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Big Winners from 2020
By Robert Whitley
Jan 5, 2021
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The many setbacks of 2020 notwithstanding, there were numerous bright spots for the wine industry over the course of the challenging year just ended.

As regular readers of this column know, I oversee four major international wine competitions.  The insights I gain as I digest the competition results – from new trends and developments to confirmation of long-held truths – give me a unique window into the year-to-year evolution of the wine world.

I’ve assembled highlights from the four competitions that provide a peek into the not-too-distant past, a 2020 that was better than you might have imagined given the circumstances of COVID 19 lockdowns and rampant disruption of our dining and consumption habits.

We kicked off the year with the Winemaker Challenge in January.  The Domestic Wine of the Year was the Ledson 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve, Alexander Valley ($120). Winemaker Steve Ledson emerged from the construction business a couple of decades ago with a passion for grape growing and winemaking.  He had help from brilliant winemaking consultants along the way, but these days he’s pretty much a solo act with a commitment to sourcing from exceptional vineyards and the finest techniques in the cellar.  It shows.

The Imported Wine of the Year was a tie between the exceptional 2018 Doble de Diez Mencia, Spain ($22) and the 2018 Martin Codax Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain ($15).  A relatively obscure grape variety, it is one of the most charming wines from Spain and typically modestly priced.  Albarino is probably Spain’s most exciting white wine and remarkably, the Martin Codax is the product of a co-operative.  A very demanding, exceptionally well run co-op I would add.

The most impressive performance, however, was turned in by Runquist Wines from California’s Sierra Foothills.  Winemaker Jeff Runquist is the resident genius, making wines that are both profound and accessible, powerful yet elegant, and always well balanced.  Runquist rang up 29 medals at the 2020 Winemaker Challenge, where the judges are prominent winemakers.

The 38th annual San Diego International, typically judged by a mix of wine journalists, sommeliers, winemakers and other wine professionals, was next up.  V. Sattui, one of the Napa Valley’s greatest success stories, simply stole the show. Sattui, situated along Highway 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley, sells most of its wines at the winery, so don’t look for it at your favorite wine shop (you can purchase the wines online).

Sattui specializes in vineyard-designate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, though it does dip into other grape varieties with equal enthusiasm.  The big hits for Sattui at the 2020 San Diego International were its 2016 Vangone Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($140) and its 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder ($92).  The two Cabernets tied for Wine of the Year honors as V. Sattui went on to wrap up the Winery of the Year title with a total of 26 medals, including 10 Platinum awards and 12 Golds.  If you ever visit Napa Valley, V. Sattui, with some of the finest picnic grounds in the valley, is a must-stop.

The 17th annual Critics Challenge followed.  Judged by prominent wine writers, Critics Challenge surprised with a tie for Domestic Wine of the Year between two California Chardonnays. Over the years many wine journalists haven’t been kind to California Chardonnay, put off by sometimes excessive use of oak and uber ripe flavors.  There is a new trend afoot, however, toward more balanced Chardonnay that combines richness and structure and more subtle influence from oak aging.

Two superb California Chardonnays emerged from the crowd: 2018 Palazzo Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($45) and 2018 The Barn Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($65).  Palazzo is a relatively new brand conceived by entertainment industry executive Scott Palazzo in 2003.  Sourcing primarily cool-climate grapes, the Palazzo Chardonnay are popular at many high-end restaurants because they are multi-dimensional, show freshness and structure yet the richness and complexity many Chardonnay enthusiasts crave.  The Barn is a relatively new brand from Kenwood Vineyards, an icon of the Sonoma Valley.  Like the Palazzo, it is multi-dimensional, beautifully structured and well balanced.

Imported Wine of the Year also went to a white wine, which is somewhat unusual.  The 2019 Starborough Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand took the honors and is well priced ($15) for the quality in the bottle.

Navarro’s selection as Winery of the Year was further confirmation that the small Mendocino County winery is a gem among family run wineries.  Situated in the cool Anderson Valley, Navarro specializes in aromatic white wines, Pinot Noir and some of California’s finest late harvest dessert wines.  Navarro racked up 13 medals, with a stunning haul of seven Platinum awards and three Golds.

The Challenge series ended with the 13th annual Sommelier Challenge where, of course, the judges are certified sommeliers.  The somms ended the year on a surprise note, awarding nine medals to a young winery, Akash, that is less than 10 years old and situated in a region, Temecula Valley, that sometimes fails to get the respect it deserves.

An hour from San Diego, just across the Riverside County line, the Temecula Valley is home to a growing number of wineries.  It has a Mediterranean climate with cool evening temps that help maintain freshness and acidity in the grapes.  Akash amassed four Platinum awards and a Gold among its nine medals, including a stunning Rosé wine it calls Parlez-Vous Rosé ($35).  

Read more:   Robert Whitley
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