Over the course of my 29-year career as a wine columnist, I've staged more than 70 wine competitions and judged countless others. Each of those events has brought new insights and occasional revelations.
The 16th annual Critics Challenge in San Diego June 8-9 delivered a revelation. Jeff Runquist, who took his first winemaking position at California's Montevina Winery in 1982, has emerged as a rock star this year, his 37th year on the job.
Early in his career, Runquist made the leap from Amador County to the Napa Valley, where he made wines briefly at the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery before a stint at J. Lohr in California's Central Coast. By 1995, the then-highly regarded Runquist struck out on his own and started Jeff Runquist Wines, crushing 10 tons of Amador Zinfandel that was released in 1997.
In the years since, Runquist's wines have been synonymous with fruit purity and balance. They took their share of medals at major wine competitions but didn't make waves. Those days are over. The Jeff Runquist Wines portfolio became a tsunami this year, dominating at the Critics Challenge with 28 medals won for 31 wines entered including four platinum, 15 gold and 9 silver. Runquist wines also claimed five best-of-class awards.
The stunning performance earned Runquist the Domestic Winery of the Year award. The Import Winery of the Year award was a tie between Castello Banfi, the Italian powerhouse from the Tuscany region, and France's Möet & Chandon Champagne house. That's rarefied air and very elite company for a relatively small winery from California's Sierra Foothills.
It was virtually impossible to separate Banfi and Möet & Chandon in the final analysis. Castello Banfi entered nine wines and took four platinum and five gold. Moet & Chandon entered four Champagnes and earned three platinum and one gold.
And in a new category this year, E&J Gallo of Modesto, California, was named Wine Company of the Year, edging The Wine Group of Livermore, California. Gallo entered 91 wines and earned 70 medals including four platinum and 34 gold. The Wine Group was just a step behind with 64 medals from 84 wines entered, including three platinum and 32 gold.
The new category was created to promote and acknowledge excellence in the area of wine companies that produce multiple brands. Complete results of the 2019 Critics Challenge, judged exclusively by professional wine journalists, can be found at CriticsChallenge.com.