While tasting and marking an extensive range of fine Hawke's Bay wines, seasoned US wine writer and judge Patrick Comiskey's thoughts turned to California - his home state.

It was nothing to do with any pangs of homesickness however - it was the similarity in winemaking terms between Hawke's Bay and the coastal and inland landscapes of Sonoma County - a premium site for Californian wines.

Mr Comiskey was part of an 11-strong line-up of leading New Zealand and international wine writers and winemakers who spent three days at the EIT's wine and viticulture centre judging the more than 380 wines entered in this year's Hawke's Bay A&P Bayleys Wine Awards.

"I can see the comparison here with the Sonoma coast of California," he said.


"There is the maritime and regional aspects which bring both warm climates and cool climates to parts of the region."

He said even the landscape was similar, and while travelling out to Craggy Range in the Havelock North valleys, noticed it was remarkably similar to the estuary region of the Russian River which flows through Sonoma to the sea.

And his appreciation of the finest wines which were produced in that part of the world carries over to Hawke's Bay.

Had he been impressed by what he had been presented with to taste and judge?

"Oh yes, I would say so."

The most important aspect he had come across was the region's "tremendous" winemaking versatility on display.

"This is clearly not a region which is limited or pigeon-holed into a single or just a couple of varieties."

Accordingly, Hawke's Bay was in a good place to capitalise on the big American market, although he said at present it was going through something of a lull.

There had been a "large crest of a wave" with exports of sauvignon blanc but that had fallen away, and Mr Comiskey said it was important that the American market needed to be aware of the other varieties from this part of the world.

Through his visit here, and his winewriting links to the Los Angeles Times and Wine & Spirits magazine, he would be doing his bit to spread the word about the Bay's best.

He has just finished a book about US Rhone varieties and was impressed by the region's syrahs, which is are a particular favourite of his.

The aromatic complexities and balance of the wines he had been tasting for the awards had been impressive, he said.

Chairman of Judges Warren Gibson said the results of four exceptional Bay vintages had come through in the tasting.

"The hit rate looks pretty good and this is one of the best times to be looking at Hawke's Bay wines," he said.

It is the 16th year the regional competition has been staged and the major awards will be announced at a special dinner at Waikoko Gardens on October 18.