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Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition

Platinum and Gold Nuggets
By Robert Whitley
Jan 27, 2010
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The wine competition season is now underway and I notice Eberle is up to its old tricks, knocking down nine medals last weekend at the freshly minted Winemaker Challenge. Gary Eberle was to have been one of the judges, but foul weather kept his plane on the ground in Paso Robles. Didn’t matter. Eberle wines always seem to snag a share of the hardware, no matter the conditions.

Eberle is one of those true believers, entering his wines in a number of prominent wine competitions each year confident they will earn the kudos that propel the sales that keep the lights on, the tasting room humming and his small plane’s fuel tank full.

Not all vintners see it that way, but that’s their loss. Me, I’m a true believer, too. Not that I make wine or sell wine. I simply work behind the scenes running competitions – a total of five now – and observe the trends. I scrutinize the results of each competition with which I am intimately involved and always come away with a nugget or two, or three.

It is humbling when I step back and take stock, realizing that after all these years as a student of wine, there is still so much I don’t know.

Take Prairie Berry, for example. It’s a winery in South Dakota. Uh huh, South Dakota. On the wine map, it might as well be Siberia. So imagine my surprise when we rolled out the wines nominated for best of show in their class and Prairie Berry is among them.

Out of 796 wines entered, 39 were nominated for best of show. That’s a platinum honor at the Winemaker Challenge. That’s Prairie Berry. The wine was a 2008 Frontenac from the Lewis & Clark Vineyard, of all places. It will set you back $21.50 at full retail. And it was delicious; a clean, well balanced dessert wine deserving of its seat at the table. Didn’t win (a 2008 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine from the Niagara Peninsula, $80 per 375ml took the category) but it was certainly in the game.

Who knew? What’s more, Prairie Berry is hardly a one-trick pony, claiming two silver medals to go with its platinum.

My expanded awareness isn’t always about the surprising performance. Sometimes I’m simply amazed by a winery’s remarkable consistency. I could probably close my eyes and pick V. Sattui as my top winery at just about every one of my competitions and not get an argument. The Napa Valley winery won 17 medals at the Winemaker Challenge and no other winery was even close.

Sattui refuses, simply refuses, to produce a mediocre wine, and it shows. In grand Sattui fashion, two of its winners made it into the finals for best of show consideration – 2007 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) and 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($19.75) – and four others were awarded gold medals.

I’m not sure how you top that, but Gloria Ferrer gave it a go. The Carneros producer is a regular on the wine competition circuit and always gets it share of medals, so that much wasn’t a shock. With its seven medals Gloria Ferrer had a fairly routine weekend for Gloria Ferrer.

Except that one of its sparkling wines, the 2002 Royal Cuvee Brut ($35) took best of show in the sparkling wine category and rolled all the way to Wine of the Year in the final, final vote of the competition. To get there, the Royal Cuvee had to beat out, well, Gloria Ferrer, for the Gloria Ferrer 1999 Carneros Cuvee ($50) and NV Blanc de Noirs ($20) also went platinum and advanced to the final round.

Before you get the idea that Gloria Ferrer was the only contender in the sparkling wine category, know that California rivals Domaine Carneros by Taittinger and J Vineyards also won gold medals for some very fine bubblies. This was no cakewalk for Gloria Ferrer, so I’m given to observe that it seems they’ve kicked it up a notch.

I also took note of the Andretti and B.R. Cohn wines. The estimable Bob Pepi makes the wines for Andretti and has been a consultant for B.R. Cohn. No surprise then that they emerged last weekend as a force.

Andretti’s 2007 Napa Valley Syrah ($41) was voted best red wine, and the Napa winery also took down a gold with its 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($46). B.R. Cohn reared its head with two wines in the best of show round of judging, its 2008 Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay ($29) and the 2006 Olive Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($55).

Olive Hill has been B.R. Cohn’s flagship vineyard since Helen Turley made it famous more than a quarter century ago, but its record has been spotty since Turley’s departure. Nice to see this fabulous piece of vineyard land back on track.

Finally, the results of every competition always seem to cough up a few bargain gems. At the Winemaker Challenge Argentina’s Trivento was clearly the star, with two $11 wines in the best of show round – 2006 Malbec Reserve and 2008 Torrontes Select, both from Mendoza.

And if that’s still not low enough for your budget, how about the platinum winning Cape Peak Collection 2009 Chardonnay from the Western Cape, South Africa at $5.

I once was blind, but now I see. Thank you, winemakers!

Click here for complete results of the 2010 Winemaker Challenge.

Email comments to Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com