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Rod Byers: Endings and new beginnings

I would like to take this moment to acknowledge Cathy Whittlesey, the newly retired executive director of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. After 34 years of leadership, Whittlesey’s position was eliminated on July 31, truly an end of an era.

Unfortunate as that is, you might wonder what it has to do with a wine? Actually, quite a bit.

In 1984 when Whittlesey started at the Chamber I was working for the fledgling Nevada City Winery, the only winery in the county at the time. Frankly, it was a bit of a tough go.



I will never forget how Whittlesey went out of her way to reach out to us and to make sure there was local wine offered at as many events as possible.

Judging wine, while intricate and complex, is a fairly straightforward procedure. Know what you are looking for, and when you’ve found it, and then argue with the other judges about why you are right, unless of course they agree with you.

Whittlesey included us in Summer Nights and the Fourth of July and made certain we were part of the county fair. She was responsible for introducing Nevada County wines to thousands of people.



My appreciation for Cathy goes far beyond that. Over the years I had the opportunity to work with Whittlesey in a variety of different roles, committees and projects. She lived in a world of never-ending festivals, street fairs, parades, and civic events, constantly in the line of fire of everything and everyone.

She had an enormous galaxy of people she interacted with including a board of directors, a city council, supervisors, local businesses, local people, tourists and volunteers. Somehow, she managed to keep all the plates spinning all the time.

Even if there was the occasional crash, her ability to get right back up was inspiring.

Through it all she never lost sight of her mission, to promote the businesses and inhabitants of Nevada City and Nevada County. I’m sure there will be other talented executive directors in the future but it is difficult to imagine anyone doing it better than Cathy Whittlesey.

Speaking of endings, and new beginnings, this year the 2020 Nevada County Fair, along with the wine competition, was cancelled. It would have been my 38th year of running the competition. It was a good run.

Spring and early summer is the wine competition season. Active home winemakers might have entered several competitions by now, except there aren’t any. The wine is all bottled with no place to go.

Once the Fair and the wine competition was cancelled our local Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association (swgga.org) approached me about running their own competition.

They had a built-in membership that was twitching to enter something. Even better, I would be one of the judges. In 37 years of being the Chief Judge at the County Fair wine competition I was never a tasting judge. Not once. It wasn’t part of the job.

SWGGA offered me an opportunity, with Jim Garrett’s help, to first create the table and then sit at it. I invited winemakers Jackson Starr of Sierra Starr Winery and Mark Foster of Nevada City Winery to join me.

Properly socially distanced at the ends of long tables, one sunny day in August we set sail on 57 wines, as many entries as the yearly average we received at the County Fair.

The first thing immediately apparent was the remarkable range of varietals from Nevada County-grown grapes. There were 27 red wines representing 13 different varietals. The county-grown whites included 12 wines and five varietals.

The diversity and the quality of the top wines were outstanding. “It’s amazing,” Mark Foster commented during the competition, “Nevada County can grow anything.”

We wound our way through the wines, selecting and discarding, saving the best for later run-off tastings.

Judging wine, while intricate and complex, is a fairly straightforward procedure. Know what you are looking for, and when you’ve found it, and then argue with the other judges about why you are right, unless of course they agree with you.

Twice we were unanimous, all awarding the same wine a gold medal, making it a double gold. Altogether we awarded two double golds, 13 golds, 20 silvers and 16 bronze medals along with Best of Category and Best of Show honors.

For the first time ever, we had a back-to-back repeat champion. John Geraghty won Best of Show at the County Fair last year with his 2018 Viognier. This year at the SWGGA Wine Competition he won Best of Show again with his 2019 Viognier.

That is impressive. When I asked him about it, Geraghty replied it was all about picking the Viognier at just the perfect time.

Rich Munster won best Red Wine with his double gold winning 2017 Zinfandel. Dave Elliot earned the SWGGA 2020 Winemaker of the Year award. Congratulations to all the winners.

This year the actual wine judging, while following recommended health guidelines, was still quite normal. The subsequent award ceremony, while following recommended health guidelines, was not.

In previous years the awards ceremony was a boisterous affair filled with public interaction not currently permitted. This year it was a Zoom meeting.

It’s not that it wasn’t fun, just different. As we mourn the loss of the old normal crumbling all around us, it’s hard not to wonder if things will ever be the same?

There are at least two things I know I can count on. One is that the vines in my back yard, the very symbol of regeneration, will grow again next spring and that Dave Elliot will continue to make superb wine.

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. He can be reached at rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172.


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