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With new Alaska Airlines flights begun in June, Sonoma County now has three flights from Los Angeles non-stop to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport- STS.

San Diego also began a new flight non-stop to Sonoma County Airport in June.

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Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport - STS, offers convenient service to this wine, spa and coastal destination. In addition to these new flights from Southern California, Sonoma County Airport is served by non-stop flights from Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

Visitors departing from Sonoma County Airport on Alaska Airlines can also ship home a case of wine for no additional luggage cost. The wine must be packed to shipping standards, which many Sonoma County wineries will provide after purchase.

Located 30 miles north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma County has more than 300 wineries and is known for its local, farm-to-table cuisine. The region is also well-served by the airports in San Francisco (70 minute drive), Oakland (70 minute drive) and Sacramento (1 hour, 45 minute drive).

A free visitors guide with information on hotels, wineries, events, spas, attractions, and dining in Sonoma County is available at www.sonomacounty.com.

(TravMedia.com sources contributed to this article.)

Editor's Note. Visitors to the state's North Coast can find links to the websites of all the wineries, as well as links to hundreds of lodging and dining options at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

by Dan Clarke


Judging wines beats breaking rocks on a chain gang. Or so I would imagine. But it is work and, done right, it requires a fair degree of concentration.

Friday night I was poolside at the home of friends in Sacramento. Somewhere between the grilled lamb appetizers and the filet mignon we were comparing John's Cabernet Sauvignon with a red wine blend. The topic of what each of us had planned for the weekend came up. The following morning I'd be driving up to Plymouth, I said. There I'd be joining 25 or 30 others in judging wines for the Amador County Fair, an activity I'd been doing one Saturday in June for most of the last 20 years or so. Annette congratulated me on my good fortune, saying “It must be lots of fun drinking wine up there with your friends.” I thought a clarification might be in order. “No. What we are doing right now is drinking wine with friends. This is fun and relaxing,” I said. “What we'll be doing tomorrow is sipping wines and judging wines for a competition.” Yes, it will be tasting wines, but it's not quite the same “going wine tasting” of most folks experience.

Amador Glasses Rose SMALLOur first flight is waiting.The Judging

Entering the Horticulture Building at the Amador County Fairgrounds, I recognize many who'll be judging today. It's good to see “Pooch” Pucilowksi, chief judge for the California State Fair Wine Competition. Mike Dunne, who served many years as food and wine editor for the Sacramento Bee and now blogs in his semi-retirement, says hello. Mike's wife Martha, a possessor of a very good palate, is also going to judge. Ted Rieger of Vineyard and Winery magazine has come up for the event. Gerald Cresci, a Lodi grapegrower is here, as is Maynard Johnston, a pediatrician and former home winemaker.

Dick and Jenny Minnis have been in charge of this competition for the last several years and they do a good job. Just before we move to our tasting tables, Dick convenes the judges and explains what is expected of us today. His meeting is brief and is a little like a home plate umpire going over the ground rules with both managers before a baseball game.

Most of the other panels are comprised of five judges, but On Panel G there are just three of us. On my right I recognized Roger Stockton. He and his wife Colleen live in Carson City, Nevada and have written about wine for years. The man on my left is Todd Hafner. We've not met before, though he did judge last year. A geologist by profession, Todd, is also a home winemaker and it's soon apparent that he is very knowledgeable.

Our Role

The Boys of Panel G speculate on what their role will be this morning. We know that the competition organizers would like to see plenty of medals, preferably gold ones. And there's no doubt that the wineries would like to be rewarded. Medals are important. Gold medals and scores in the 90s guarantee sales and we judges would like to see all the entrants prosper. On the other hand, scoring too generously can reward inferior wines and provide no impetus for their makers to do better. Also, if the word gets out that everybody's wine is deemed wonderful the competition will lose credibility. We decide to just “call 'em as we see 'em.”

Any wine made from grapes grown in the 26th Agricultural District—basically the Sierra Foothills—is eligible to enter this competition, regardless of where the winery itself is located.

There are 38 classes of wine to be judged today for the 2012 contest. These categories are loosely organized by predominant grape variety, but there are other definitions, too. Like “Dessert Wines” and various definitions of “Rose”. Zinfandel is a variety made by most of the wineries and it is presented in two separate categories; wines under 14.5% alcohol and those over 14.5%.

Each panel will be given several of the categories to judge. There's no way one group would have time to evaluate all of the wines that have entered. Our assignment today is to judge two white Zinfandel wines, three definitions of rosé, and groups of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Amador Judges SMALLReflection follows a bit of concentration.Nine glasses are placed in front of each judge. Volunteers pour numbered samples, filling each glass about one-quarter full. Typically, lighter wines are tasted prior to heavier ones and drier wines before sweeter. In judging these wines, we check their appearance and color. We swirl and sniff. We take sips and slosh them around in our mouths. And then we spit that wine into cups which ultimately are poured into larger buckets on the floor next to our stations. It's not an elegant process.

We are provided scoring sheets which suggest “the Davis 20 point system.” For some years, this has been a baseline for evaluating wines. Number values are assigned to a variety of aspects of the analysis. Appearance gets two points (or less), for instance, as does color. Astringency also is worth (up to) two points and so is acidity. Larger values are possible for other observations such as aroma/bouquet (4 points) and overall quality (3 points). As usual, I begin by dutifully playing this numbers game. Soon I abandon it, in favor of my own system in which I just put plus and minus signs in some of these categories. I believe that judging wine is more art than science—and that it is more accurate for this approach.

Judges in Sync

We begin with Class 35--the White Zins--and get off to a nice start when all three of us rate the first wine tasted worthy of a gold medal. When there is unanimity such as this, the award is known as a “Double Gold.” The other wine was not as good, but worthy of a silver medal. Since our “Double Gold” (a 2011 Sierra Foothill Appellation from the Calaveras County winery Milliaire) was one of only two wines in the category, it also is defined as “Best in Class.”

We push on to Class 36 (Rose Table Wines), Class 37 (Varietal Rose) and Class 38 (Varietal Rose Blends). We find another Double Gold in the Varietal Rose class, which turns out to be the Bray Vineyards Barbera Rosato from the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County.

Twenty-three Petite Sirah entries in Class 21 follow, which we address in three flights of eight, eight and seven. My score sheet shows we awarded no medals to six of these, silvers and bronzes to all of the rest but one. We're unanimous that one wine deserves a gold, hence it becomes another Double Gold and the Best of this Class. A day later when the results are posted we realize that, once again, Bray Vineyards has produced an outstanding wine, their 2008 Shenandoah Valley Petite Sirah.

A Disappointing Category

We break for lunch, then return to deal with our final task, the judging of 13 Cabernet Sauvignon entries.

“What standards do we apply for each category?” was a question I asked my panelmates before we began. In California it is possible to grow almost any variety of winegrape in almost every part of the state. However, that doesn't mean that it will come to its fullest expression in every location. Take Pinot Noir, for instance. In 27 years of writing about wine I remember only one Pinot Noir from anywhere in the Foothills that I thought was any good (made by Umbert Urch from El Dorado grapes, as I recall). Maybe there are--or will be--other good ones out there. I hope so and will continue to look for them. But so what if Gold Country doesn't do as well with this variety as Burgundy, the Willamette Valley or the Santa Lucia Highlands? These otherwise worthy regions grow little, if any, Zinfandel or Barbera, and the Sierra Foothills produces some of the best in these varieties.

Amador Red Wine Glasses SMALLFortunately, we didn't use the best linen.While many wineries in the area grow Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety is not one the region hangs its hat on. We decide to eschew a patronizing, softer analysis for Gold Country Cabs and look for medal winners by applying overall California standards.

We are generally disappointed with the 13 entries in this category can't award a gold medal. Four of the submissions get no medal at all. Seven qualify for a bronze and two merit silver. We choose one of the silvers as the Best of this Class. It turns out to be a 2009 J. Foster Mitchell Shenandoah Valley Reserve.

And the Winners

Our panel's work having concluded, our gold medal choices will be tasted again with those from all the other panels.

A day later when the judges receive the official results, I am mildly surprised to find that the final panel has chosen the Helwig Vineyards & Winery's 2011 Rose of Shenandoah, as Best Rose. We had given it a Gold medal, but weren't unanimous, as in the case of our Double Gold choice.

Ultimately, the Vino Noceto 2009 Sangiovese Misto was named Best Amador Italian, Best Red Wine and Grand Award Winner (Best of Show). The winery produces a Sangiovese “Normale” at $18, but the “Misto” is their attempt to follow Chianti tradition. It's comprised of 87% Sangiovese, 3% Canaiolo, and a total of 10% of the two white grapes, Malvasia and Trebbiano. The wine retails for $28 and is produced in very limited quantities.

The Best White Wine was Amador Foothill Winery's 2011 Sauvignon Blanc. Best Amador Rhone was awarded to the 2011 Roussane of Sobon Wine Company and Best Desert Wine was the 2009 Black Muscat from Shenandoah Vineyards.


Visitors to the Gold Country can find links to the websites of all the wineries, as well as links to many lodging and dining options at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

This summer, Melting Pot Food Tours celebrates its fourth year as the original food tours provider for Los Angeles. The company has pioneered walking-tasting culinary tours of the city's best restaurants in the most historic neighborhoods.

Their three tours--The Original Farmers Market and 3rd Street, Old Pasadena, and East LA Latin Flavors—are chock full of stories of local color, introductions to merchants, and exotic tastings of world cuisine.

Melting Pot Food Tours was founded by native Angeleno sisters Lisa and Diane Scalia, who share a passionate desire to put Los Angeles on the map as a world-class epicurean destination. Their aim is to acquaint locals and tourists with extraordinary neighborhoods and the foods that make them so special and unique.

"Starting a LA-based food tour company just as the economy tanked in 2008 wasn't precisely our plan," mused Lisa Scalia, who changed careers mid-life to start the business with her sister Diane, who happens to be a chef. "But we knew we had a winning concept, and our continuing success in a down economy has certainly proven our instincts to be right."

The sister team is supported by a vibrant group of tour leaders, who share their passion for LA's diverse neighborhoods and the special international cuisine that helps define the City of Angels.

LadiesSalad-Joans SMALLTrying a bite of the signature Chinese Chicken Salad from Jones on Third."Los Angeles is incredibly blessed that immigrants came here and brought their foods with them. They're sharing a very important part of who they are," gushed Diane, who considers herself a gourmet storyteller. "We're so lucky to have amazing international cuisine around every corner. Foodies visiting LA really deserve to experience these special cafes and restaurants, some of which are hidden gems."

The flagship Melting Pot Food Tour launched in July 2008 at The Original LA Farmers in mid-city Los Angeles, and along adjacent 3rd Street. Guests sample a taste of Japan, India, Mexico, France, Brazil, and also savory and sweet American fare. Merchants add their personal anecdotes to the tour leaders' narrative, familiarizing guests with this neighborhood that holds allure for celebrities, tourists, and locals alike.

Harriot Manley of Sunset magazine heralded this tour as, "A great way to take a big bite of the Original Farmer's Market—especially for a first-timer like me. Lisa Scalia gave us intimate insights and a chance to enjoy it all in an efficient and enjoyable way."

Jessica Gelt of the Los Angeles Times stated that this tour is, "Not just for tourists, but for Angelenos looking to learn more about the splendid flavors of the city they love."

Simon Todd, publisher of Essentially America, the UK's leading consumer magazine about travel to the US and Canada, positively cheered. "Great tour guides. Great food. Great fun! Highly recommended."Olive Oil Tasters SMALL 433728Try a comparative olive oil tasting in Pasadena at Beyond the Olive.The Old Pasadena Tasting Tour, offered on both evenings and weekends, was added in July 2009. Guests explore back alleys and secret throughways while filling up on delicious tastings from the Middle East, Mexico, France, Peru, Italy, and Asia. Visits to an artisan chocolatier, unique handmade soap kitchen, and a California olive oil boutique round out the itinerary.

Orange County's Coast magazine writer Denise Adams commented, "There is no better way to see the area than with Melting Pot Food Tours. The Old Pasadena food tasting and guided walking tour was the highlight of our stay."

LA's Latin core district at the eastern end of downtown, including Boyle Heights, is the site of the East LA Latin Flavors Tour since winter 2010. Adventurous tour guests savor both time-honored and contemporary Central American and Mexican foods whilst learning all about their origins, including birria (goat stew) that dates back to a century-old recipe.

Hungry visitors to Los Angeles interested in learning more about these tours may visit http://www.meltingpottours.com.

TravMedia.com contributed to this article.


Editor's note: This article also appears in the Chefs and Restaurants section of the Eat category. Visitors to the Los Angeles area will find links to hundreds of lodging and dining options in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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