were handed out, though not by much. The real eye-opener was the jump in wines that didn't get any award, from 728 in 2009 to 870 this year. Overall, about 69 percent of the wines entered got some sort of award, compared with slightly more than 72 percent last year. Don't read too much into that, though wine competitions generally are smarting from criticism that they are too free with medals. As a consequence, judges are taking it upon themselves to be more demanding, recognizing that commercial quality alone no longer is enough to warrant a medal.
The annual State Fair results are fun to ponder because the competition gives out so many high awards. For one, the judging divides California into a series of regions, such as Napa Valley and North Central Coast, and then customarily names a top white and a top red for each, with occasional ties. The State Fair also gives out awards for best varietals and best styles, such as best chardonnay and best meritage.
Wines from the Sacramento region did exceptionally well in the final rounds, when judges in a long series of blind tasteoffs whittle away at the gold-medal winners to come up with the best of the best. Of the 24 wines to be named best varietal or style, seven have roots in Sacramento's back yard:
Best Tempranillo: Convergence Vineyards 2008 El Dorado Tempranillo ($28).
Best Barbera: Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Ambra Vineyard Barbera ($40).
Best Red Generic: A tie between Karmere Winery & Vineyard 2008 Shenandoah Valley Empress Juana ($22) and Fenestra Winery California Lot 2 True Red ($11).
Best Viognier: McManis Family Vineyards 2009 California Viognier ($11).
Best Cabernet Franc: Nevada City Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($23).
Best Sangiovese: Toogood Estate Winery 2007 El Dorado County Sangiovese ($27).
Best Rhone Blend: Wyneland Estates 2007 Lodi GMA ($30).
Of the 22 wines to win best-of-region honors, six were from the Sacramento area:
Best of Region Sierra Foothills Appellations, White: Davis Family Vineyards 2008 Sierra Foothills White Rhone Blend ($26).
Best of Region Sierra Foothills Appellations, Red: Deaver Vineyards 2007 Amador County Zinfandel ($28).
Best of Region North-Coast Appellations, Red: Michael-David Winery 2007 Mendocino County "Sloth" Zinfandel ($59).
Best of Region Other California Appellations: Tierra Del Rio Vineyards 2008 Clarksburg Merlot ($18).
Best of Region Lodi Appellations, Red: Ramos Torres Winery 2007 Lodi "Branches" Cabernet Sauvignon ($30).
Best of Region Lodi Appellations, White: Vino Con Brio 2009 Lodi Amorosa White Blend ($16).
Note that the State Fair's highest honors - best white wine, best red wine and the like - for the most part are chosen from among these two groups. They will be revealed July 7 during the annual Grape & Gourmet tasting at Sacramento Convention Center. For more information about that, go here.