Musings of a Wine Maven

Alternative Facts and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

by Jerry Clark

"This brand has a clean balance sheet, a lively marketing plan with tasteful notes of originality, and a strong fiscal-year end finish."

Used by permission © Drew Dernavich

It would seem there is nothing unequivocal in the tag line to the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC) logo proclaiming it to be “The Largest Competition of American Wines in the World.” So you can imagine my surprise when I was reviewing its listing of medal winners of the 2017 event held in January and started noticing clearly foreign-sourced wines copping some awards.Initially, I thought somehow a couple just slipped through the admission process. After all, with about 7,000 wines entered, I could imagine an interloper or two slipping past the gatekeepers. But even if only one successfully crashed the party, it just did not feel right, so I hunkered down and looked at the winners in all 138 categories into which the entries are divided. Happily, the origin of the wines are noted.  Thus, I was able to come up with a list of 27 winners with juice coming in from outside our borders. Well, in all honesty, I guess 26 1/3 would be more accurate, as one award went to a three grape red blend that got their Grenache out of Mexico.

Given that just over 6000 awards were passed out, 27 is a drop in the barrel:  not significant in the data, right? No, something was amiss here. This competition–hosted by the venerable San Francisco Chronicle–is supposed to showcase only American wines, which is not the case as I define wine, and given the transparency of the origin of the wine (see table below), surely the Chronicle knew what was going on. I probed further and found the specific eligibility requirements in the SFCWC guidelines for submission:

Any grape or fruit grown or bottled in the United States on a bonded wine premises is eligible for entry. Types of products include: wine, brandy, port, sherry, cider, low alcohol wine, de-alcoholized wine or vermouth. (sic.)

Aha! As with so many things, the devil is in the details: “Any grape or fruit grown or bottled in the United States on a bonded wine premises is eligible for entry.” The grape juice seemingly can come from anywhere in the world provided it is bottled at a bonded winery here and SFCWC will accept it as being American. Prior to going on edition with this story, I brought this point to the attention of Cary Fraser, Entry Coordinator of the competition, and my suspicion was confirmed: “bottled in the U.S.” means it can be entered. They volunteered that this rule may change for the 2018 competition, thereby only allowing juice coming from American vineyards. But I am still a bit mystified that such a qualifying definition was even created.  Talk about alternative facts, this is right out of Kellyanne’s thesaurus.

Well, it is the Chronicle’s competition, so I guess that gives them the right to make the rules, even if they don’t make any sense given that they are promoting “The Largest Competition of American Wines in the World.” Does any injury come of it? Is the consumer going to be turned off to see that he or she can get some cheap and cheerful under $20 medal-winning whites and reds at more tempting pricing than the local bottle shop might normally recommend for similar varieties? Not likely.

What of the American artisanal producers? Even if they knew going into the competition that the flight their wine would be judged in is tainted, would they squawk? Hmmm. Maybe one would. The President’s sprawling 1,300-acre Trump Winery in Virginia no doubt enjoy some pride from the awards and praise they have received. On their web site is a listing of those accolades, and, in fact, it reveals at the winery picked up a bronze in the 2017 SFCWC competition with a Meritage at $28. Of the 47 winners in his category (Red Bordeaux $25-$34.99), all used truly American-sourced wine.  Can you imagine The Donald’s reaction if an entry in the group where he was competing snagged a gold with juice brought in from Mexico! Love to see that tweet.

While SFCWC wrangles with the definition of “American” wine for the 2018 competition, I encourage them to give some credit to the  foreign-sourced juice.  The 27 medals in the 2017 competition are up from a total of 11 in 2016. (I did not come across any in the prior two years, so this may be a recent twisting of the facts.) As the Chronicle may not see the merit in this, let’s do it right here for this year’s foreign-sourced wines.

Award Class Vintage Source Price Notes
Best of Class
Layer Cake Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $15.99  
Double Gold
Smoking Loon Pinot Noir <$14.99 2015 Chile $8.99  
Mosaico Grenache <$19.99 2015 Spain $15.99  
Encendia Grenache >$20.00 2015 Spain $20.00  
Chasing Venus Sauvignon Blanc $15.00-$18.99 2016 New Zealand $16.00  
Alvarez White Blend <$19.99 2015 Spain $15.00  
Pontic White Blend <$19.99 2015 France $18.99  
Girl and Dragon Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $14.00  
Tall Dark Stranger Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $15.00  
Middle Sister Wine Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $12.00  
Miguel Aime Pouget Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $18.00  
Andás Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $20.00  
Smoking Loon Cabernet Sauvigon <$9.99 2015 Chile $8.99  
Pepperwood Grove Cabernet Sauvigon <$9.99 2015 Chile $7.99  
Flip Flop Wines Pinot Noir <$14.99 NV Chile $7.00 No Vintage
Pasa del Tiempo Grenache <$19.99 2015 Spain $18.99  
It’s a Headsnapper Sauvignon Blanc <$14.99 2015 New Zealand $14.99  
Savor Collect Sauvignon Blanc $15.00-$18.99 2016 New Zealand $15.99  
Espaldera All Other Red Blends <$24.99 2015 Spain $20.00  
Insurrection All Other Red Blends <$24.99 2015 Australia $16.99  
Pontic White Blend <$19.99 2015 France $13.99  
Pepperwood Grove Chardonnay <$9.99 NV Chile $6.00 No Vintage
Pont du Nord Pinot Noir <$14.99 2015 France $16.00  
Cupcake Wines Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $12.99  
Black Box Wines Malbec <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $24.99 3 liter
Layer Cake All Other Red Blends <$24.99 2015 Mendoza $15.99  


Ever wonder where these volume wine operators get their cutesy brand names? Try the Daily Racing Form. Just imagine legendary race caller Chic Anderson describing this exciting finish at Churchill Downs:
And here they come around the final turn. Smoking Loon and Chasing Venus are neck and neck, a half length ahead of the pack. Whoa, Middle Sister is pushing Layer Cake up against the rail. Insurrection and Girl & Dragon are losing steam and slipping back. Tall Dark Stranger is cutting to the outside and making its move. That horse is all heart. Flip Flop and It’s a Headsnapper look to be inching up on the leaders. But no, Cupcake is turning it on. Holly molly, with 25 lengths to go its Cupcake only a head behind Smoking Loon and Chasing Venus. With 5 lengths Cupcake has caught the leaders, and as they cross the finish line its Cupcake the winner by a nose!

I fear at this point of my exposé I may be losing the purist, the one looking at the list of producers above and seeing only brands, and no artisans. True enough. What are largely behind the names on the left are profit-driven entrepreneurs. I suspect the total number of tasting rooms for the whole group above can be counted on one hand, with a few fingers left over, so don’t go looking there for a fancy room to sample wine. Your questions for the tasting room staff about the ocean voyage these tanks of wine endured will have to go unanswered. Yet the Chronicle organizers assembled sixty judges to have at these 7,000 wines and I assume they performed diligently. Fully 22 of the award winning foreign-sourced wines listed above received silver or higher medals, and one a best in class.

For donkey’s years I have been telling friends and clients interested in stocking up that it’s really easy to recommend great stuff at $50 a bottle. The real challenge is sourcing the vin de table section with  pleasurable under-$10 wines. It was when I started slicing and dicing all the SFCWC categories, looking for wines priced no higher than $20 that I began to respect the foreigners. None of the 26 winners noted above sell over $20 a bottle. Six are under 10 bucks.  Smoking Loon’s Chile-sourced 2015 Pinot Noir at $8.99 was awarded a Double Gold (I assume that means a higher quality gold alloy!).

Fully 21 of the categories in the competition listed wines under $20, and as a group, they took away 831 medals. What a treasure trove to explore. Thus, going forward, I am all for the Chronicle adding even more foreign juice and even a few new–appropriately named categories–for these invaders. How about “Freight Forwarders Favorites”?


  1. Very interesting, thanks! I will be anxious to try some of the under $20s myself.

  2. Yup, as the 49ers going into California said, “there’s gold in them thar hills.”

  3. It’s not quite as hard as determining what car makes are actually “American” these days, what with parts coming from all over the world to an assembly plant.

    Looks to me like I need to be more curious about Argentinian wines…

  4. Excellent point, Jen.
    Yes, Mendoza is offering up some great values, but also hitting their stride with premium wines. It has been on my radar for some time, and a place I hope to one day visit.

  5. I don’t get it….just because a Toyota is manufactured in the USA does NOT make it an American car. Just because the wine is bottled in American, does not in my opinion make it an American wine. We need some rule changes!!!

  6. Rule changes at this prestigious competition are in order, if they intend to continue calling it an event for only American wine. On the other hand they can change the name and open the doors to the big world of wine that is out there.

  7. As I fully admit naivete in this arena as a beer drinker (and a light one at that in every sense) I have to admit, you piqued my interest in “juice” and agree due credit for foreign competitors is right and just… particularly since there are worthy subtleties to appreciate with the under $50 per bottle wines. Great post!

  8. Glad you enjoyed it. If truth be known, I drink as much beer during “happy hour” moments as wine. Quenches my thirst quicker (otherwise I would look like a character out of Sideways with my hands around the spit bucket).

  9. Mon Frere, I often recite your adage that anyone can find a good bottle of $50 wine….the satisfaction is in finding a good bottle of $10 wine. Makes me sound so Worldly.

  10. Ha, ha. I guess that one still drives me. But its the reason we are seeing so much foreign juice on our shores. In France at the cooperatives probably 80% of what they sell is less than 10 euros, and much of it under 5.

  11. Maybe it should be called the “The Largest Competition of Undocumented American Wines in the World?” or “The Largest Competition of Open-Border American Wines in the World?” That would be so PC…..

  12. Ahem. A case could be made for either. One thing for certain is that the admission language defining what constitutes an American wine has to change. Cannot imagine how the Chronicle did not pick up on this.

    • It’s good old “doublespeak” – Maybe there is a third name for the competition – “George Orwell and the San Francisco Chronicle 1984 Wine Competition” – “Where words have no real meaning so you never know where the wine comes from”

  13. Right on! Now let me find another spuriously defined event (with Rosé Today I am now two for two) and you can join me on the picket line.

  14. Interesting! I guess technically ‘America’ includes North and South America. I am not quite sure you could argue the same about Europe or Australasia though… In Europe where bulk wine is imported and bottled at the destination, I think most of those wines enter the competitions with their country of providence. It seems an unusual choice to do the opposite. But it certainly opens up an interesting discussion!

    And Jerry, yes. You have to come to Mendoza soon! I can show you some native Malbecs 😉

  15. You have a point, in that the organizers could rename it to the “biggest competition of wines from the Americas.” Then they would just have to hold out the rest of the world.
    A visit to Mendoza remains very much in my thoughts. When is best time to arrive?

  16. I recommend Spring and Autumn! October through early December and late Feb through to mid-April are the best in my opinion!

  17. As February and March are no fun weather wise here in Mystic, I guess that would be my choice time to come. It also gives me ample time to make plans. I would look forward as we get closer to it for recommendations on hotels, etc.

  18. How interesting, and yet somehow I’m not surprised. It seems to me that every where I turn boutique wineries and small outfits are gobbled up by foreign powers. As such, it’s no surprise to me. Perhaps we need the equivalent of a Bernie Sanders in the wine world.

  19. Yes, Bernie could have a field day in this industry. I don’t begrudge the big juice consolidators from buying foreign. Just acknowledge that even if bottled here in the US at a bonded winery it is anything but an American wine. That is where the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition went off the track two years ago.

  20. Excellent article, perfect source material for me to start my own wine competition. Budgeting requires me to avoid the $50 bottles so under $20 is right up my alley! Thanks Jerry!

    • Truly is a lot of good wine out there under 20 bucks. I will raise my hand now as a possible judge when you get your competition going.

  21. The American vitners are lucky to have a guy like you looking out for them! I myself definitely do not discriminate when it comes to where my grapes are grown but I fully agree with you that when it comes to an American wine competition it should strictly be American grown. Thanks for another revealing read wine maven!

  22. Crazy world we live in. But I guess alternative facts are becoming a way of life.

  23. If I am not mistaken, The San Francisco Chronicle is the name sponsor, but BEVMO is the money sponsor.
    Please pay attention to where the judges live and work. A disproportionate number are from Sonoma County, which explains the sharp bias in the judges palates towards wines whose grapes were predominantly grown in Sonoma County.
    The minority report is that of those wines whose grapes did not and could not grow in Sonoma County. Hence, it would be less biased to describe the event as the Bevmo Sonoma County so-called Wine Competition.

  24. You have peeled back a layer, judge origin, I had not thought to look into. I really had no reason to, as I was intrigued by the foreign juice awards. I did have one judge get a message to me away from this comments section in Provence WineZine. He is from the northwest, a journalist, and was quite laudatory about the benefits of the competition to the participating wineries from up in that area that bring home awards. I also struggle with determining how rigorous a competition is where 85% of the entries walk away with a prize. Is a $10 Cab that wins a gold as good as a $40 Cab that also scores a gold? Probably not. Oh, but they are not in the same category must be the explanation. Just as no exceptional Division III football teams are invited to the Rose or Sugar Bowl. But if one were? That’s why the film Hoosiers has such lasting appeal. Less awards class distinction based upon price at SFCWC would be fascinating to see. But then there would be less entries, less winners, etc. And that is not likely going to get supporters like the one you mentioned involved.

  25. A strong part of the motivation for winemakers is to earn shelf position in off-sale stores, like Bevmo, TJ, Whole Foods, & Total Wine. There’s quite a few price points and other fine divisions among categories and origins which justify the number of awards.

    Still, Sonoma centricity stasis/bias limits the credibility of the national competition. They need yearly regional and AVA mobility in their choice of venues and judge sourcing.

  26. I yield to your marketing expertise in this. My perspective is as a consumer. None of those major retailers exist in my area. I have only the “mom and pop” shops to draw upon, which quite frankly I prefer.

  27. Great read! I have to admit that after going so long not drinking (mostly), this reminded me of all that I’ve missed (the Layer Cake Malbec, for one, is an old friend). Not the point of the article, but where my mind drifted to anyway…

  28. Yet in a way the success of the Layer Cake Malbec, and other foreign sourced juice, at this competition is reason to acknowledge how good these imports can be, and broaden the event to include wines not bottled here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.