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Platinum Award Winning Wines: Critics Challenge International Wine Competition
By Michael Franz
Jun 28, 2022
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Over this past weekend, judges gathered in San Diego for the 19th edition of Critics Challenge, which was established by Robert Whitley in a series of initiatives that included the 2005 launch of Wine Review Online.  Both ventures are still running strong, as the reviews of top award winners from the Challenge here will indicate, and as will become evident from a redesign of WRO that will debut in the near future.  The wines reviewed here were the cream of a crop of more than 1,000 entries, all of which were tasted blind before being deemed Platinum Award winners.

After receiving this highest-level award, all the wines were then re-tasted, reviewed and scored either by Rich Cook, Competition Director, or Michael Franz, Chief Wine Judge.  In every review that appears below, the taster and writer is identified — in keeping with WRO’s longstanding practice of attributing every word of every review to a particular taster, so that you can determine whether your palate accords (or not) with our reviewers.

As an aside, the full name of the current competition is “Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition.”  The spirits judging was conducted shortly after the wine competition, and results will appear on Spirits Review Online.

Platinum Award winning wines appear in alphabetical order below.  Whites and reds are interspersed as a result, as are more affordable wines and high-end bottles meriting a special occasion.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading the results set out in this manner, which retains a semblance of the search for excellence that has always been the enlivening spirit of Critics Challenge.

Alamos (Mendoza, Argentina) Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($13):  This delicious wine shows all the “guts” you’d hope to find in Cabernet from anywhere, but especially from Argentina, and yet there’s nothing coarse or unrefined about it.  The aromas are nicely expressive, with dark fruit tones and subtle savory accents leading into flavors of blackberries and black currants with a little hint of vanilla.  Rich but soft in texture, this is very broadly useful and an outstanding value.  91  Michael Franz

Alamos (Mendoza, Argentina) Red Blend 2020 ($13) I challenge you to find a tastier blended red wine at this price. Bold dried raspberry fruit gets a magic carpet ride on a supple structure that carries sweet oak toast and a dash of allspice through a long, satisfying finish. It’s delicious – consider the gauntlet thrown down.  94  Rich Cook

Barboursville Vineyards (Virginia) Vermentino Reserve 2021 ($23):  Here’s a pithy little wine…wait a minute – that doesn’t sound too flattering, which is certainly not my intent.  Vermentino has been enjoying success in Virginia for a while now, and this example continues the string with bright lemon and, yes, pith character that serves to brighten the lemon character while simultaneously adding depth.  Keep it coming!  93  Rich Cook

Barefoot Cellars (California) Cabernet Sauvignon NV ($7):  You might well guess that a wine competition’s chief judge cringes when presented with a non-vintage wine costing $7 retail that was voted a Platinum Award, but you’d be wrong in this particular case.  Big companies have lots of high-end equipment and top talent using it, and access to lots of fruit from which to make selections and blends, and Barefoot often turns out marvelous over-achievers such as this.  It shows vivid Cabernet character in its aromas and flavors, including a faint but very pleasant streak of dried herbs that could make one wonder whether this was from California or Bordeaux.  That’s high praise for a wine in this price category, and I stand by every word.  90  Michael Franz

Berghold Vineyards (Lodi, California) Syrah – Viognier 2017 ($31):  This shows impressive aromatic complexity — no doubt thanks in part to the 5% Viognier in the wine — as well as lovely purity of fruit and quite soft texture.  Soft and ripe, but with no hint of over-ripeness nor any distractingly excessive wood, this offers a smooth ride with some plush but focused fruit recalling both red and black berries.  93  Michael Franz

Cannery Row (Monterey County, California) Gewurztraminer 2021 ($18):  Monterey County’s history with German/Alsatian varieties goes back to its beginnings, when Mirassou had huge success with an off-dry Riesling in a blue bottle.  The glass is clear here, but the vibe echoes that past with solid Gewurztraminer markers of lychee, white flowers and tangerine in both aroma and flavor profiles, and everything finishes with a semi sweet acidic kiss.  It’s a porch pounder of the first order.  92  Rich Cook

Castelnau (Champagne, France) “Le Chemin Du Roi” NV ($160):  This bottling has suffered from bottle variation issues in the past, but they seem to be in the past now.  This is quite classic in style, with fresh citrus, apple, brioche and toasty notes that show depth and integration from start to finish.  Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson promotes this line, and I imagine his followers appreciate it.  I’m a fan!  95  Rich Cook

Castelnau (Champagne, France) “Le Chemin Du Roi” Rosé NV ($325):  This high-roller pink bubbly is quite forward – strawberry and cherry fruit get the full lemon zest treatment, with all the components lingering long.  More than an aperitif, this has the stuffing for food, so try it with the fanciest salad course you can dream up.  94  Rich Cook

Cellardoor Winery (American) Red Blend “Sewell” 2017 ($24):  The blend here is 56% Tempranillo, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Syrah and 3% Petite Sirah, and the origin destination of “American” suggests that some location blending was also involved.  In any case, the end result is a robust red with good depth of flavor and an interesting mix of fruit flavors and savory accents that seem as “Old World” in style as American.  Quite complex and fully mature, this is ready to enjoy with moderately robust meat dishes.  91  Michael Franz

Martin Codax (Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain) Albariño 2021 ($17):  This has got to be one of the best values available in the world of wine, and thanks to very wide distribution, it’s one that the world has relatively easy access to.  You’ll want to avail yourself of said benefit at your earliest opportunity if things like mixed citrus, sea spray salinity, a dash of stone fruit and a long lip-smacking finish sound appealing.  94  Rich Cook

Coyote Canyon Winery (Horse Heaven Hills, Washington) Graciano “Artist Series” 2018 ($50):  Graciano is a variety grown predominantly in Spain’s famous Rioja region, typically as a blending component for wines that are predominantly comprised of Tempranillo.  In recent years, however, an increasing number of bodegas have become so enamored of their barrels of Graciano that they bottle it as a varietal wine.  Most wine lovers in the USA have yet to taste such a wine, and fewer still have been fortunate to taste a rendition of the grape that was made domestically, so this wine is doubly welcome even before we address its considerable intrinsic merits.  Deeply pigmented and impressively flavorful, it is nevertheless medium-bodied, with a very high ratio of flavor to weight, which is a formula for versatility at the table.  Freshening acidity is quite prominent without making the wine seem tart (much less sour), so this is likely to remain bright and focused for years as it becomes more complex thanks to time in bottle.  The fruit notes are emphatically black in tone, with blackberry and black raspberry coming first to mind by way of analogy.  There’s 15% Tempranillo included (effectively reversing the norm in Rioja), but the strong performance of Graciano in this wine will likely send you on a search for other examples to try.  94  Michael Franz

Domaine Carneros (Carneros, California) Brut 2018 ($37):  Vintage after vintage, this is always a solid sparkler from a favorite producer of mine.  It’s dry, almost austere, with a focus on apple, pear and moderate toast, with a cleansing scour that leaves a lasting retro-nasal impression that’s very satisfying – to the degree that you will have the bottle empty in no time.  94  Rich Cook

Dry Creek Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California) Meritage 2018 ($35):  Dry Creek has produced this bottling for many years, and they have held the price as steady as they have held the quality, which is great news for consumers as the quality has always been high.  Dark fruit flavors of blackberry and currants get a boost from a rich mix of herbs and oak toast, and the finish shows both full integration of the elements and the grip of age-worthiness.  A fine bargain in the category!  94  Rich Cook

En Garde (Diamond Mountain, Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($90):  Here is a "wow" wine from one of Napa Valley’s best sub-appellations.  The mix of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is sublime, with touches of vanilla, nutmeg and moderate oak toast deepening the fruit impression.  The finish is long and already integrating, but the promise holds for a long life ahead.  If you are envisioning pulling out some real trophies from your cellar twenty years from now, this is a worthy candidate.  95  Rich Cook

Estancia Vineyards (Central Coast, California) Merlot 2020 ($12):  A well-made Merlot is one that offers the soft fruitiness widely expected of the variety but also packs a bit of a punch, and this rendition gets both characteristics right.  Black plum fruit notes are joined by suggestions of Bing cherry and dark berries, and the punch is just a well-aimed jab, one that brightens the finish with a touch of acidity and provides some grip from fine-grained tannin.  91  Michael Franz

Frey (Mendocino, California) Zinfandel “Organic” 2020 ($15):  This wine is reminiscent of Amarone at a fraction of the price.  There’s an attractive raisin element to the nose that makes you think a sweet pop is on the way, but it surprises with dry style, gentle oak spice and bright black pepper notes.  If that sounds good to you, you might as well order a case.  93  Rich Cook

Grape Creek Vineyards (Texas) Red Blend “Prosperity” 2019 ($38):  A very interesting blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (49%), Syrah (44%) and Petit Verdot (7%), this shows a smoky aromatic topnote that adds complexity without distracting from the fruit, which is medium-bodied and mostly black in tone, but with some red berry notes also showing.  The mouthfeel is soft on entry and through the midpalate, but then just the right amount of tannic grip firms up the finish.  Well done.  91  Michael Franz

Happy Holidays (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($25):  The wreath that graces the front label of this wine makes clear which holiday season this producer had in mind for this wine, but I would encourage much broader consideration:  Flag Day is under-estimated, for example, and why should we not drink fine wine on Ex-Spouse Day in April?  They key point here is that this is excellent Cabernet at a very fair price, and there’s nothing seasonally limiting about that, especially as it has both acidic freshness to work well in summer and lightly grippy tannin to work well with winter fare.  Very well done.  91  Michael Franz

Heath Vineyards (Clarksburg, California) Blanc de Blancs 2019 ($43):  So – a winery in Texas that makes wine from both Texas fruit and Paso Robles fruit (and does so very well) and sources fruit from Clarksburg to produce a tasty sparkling wine?  Well, it’s true on all counts, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  The evidence is in this fine bottle, where a creamy mousse offsets racy acidity so that there’s no scour – just pleasant apple, pear and lemon that are elevated by moderate yeasty character.  It’s delicious, and it’s priced right for its quality level.  94  Rich Cook

Heath Vineyards (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Syrah 2019 ($85):  Meaty and muscular even for a red from Paso Robles, this is serious Syrah that shows good varietal character despite containing 17% Petit Verdot (which I was unaware of when tasting it — admiringly — blind).  That Petit Verdot component certainly helps explain the depth of color in this as well as all that muscle, and yet there’s real class here too, with savory components (veal carpaccio above all) lending impressive complexity.  94  Michael Franz

Baron Herzog (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($13):  This would be an exceptional value at twice the price, with very sharply defined Cabernet Sauvignon character that remains unobscured by cellar tricks.  Medium-plus body makes for a satisfying and versatile food partner, and the absence of distracting wood notes such as vanilla or oak toast keep this tasting pure and natural.  You might want a bigger wine for a birthday or wedding anniversary, but with that acknowledged, this is a Cab that can make a Tuesday seem like a special occasion.  91  Michael Franz

Herzog Wine Cellars (Lake County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Reserve” 2020 ($44):  Lake County still doesn’t have the cachet of the Napa Valley, but it is the source for ever more top-quality Cabernets at reasonable prices, and this is a very fine case in point.  Full-bodied and impressively deep in flavor, it nevertheless comes off as pure and polished, unlike some rough-and-tough “statement wines” that are packed with oak that might never come into balance and allow easy enjoyment.  This shows integrated intricacy at every turn, with a lovely bouquet and flavor profile that show both fruity and savory elements that work together in a harmonious way that seems effortless and natural.  A terrific performance from this house.  94  Michael Franz

Herzog (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) “Special Reserve Methode Champenoise” NV ($60):  Here is a very dry bubbly that’s long on Granny Smith apple and stony minerality joined by notes of brioche and lime zest.  It’s the first sparkler from this producer that I have had the pleasure to taste, and I’m hopeful for more!  94  Rich Cook

William Hill (Central Coast, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($17):  An impressive wine regardless of price but an especially strong value at $17, this delivers true Cabernet character in the form of dark berry fruit with good tannic structure.  It also incorporates just the right touch of oak to add complexity without drying out the finish, which shows pure fruit character without seeming simple.  The real deal.  92  Michael Franz

William Hill (Central Coast, California) Merlot 2019 ($17):  Rich but not heavy, flavorful but not pushy, and structured but not harsh, this Merlot hits the balance point on each of the most important elements.  On top of all that, it interweaves savory accents with the fruit notes, and the nearly three years that have passed since the grapes were picked have clearly worked to the advantage of the wine when tasted now.  Buyers run no risk of it cracking up anytime soon, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it seems quite close to its optimal time for enjoyment right now.  92  Michael Franz

Lightpost (Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, California) Pinot Noir Reserve 2019 ($58): I appreciate the Sta. Rita Hills sense of place here – vibrant cherry fruit and a mix of herbs and earth are well knit together and finish into the distance.  Winemaker Christian Roguenant’s long experience with Central Coast Pinot Noir is in full evidence here – he has a way of drawing the best out of each vintage.  Mission accomplished yet again.  94  Rich Cook

Lightpost Winery (San Luis Obispo County, California) Red Blend “Ignition” 2019 ($44):  This is a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah that offers up layers of deliciously ripe fruit recalling dark cherries and both red and black berry flavors.  Very soft in texture and fully open and generous right now, there’s no reason to wait to open this — even though it might still gain complexity from additional time in bottle.  Ready to rip, and compellingly delicious.  92  Michael Franz

J. Lohr (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) “Cuvée POM” 2018 ($50): Once again, J. Lohr shines with one of their Cuvée Series bottles.  This offering tips its hat to Pomerol with a sturdy structure and a well rendered “Right Bank” style.  It is just beginning to show its charms – I would age this for five years or so before going in, or decant well if you just can’t wait.  95  Rich Cook

J. Lohr (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Petite Sirah “Tower Road” 2018 ($35):  This wine has – for many years on end – managed to combine remarkable size, weight and palate impact with equally remarkable textural softness.  There is no food challenge to which it would not prove equal (armadillo or wolverine included), and yet it is so uncanny in its softness that you could enjoyably sip an entire glass of it cocktail style.  The effect is not easy to describe, but maybe like being bumped by a very, very slow-moving blimp.  Everyone who loves big wine needs to try this at some point, as it is undeniably delicious and yet very distinctive and unusual.  94  Michael Franz

Lorimar Vineyards (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($55):  The back label of this robust wine indicates that an unspecified percentage of Petite Sirah was incorporated, and though the Cabernet flavors ring loud and clear in the finished product, the disclosure of a Petite Sirah component rings true to the wine’s robustness.  Dark fruit notes predominate, with cassis and blackberry leading the way, but you’ll also find interesting accents recalling cocoa powder, vanilla and freshly roasted coffee.  Very tasty red.  92  Michael Franz

La Marca (Prosecco DOC, Italy) Prosecco Rosé 2021 ($20): My first crack at this new vintage shows it to be as crisp and refreshing as the previous vintage.  Fresh strawberry and citrus surround a stony mineral core, and together they keep the refreshment coming.  You will be able to find this just about anywhere for around seventeen dollars, and if you must make a little effort to find it, you won’t be sorry in the least.  93  Rich Cook

Mettler Family Vineyards (Lodi, California) Zinfandel “Epicenter” 2019 ($25): This particular bottling is reined in well, showing brambly fruit, nutmeg, white pepper and zesty acidity. A chocolatey note adds to the fun, and that acidity keeps all the characteristics in play and give the finish a big push.  You will love this with gourmet burgers or other grilled summer fare.  94  Rich Cook

Oak Farm (Lodi, California) Albariño Estate Grown 2021 ($24):  It’s no accident that Oak Farm is sticking by this variety in its non-coastal location – why wouldn’t you keep at it when its consistently this good?  It’s peachier and a little rounder than its Rías Baixas relatives, but it manages pure varietal character down to the saline notes that make it so attractive.  It will make a fascinating side by side with some examples from Spain – sounds like a blind tasting party to me!  93  Rich Cook

Oak Farm (Lodi, California) Fiano 2021 ($28):  Fiano is among the handful of most highly respected white varieties in all of Italy, and is now being transplanted in multiple regions beyond its original home in Campania.  This utterly convincing rendition indicates that many more areas could provide places for it to thrive, though I confess that the skillful growing and winemaking at Oak Farm is no doubt a major factor here, along with the potential excellence of the variety and the evident suitability of Lodi for its cultivation.  Soft in feel on entry and thorough the midpalate, the plush and flavorful fruit seems to conceal a sneaky amount of acidity, as the wine remains fresh through the finish without seeming tart at any point along the way.  Lightly floral notes atop fruit recalling ripe pears and honeydew melon make for a compellingly delicious ensemble.  94  Michael Franz

Oak Farm (Lodi, California) Sauvignon Blanc Estate Grown 2021 ($26):  I suspect this bottling sees a little barrel time – it shows a depth and roundness that has unfortunately fallen out of fashion for the variety of late.  Wines like this seek to show another delightful possibility, and this one succeeds in grand style.  From salads to shellfish, this is a fine foil for pairing.  93  Rich Cook

Oak Farm (Lodi, California) Zinfandel “Tievoli” 2020 ($19):  This is classic Zinfandel on the bold style side of the variety’s range of expressions, showing blackberry, raspberry and ripeness that are offset with bright pepper and a zesty finish.  I could say more, but no more is necessary here, other than to say that if you spell the proprietary name backwards, you see how I really feel.  Drink up!  94  Rich Cook

Palazzo (Napa Valley, California) “Cuvée Blanc" Reserve 2017 ($65):  This is comprised of 98% Semillon and 2% Sauvignon Blanc, and though one could reasonably ask why it isn’t simply labeled as “Semillon” (a world-class grape), I’m not the one who needs to get this to sell for $65.  However, I would certainly buy it for $65, and will do exactly that at my first opportunity.  It shows full body, but with only modest oak adding to its heft, and the aromas and flavors recall figs, white melon, candle wax and lanolin as well as a few fainter sensory accents.  I’m confident that this will not only last for a decade but improve for at least half of that span, and I could well be underestimating the wine on both counts.  Stunning stuff.  96  Michael Franz

Palazzo (Napa Valley, California) Proprietary Red Reserve 2018 ($90): Scott Palazzo has been impressing me for some time now on both sides of the color spectrum. This Merlot driven red blend manages richness and structure all at once, with the oak selection standing in complement to the blackberry and cassis, adding allspice and a dash of vanilla. The finish is still integrating and will soften into a real beauty in your cellar.  Well done!  Contains 65% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.  95  Rich Cook

S. A. Prum (Mosel, Germany) Graacher Dompropst VDP Grosse Lage Riesling Dry GG 2017 ($72):  A thrilling Riesling from one of the most extraordinary vineyard sites in Germany, this combines very complex flavors of ripe — but dry — Riesling (nectarine, mandarin orange, green apple) with intense slate minerality.  The acidity is intense and the finish is remarkably long, and yet the fruit flavors ride in perfect tandem with the citrus acidity impressions, making for a truly thrilling tasting experience.  Great wine now, and in 5 years, and in 15, and you can bet on all of that.  97  Michael Franz

Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyard (Umpqua Valley, Oregon) Grüner Veltliner “Green Lizard” 2021 ($36):  You would need to travel to Austria to find a Grüner Veltliner that is as complete, convincing and compelling as this one, and once you got there, your travels would not be at an end, because this is better overall than the great majority of Austrian examples.  Medium-bodied but still quite refreshing, the structural properties and its internal balance are entirely solid, allowing a taster to focus on the wine’s lovely aromatic and flavor intricacies.  The fruit recalls green apples above all, though in this vintage there’s less tartness and a broader richer feel.  Peppery and floral notes add interest, and though this variety can develop in positive directions for years after bottling, this is so delicious now that I wouldn’t guess many bottles will survive long enough to put that to the test.  94  Michael Franz

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Barbera Reserve 2020 ($48):  Pricing a Barbera at $48 from anywhere — including Italian specialty zones for the variety like Nizza in Piedmont — is a bold statement that the wine is among the best of its type from Planet Earth.  Which this is.  Ripe but definitely not over-ripe, with Barbera’s inherently high acidity keeping this fresh and focused, the wine is rich and full of flavor but still rings true to type.  There seems to be a touch of oak involved, which would make good sense, as Barbera is quite low in tannin and can benefit from a bit of wood tannin as a result.  The main attraction here is the red berry fruit, which is utterly gorgeous and perfectly balanced.  I look forward to seeing how this ages, but one need not wait to enjoy it.  94  Michael Franz

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Logan's Rock Wall Vineyard Dolcetto 2020 ($30):  I taste a lot of Dolcetto each year, and taste a lot of it in its traditional home around Alba in Piedmont, which I note only to set a foundation for asserting that this is not only a world class rendition, but also one that is very near the head of the class.  It is richer and more powerful than most of the biggest renderings from Dogliani, a Dolcetto specialty zone immediately south of the Barolo district, yet it shows the same fruit character and quite comparable structural elements that show excellent symmetry.  Red- and black-toned fruit notes are accented with a subtle touch of oak that tones down the wine’s ripeness, resulting in a wine that could pair very successfully with many foods from a span stretching from a roast chicken to a grilled steak.  Seriously impressive.  94  Michael Franz

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Verdelho Estate Grown  2021 ($27):  I truly wish that there were more wineries experimenting with Portuguese white varieties.  I suspect there are few with items in the pipeline thanks to wines like this one.  Aromas of sweet marzipan and white flowers lead to a palate of Sorrento lemon, lychee and white pepper that hang in long and beg another sip.  Shellfish seems a natural pairing for this.  94  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Zinfandel, Esola Vineyard 2020 ($32):  A little ginger note in the aroma profile gives this Zinfandel real lift, and the ginger shows up on the palate along with bright clove to temper the rich berry fruit.  Pulsing acidity keeps the flavor coming on the midpalate and bursting forth in the finish with full integration of its parts.  A serious Zinfandel that keeps the fun factor intact.  95  Rich Cook

Schloss Vollrads (Rheingau, Germany) Riesling Kabinett 2020 ($34):  A classically styled Riesling from one of Germany’s historic producers, this hits all the right notes in delivering balance between energetic acidity and light sweetness and a wonderful undertow of minerality to the fruit.  Flavors of white peach and mandarin orange are impeccably rendered here, and though this is a serious wine that would be at home with many dishes in the world’s finest dining establishments, it would be equally at home by the pool or on a porch swing.  94  Michael Franz

Serene Cellars (Pope Valley - Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($125):  This is a big-ticket wine that proves completely convincing even when the price tag is in view.  The aromas are highly complex, with subtle barrel notes of vanilla, spices and toast working harmoniously with ripe fruit recalling dark berries and cassis.  This ensemble of sensory signals transitions smoothly from bouquet to the palate and into the finish, with an exceptional symmetry and integration evident at every stage.  One important characteristic is that this is as polished as one might expect at its price level, yet not too polished, in the sense that it has lots of robust energy that will enable years of further development.  96  Michael Franz

Somnium Wine Company (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($85):  On paper, this is as much a blend as it is a Cabernet Sauvignon, this is comprised of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.  Yet, in the glass, the Cabernet Sauvignon pushes past all the accessories to assert itself nearly as a soloist, with classic cassis and blackberry fruit notes that are augmented with undertones of espresso beans, autumn leaves, oak toast and cocoa powder.  Powerful but also poised, this is already delicious and is likely to improve for a decade or more.  94  Michael Franz

Rodney Strong (Chalk Hill, Sonoma County) Chardonnay 2019 ($22):  This wine offers strikingly strong value for a Chardonnay priced under $35, and the fact that it is priced well below that level is all the more impressive.  The aromas include some nutty, spicy oak scents that I would expect to find only in a considerably more expensive wine, and the flavors follow suit in terms of quality, with rich notes of peach and baked apple supported by fresh acidity.  93  Michael Franz

Trefethen (Oak Knoll District – Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay Estate Grown 2020 ($40):  This superb Chardonnay accomplishes something that is quite rare in young renditions regardless of growing location:  A combination of excellent complexity and seamless integration.  Trefethen has a long record of success in its cool microclimate with both Riesling and Chardonnay, but even with that taken into account, this is quite special.  Medium-bodied but quite flavorful, with very subtle oak-derived notes of spices and toasted nuts melding beautifully with moderately ripe fruit recalling white peaches with a squeeze of lemon, this is an object lesson in success and stylishness with Chardonnay.  94  Michael Franz

Trefethen (Oak Knoll District – Napa Valley, California) Dry Riesling 2021 ($28):  It is no exaggeration to recognize this as one of the most consistently successful white wines in recent American history.  Uncompromisingly dry, with essentially no recognizable sugar to cover any flaws or shortcomings, this is energetic and highly refreshing, with lemon and green apple fruit notes that are steely and yet not overly tart.  There’s a slight, pleasant bitterness in the finish that works nicely with the subtly floral aromatic topnote.  There’s an important distinction with young, truly dry Riesling between being reserved (which is a virtue) and austere (which is a vice), and this is emphatically on the right side of the line.  94  Michael Franz

Upshot (California) White Blend 2019 ($19):  This is composed from 53% Grenache Blanc, 18% Pinot Noir, 16% Gewürztraminer, 8% Viognier and 5% Sauvignon Blanc.  But enough about the details:  The fact that this is still singing in the summer of 2022 is very impressive, and the wine is indeed much brighter and more refreshing than the mix of varieties would suggest.  That suggests in turn that high quality fruit was picked at just the right time and vinified quite skillfully.  I tasted this shortly after it was released and liked it then, but am now much more impressed after seeing how it has not only held on over time, but thrived over time.  93  Michael Franz

Vespertine (California) Red Wine Blend 2018 ($18): This kitchen sink style blend will satisfy fans of well folded American oak character.  It is not at all edgy or harsh, instead serving to lift the rich red fruit through a long finish.  Tasty juice!  Contains 25% Petite Sirah, 22% Zinfandel, 20% Tempranillo, 19% Syrah, 6% Malbec, 5% Mourvedre and 3% Merlot.  94  Rich Cook

Vespertine (California) Zinfandel 2019 ($18):  Beautifully balanced Zinfandel, with pepper, blackberry, raspberry and fall spice all riding into a slow sunset together on a saddle of supple tannins.  Of all of the personalities that this grape can flash, I have a strong preference for this type.  Nicely done!  94  Rich Cook

Le Vigne (Paso Robles, California) “Nikiara” Red Wine 2019 ($54):  Bold fruit character is well-tamed with rich oak spice and notes of pepper and anise, and the finish just keeps pumping flavor.  It's flashy in the best way possible. Contains 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot.  94  Rich Cook

Winemakers Selection (California) Pinot Noir “Reserve Series” 2021 ($10):  This is a straightforwardly delicious Pinot Noir that is a standout in its price class — as well as a threat to wines in several price classes above it.  The fruit recalls black cherries and very ripe strawberries, with a subtle accent of vanilla in the bouquet and a finished by sweetness that seems fruity rather than sugary.  Medium-bodied, it offers a lot of flavor for affordable Pinot, but not at the cost of delicacy that is true to the variety.  90  Michael Franz

Zonte's Footstep (Barossa Valley, Australia Shiraz “Baron von Nemesis” 2019 ($35):  It isn’t easy to pack this much flavor and fun into a bottle but still have the wine come across as both serious and age-worthy.  However, that’s exactly what’s been accomplished in this instance, as this 100% Shiraz is veritably bursting with delicious primary fruit that shows both red and black tones, along with excellent depth and length to the flavors.  The fruit is so opulent in both aromatic and flavor terms that only upon further inspection is one likely to appreciate the presence of acidity, tannin and subtle oak that will certainly enable this to develop even more complexity with time in bottle.  Delicious now, but even better in the future — what more could we ask?  94  Michael Franz 

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For complete results of the judging of the 2022 Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit CriticsChallenge.com                

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