If you enjoy wine and occasionally read the retail “shelf
talkers” in the wine department where you shop, you are no doubt aware that we
are awash in wine “competitions” throughout these United States.
Wine competitions are nothing more than organized “blind”
wine tastings, blind being the operative word. Each wine’s identity is
concealed from the judges – generally respected wine industry professionals –
to ensure awards are based on the merits rather than the prestige of a famous
Medals earned from wine competitions are used to promote
sales based on the perception of quality conveyed by a platinum, double gold, gold, silver or bronze
medal, or an even more prestigious honor such as best of class.
I have been operating wine competitions for 25 years and
currently have four international competitions based in San Diego, where I’ve
lived for the past 35 years. I frequently judge at competitions run by others,
such as the San Francisco International coming up in November.
The judging gigs help me hone my tasting chops while the
four international competitions, where most of my efforts are behind the
scenes, keep me abreast of ever-changing trends such as the emergence of prosecco
in recent years and the explosion of interest in dry rose wines.
But more than that, I get to see in real time who the major
players are in terms of quality and consistency. For example, when I look back
at the first half of 2019, I can state with utter confidence that V. Sattui
remains a pillar of excellence in the Napa Valley.
This unique winery shuns traditional distribution channels
and sells its wines only at the winery or online. V. Sattui wines are stunning
across the board, although it is best known for its vineyard-designate cabernet
sauvignons. V. Sattui entered 40 wines in my 10th annual Winemaker
Challenge in January and collected 36 medals, including four best-of-class
awards. It really doesn’t get much better than that. So, V. Sattui walked off
with the Directors Award for Domestic Winery of the Year. No surprise there.
What might surprise is that it was the third consecutive year V. Sattui has taken
That was January. By the time April and the 37th
annual San Diego International rolled around, there were plenty of new wines to
excite the palate. None more than the 2017 Oceano Chardonnay from the Spanish
Springs Vineyard in California’s San Luis Obispo County or the Delamotte Blanc de
Blancs Brut. The Oceano was a revelation, packed with extraordinary complexity
and a stony minerality that earned it the title of Domestic Wine of the Year. Oceano
is the new kid on the block, less than a few years old. Delamotte is a storied
Champagne house and its Blanc de Blancs and iconic wine and richly deserving of
the honor as Import Wine of the Year.
For each winery it was the first time entering the venerable
San Diego International, which I have overseen for the past 16 years.
Then came June and the 16th annual Critics
Challenge, judged exclusively by well regarded wine journalists. Here Italy’s
Castello Banfi soared with a 100-point wine, the 2015 Excelsus, a red Super
Tuscan blend that is without a doubt one of the finest red wines I’ve ever
tasted at a commercial wine competition, or anywhere else for that matter. Thus,
the Banfi legend continued to grow. Owned by an American family from New York,
Banfi recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. It was founded in
the Montalcino district of Tuscany long before the region’s signature wine,
Brunello do Montalcino, came to critical acclaim. It has been a beacon of
quality and innovation since its first vintage and, if anything, only continues
to get better with age, just like its famed Brunello.
But as good as the Excelsus was, it wasn’t Banfi’s first
100-point wine and probably won’t be its last.
The story of the 2019 Critics Challenge was the performance
of Jeff Runquist wines. The winery, situated off the beaten path in California’s
Sierra Foothills, entered 31 wines. From that 31, 28 medaled. Among the 28
medals were four platinum, 15 gold and five best-of-class awards.
This was no fluke. Runquist has been making exceptional
wines going on close to 40 years, including a successful stint at J. Lohr
before striking out on his own. That said, the results from the 2019 Critics
Challenge represented an epic performance, a tour de force worthy of a Napa
The bottom line for me is that every wine competition I
stage is a learning experience. If I surveyed the roster of wines in advance
and tried to predict the outcome in advance, I would fail miserably. Each
competition is both a journey and a discovery.
My next competition journey is the Sommelier Challenge in
September. You guessed it, the judges are all professional sommeliers. I have
no idea what new discovery the somms might present, and I can hardly wait.