Founded in 1983 as the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition, the event has evolved over the years, broadening its base to a greater number of wine regions. In 2000, the Cloverdale Citrus Fair entered into a title naming sponsorship agreement with the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The wine competition was renamed the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition with the award tasting of the medal winning wines to take place in San Francisco. It began to grow and prosper; in 2006 over 900 United States wineries entered a record breaking 3,318 wine entries for the competition from wine regions throughout America. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition became the largest wine competition of American wines in the world. It continued to grow and entries rapidly rose from 3,800 wines entered in 2007 to a staggering 6,960 entries from all across the country in 2018. Over 60 prestigious experts within the media, trade, hospitality and education industries from around the country join together to judge these wines each year and because of their diligence the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition continues to hold the title of the largest competition of American Wines in the World.
Established in 1892, the Cloverdale Citrus Fair is one of the oldest municipal fairs in California. It takes place every President’s Day weekend, giving it the distinction of being the first fair of the calendar year. The Cloverdale Citrus Fair is located in California’s Sonoma County Alexander Valley, named after a prominent grape growing pioneer, Cyrus Alexander.
In 1982, two wine industry insiders sat down over a glass of zinfandel and laid plans for the first Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition the following year. At that time, Cloverdale Citrus Fair board members Bob Del Sarto which was currently the general manager of the historical Italian Swiss Colony winery in Asti, California and Bob Bogner (general manager of one of the largest grape grower cooperatives of that day, Allied Grape Growers) conceived the competition to fulfill the needs of the burgeoning wine industry in northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino Counties.
Del Sarto and Bogner considered Cloverdale to be the hub of some historical but growing wine regions of that immediate area which included the northern area of Sonoma County (primarily Alexander and Dry Creek Valley’s), Mendocino County (which included the Anderson Valley and Hopland wine regions) and Lake County which included the Guenoc Valley wine region. They drew the competition’s boundaries to include all wineries within a twenty-mile radius of the fairgrounds, “as the crow flies.”
The first competition was modest in size — 15 wineries entered 45 wines, and a single panel of five judges awarded 30 medals. Invited judges included winemakers Dick Arrowood, John Parducci, Robert Keeble and Mike Lee, wine writer Millie Howie, and wine marketer Joe Vercelli. The first few competitions were primarily staffed with the Citrus Fair board members pouring wines to the judges out of paper bags… quite simple but yet with credible and fair wine award results.
The event was growing in size and scope and the Citrus Fair Board in 1984 realized they needed professional help. They turned to Bob Fraser, current chair of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department, which had recently joined the College staff in the early 1980’s and resided in the community of Cloverdale. Fraser implemented the “West Coast style” of professional wine judging used by SRJC colleague Rich Thomas, at that time coordinator of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, which Bob assisted for a few years. This system employs five-member panels consisting of a winemaker, a wine trade representative, a wine writer or wine media professional, a wine educator, and a culinary or tourism professional. Wines are poured in a “back room” staffed by professional wine volunteers who bring the wines into the judging area in flight boxes, glasses numbered to correspond with the individual numbered wine bottles. The judges come to a consensus for individual awards through discussion facilitated by a professional panel coordinator. This methodology of judging which is often called the “West Coast Style” of professional wine judging is very elaborate but effective and has been the model for many other professional competitions organized thereafter throughout the country.
The competition rapidly grew in the 1990s to over 100 wineries. Eligibility was gradually increased to include all wineries in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties. Consequently, it was renamed the Tri-County Wine Competition from 1996–99. The competition expanded to the entire North Coast Appellation in 2000 as the California North Coast Wine Competition. This area included all wineries in the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Solano and Marin. During this period of time, wineries and wine entries exploded and the Cloverdale Citrus Fair was now the dominant wine competition in Northern California, dwarfing even the prestigious Sonoma County Fair Wine Competition. Major problems arose with the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition as the competition outgrew the public tasting at the local regional fair during the Presidents Day Weekend in Cloverdale. Bob Fraser, organizer of the wine competition, met with Dennis Banks, Advertising Executive of the San Francisco Chronicle and a seed was born for a future collaboration of the Citrus Fair and the Chronicle and to bring the wine competition tasting “out of the country to the City” in San Francisco.
In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle became the naming sponsor of the competition with the Cloverdale Citrus Fair remaining the host, and the addition of winejudging.com becoming the voice of the new San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The public tasting shifted from Cloverdale to San Francisco, one of the largest wine purchasing metropolitan regional demographics in the world. The 2001 competition was limited to Northern California but was expanded to the full state of California from 2002-2004. The 2004 competition had over 2,500 entries from 565 California wineries.
In 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle Competition expanded the wine competition to include California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho for the 2005 competition. The total wine entries for the 2005 competition was over 3,200 wine entries which made the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition the largest wine competition of American wines in the world.
In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition expanded its geographical base nationally. Records were broken in 2006 with number of wineries entered, entries of wines, and awards. The public tasting in San Francisco is the largest tasting of American wines in the world and a tremendous attraction for San Francisco Bay Area lovers of fine wine, food, and entertainment.
After many years of growth, in 2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition reached its highest entry number, with 7,164 entries from 28 states in America. For the past few years, the number of entries have hovered around this 7,000 mark, with the 2018 competition bringing in 6,960 entries from 35 states.
The proceeds of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition support the non-profit Cloverdale Citrus Fair and help support wine and food education at educational institutions and non-profit organizations. San Francisco State University, Santa Rosa Junior College Wine Studies Program and Culinary Arts Program, Fresno State University Enology Program, California Polytechnic State University Enology Program at San Luis Obispo, and other non-profit organizations have received support from past competitions.