Rod Byers: Be fair about it |

Rod Byers: Be fair about it

Nevada County Fair wine judges, from left, Jackson Starr, Rod Farly, Pete Enoch, Vanessa Wich, Riki Pollack, Carissa Cook.
Photo by Rod Byers |

I was recently presented with the Blue Ribbon Award at this year’s Nevada County Fair, an honor given in appreciation of support for the Fair. I was thrilled. Still, I feel a little sheepish when I look at the contributions of others, say someone like Brian Lee, for example. All I did was run the home wine competition.

At the presentation ceremony I had a rare chance to close an historic circle.

Rea Callender, the fairground’s CEO, presented me with the award. Rea’s father, John Callender, should be remembered as the father of modern viticulture in Nevada County. John Callender planted the county’s first modern-day vineyard consisting of seven acres off of Perimeter Road is southern Nevada County in 1974.

I had the good fortune to make wine from that vineyard from its earliest days. I still have bottles of 1978 Petite Sirah that I made from there. I believed them to be the oldest bottles of wine in existence produced from Nevada County grapes. I took the opportunity of the award ceremony to present a bottle to Rea, who in turn would give it to his father.

Well you can imagine, that made for a stirring presentation. Too bad it wasn’t true.

Peter Arnold, a friend of John Callender’s, was involved with Little Wolf Vineyard from its inception. Arnold took over tending the vineyard in 1975, and remains to this day, the caretaker of those earliest logbooks and stories.

Arnold reminded me that in spite of being planted in 1974, because of the way it was planted, it produced a first crop in 1976. He connected with Doug Watson who had just opened La Purisima Winery in Sunnyvale. Watson agreed to make the wine and return half of it as payment.

They picked the grapes on Sept. 12, 1976.

Watson took the grapes from 1976 to 1979 but only bottled the 1976 vintage. Arnold explained, “The winemaker was good but underfinanced, and none of the wine from succeeding harvests ever got bottled. I brought some barrel samples up in 1980, and they were undrinkable.”

Arnold informed me that he still had a bottle, saying, “While yours is all gussied up with label and capsule, I still have the first commercially produced bottle from La Purisima.”


The Home Winemakers Competition is the reason I was awarded the Blue Ribbon in the first place. My first year was 1983. In over 30 years of doing it, something happened this year that has never happened before.

This year we had 70 wines entered in the competition: 48 reds, 10 whites, eight rosé, two fruit and two dessert wines. There were six judges divided into two panels. The judges included two winemakers, Jackson Starr and Riki Pollack, restaurateurs Carissa Cook and Pete Enochs, wine distributor, Vanessa Wich and wine retailer, Rod Farley. It was their job to find the best wines.

As chief judge I don’t actually judge any wine. Sometimes I taste a wine but never score it. Sometimes I offer an opinion, but just an opinion.

So I was surprised to be called to one of the tables to decide a tie. One of the judges had to abstain and the other two were split. Instantly on the spot, I tasted two Petite Sirahs, declaring one of them Best of Category. It was the first time that had ever happened.

A wine competition is a two-part process. The first part assigns bronze, silver or gold medals. The second phase takes all the gold medal winners and narrows them down ultimately resulting in best of show.

My having to decide best Petite Sirah was the quirky start of the second phase but hardly the end of it. The two panels were now operating as one panel of six. As a group they decided best white but when it came to best red, they split again, three to three. I asked for another vote, with the same result.

Again, I had to taste two wines, this time a Syrah and a Sangiovese, and declare one of them best red. I wondered, is this fair?

We went on to best of show that included best rosé, best white, and (selected by me) the best red. The panel tied again, split between the rosé and the white.

Suddenly all the eyes were on me as I swirled the two wines, needing to pick one as best of show.

Fortunately I didn’t think until afterwards of all the arbitrary ways I could have decided, like you can’t let a rosé win, or this guy won last year. Instead, in the on-the-spot rush I couldn’t think of anything, and the sensory qualities of the wines took over. I voted pink.

Congratulations to all the award winners and especially to Peter Wilcox for his best of show 2015 Mourvedre Rosé, a lovely, lovely wine. Remarkably, the best white, a 2015 Albarino, and best red, a 2014 Syrah, were both produced by Dave Elliot from grapes grown in his Skydances Ranch vineyard around Alta Sierra.

Other major award winners included Jeff Kiefer for best Cabernet, Jim Warren for best Zin, Larry Retallack for best Petite Sirah, Jim Garrett for best at-large and Jeff Schwartz for best label.

I would especially like to recognize Guy Lauterbach of Gray Pine Winery for helping me with the competition; to the Fair for the Blue Ribbon Award; and to the wine gods for finally letting me decide best of show.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can find information about his Sierra College Wine Classes at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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