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Critics Challenge Judges Dig Out Value Wines
By Robert Whitley
Jul 2, 2009
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One of the enduring myths of wine appreciation is the idea that price is the greatest measure of quality. I can say with utter confidence that you don't always get what you pay for — sometimes you get more!

I take this lesson time and again from the three international wine competitions I direct. Professional wine judges tasting blind, meaning the identity of the wine being evaluated is concealed, have plenty of love for inexpensive wines, as the recent Critics Challenge International Wine Competition demonstrates.

I've spent the past several days perusing the list of gold and platinum medal winners (a platinum is awarded to gold-medal wines nominated for best of show) from the 2009 Critics Challenge and have been impressed with the quality of wines that retail for $20 or less.

In this difficult economy, inside information on great wines at attractive prices is precious. So much so that I've sharpened my pencil and composed a shopping list, which I am happy to share.

The wines to seek:

Ancient Peaks, Paso Robles — 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($12) won platinum, 2006 Merlot ($16) gold. More evidence of the growing prowess of California's Central Coast as a source of great value.

Auto Moto, California — 2006 Chardonnay and 2007 Riesling won gold. Both are $12.99. Goofy label, but very tasty wine.

Bella Serra, Chianti — A gold medal for this $7 DOCG Chianti. Pizza, anyone?

Blackstone, Sonoma County — Yummy 2007 Chardonnay for $17. If you find this at a big box store such as Costco it's even less.

Bortolomiol, Italy — It was gold for this $15 Brut Prosecco from Valdobiaddene, Italy. This is the ticket for summertime sipping. Great as an aperitif, or with light tapas.

Brancott, New Zealand — Kind of stunning to think you can find a gold medal pinot noir for $13. The reserve sauvignon blanc ($18) took gold as well.

Brassfield Estate, High Valley — Won a slew of golds, but I was especially fond of the sauvignon blanc at $16.

Cameron Hughes, California — Cameron Hughes is a San Francisco negociant who purchases small lots of high-quality bulk wine and bottles it under his own name. His Lot 129 2007 Garnacha ($20) from Spain's Campo de Borja region won platinum, and the Lot 110 Pinot Noir from Carneros ($18) captured gold.

Cecchi, Chianti — It was gold for Cecchi's 2007 Natio, a DOCG chianti that retails for $16.

Clayhouse, Paso Robles — Gold for its $15 Syrah may seem faint praise considering the $25 Petite Sirah was Wine of the Year, but it is truly a steal.

Cycles Gladiator, Central Coast — Everyone loved the 2006 Central Coast Chardonnay, and it's a mere $10 for this platinum wine.

Dancing Bull, California — If you like Zin, this gold-medal winner is a pretty good one for $12.

Vale do Bomfim, Portugal — The great Port house of Dow produces this blended red table wine from mixed grape varieties in the Douro Valley.
It is utterly delicious, took platinum and retails for all of $12.

Eberle Winery, Paso Robles — Gold medals for Gary Eberle's lovely red rhone blend, the 2007 Cotes-du-Robles ($20), and 2008 Chardonnay ($18).

Fetzer Vineyards, Mendocino — The 2008 Valley Oaks Chardonnay ($9) fetched gold at a low, low price.

Five Rivers, Paso Robles — A 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) was awarded gold, but the vintage doesn't seem to matter, for this wine seems to take gold or better every year. Yet the price never goes up!

Gloria Ferrer, Carneros — Consistency is a personality trait of all Gloria Ferrer wines, particularly its bubblies. Two non-vintage sparklers, the Sonoma County Brut and the Carneros Blanc de Noirs, were awarded gold and both retail for $20.

Graffigna, Argentina — This value producer from Argentina's San Juan area won platinum with its 2005 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) and gold with both the 2005 Malbec ($20) and 2008 Pinot Grigio ($13).

Hayman & Hill, California — These guys won two platinums with a 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands ($15) and a 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley ($15). The 2006 Reserve Meritage from Monterey ($15) took gold.

Helfrich, France — For a mere $13 you can buy the platinum-winning 2007 Pinot Gris, or the gold-winning 2007 Gewurztraminer or 2007 Riesling. Not too shabby!

Hogue, Washington — This top Washington state producer snagged platinum with a 2006 Columbia Valley Merlot and golds with the 2006 Genesis Cabernet Sauvigon, 2008 Columbia Valley Riesling and 2008 Late Harvest Riesling. All retail for $11.

J. Lohr, Monterey — Lohr won a bunch of medals, as it always does, but one stood out: Platinum for the 2007 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) from Paso Robles.

Kenwood, Sonoma Valley — The 2006 Zin ($14) and 2007 Chardonnay ($15) were good for gold.

Lockwood, Monterey — Another value Pinot! Lockwood's 2006 Block 7 Pinot Noir from Monterey ($15) took gold, as did its 2007 Chardonnay ($12). The Lockwood wines are consistently well made and value priced.

Mandolin, Monterey — The 2007 Pinot Noir from Mandolin is utterly delicious and utterly affordable at $12. If you guessed it won platinum you would be right.

Matua Valley, New Zealand — I'm usually raving about the sauvignon blanc, but the gold-medal-winning 2008 Pinot Noir from Marlborough at $14 is a Pinot lover's dream!

Montecillo, Spain — Always among my top picks from Spain's Rioja district, Montecillo always scores with its reserva. This time it was the 2003 Reserva ($19) that wowed the judges and took platinum.

Renwood, Sierra Foothills — Platinum with its $10 2006 Barbera and gold for a $10 2005 Syrah. Wow!

Ventana Vineyards, Monterey — On a roll, Ventana picked up three platinums with wines that all retail for $18 or less. They were the 2007 Rubystone, a red Rhone-style blend, the 2007 Syrah and the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc.