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Platinum Award Winners from the San Diego International Challenge
By Michael Franz
Feb 2, 2023
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Surely you’ve seen wine competition medal stickers in ads or on labels or “hang tags” on bottles in retail stores, but there’s a strong chance that you’ve never reflected on what is required for a wine to earn one of the very top awards in a respected competition.  A panel of three judges needs to agree that a wine they’ve tasting “blind” (knowing only the general category) is not merely deserving of a Silver or Gold medal that corresponds to high a point score, but a Platinum award.  Doing that entails sending a bottle—one they haven’t yet seen—up for additional scrutiny by the Competition Director and the Chief Judge, who scrutinize the judging panel as well as the wine it deemed deserving of the highest award.  Easier for the judges to just give the wine Gold, right?  Yes, that’s exactly right—unless the wine proves so compelling to all three judges that they elect to stick their collective neck out on its behalf.

Last weekend, a group of distinguished judges worked through nearly a thousand wines to see which entries merited the sticking out of their necks.  What follows is a rundown of the Platinum Award winners, with reviews written either by Rich Cook (the Competition Director), or by me as Chief Wine Judge.  We engaged in independent assessments of the wines that were put forward, so you’ll see a name indicating the author of the review, in keeping with Wine Review Online’s uniform practice of connecting both the verbiage and score for every wine to an individual rather than just the publication.  The wines appear in alphabetical order, with suggested retail prices.

An important aside is that the full title of the competition is, “San Diego International Wine and Spirits Challenge,” and that spirits were also judged by a panel.  You can find your way to the winning entries from Spirits Review Online.  As for the wines, it will be worth your while to scan the entire list below to learn which ones managed to successfully run the gauntlet I’ve described above to earn Platinum Awards:

Benziger (Sonoma Coast, California) Pinot Noir “Terra Neuma” 2021 ($72):  This is exactly what fans of the Sonoma Coast are looking for when it comes to Pinot Noir.  A mix of red and black cherry, ripe strawberry, soft earthy notes, and gentle oak spice are folded together beautifully, and they finish together with a bright acid kiss that’ll keep you coming back for more.  A great pairing for salmon or pork tenderloin, and one that will cellar well.  95  Rich Cook

Boasso Franco (Barolo del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy) 2018 ($50):  Although I’ve never visited this producer in the beautiful and highly esteemed village of Serralunga in my many trips to Barolo, my recent experience of the wines has been extremely favorable in terms of value as well as quality.  This bottling is sourced entirely from Serralunga fruit, famous for concentration and muscle within the Barolo firmament, and this 2018 bottling lives up to that billing even in a year that produced quite soft and inviting wines that aren’t typically noteworthy for “muscle.”  There’s no hint of over-extraction or excessive wood influence producing that result—just good work in the vineyards that probably included some crop thinning as well as protection of the clusters from direct sun.  Most 2018 releases from Barolo are ready to enjoy with food immediately upon release, that that’s not untrue of this one, though the food had better be pretty robust, and there’s strong cellaring potential here.  94  Michael Franz

Brancott Estate (Marlborough, New Zealand) Pinot Gris “Flight” 2022 ($12):  This interesting wine offers plenty of flavor that’s true to the Pinot Gris variety, and manages to accomplish that with 20% reduced alcohol.  Pinot Gris can be fleshy in New Zealand, and that helps this from seeming watery in the midpalate due to a portion of alcohol having been removed from the mix.  Poached pear flavors take the lead and stay there through the finish, but is lightly sweet, but seemingly more from fruitiness than residual sugar.  90  Michael Franz

Breathless (Sonoma County, California) Blanc de Blancs NV ($39):  I’ve written about this wine many times as a winner that crosses my table at blind wine judgings, and here it is again, which is no surprise.  Fresh apple and pear fruit are tempered with little suggestions of brioche and bright lemon zest that serves to knit it all together.  The brightness gives way to a stone fruit note in the finish.  Very attractive and quite complex – as Blanc de Blancs should be.  94  Rich Cook

Cameron Hughes Wine (Minervois, Sud Ouest, France) “Lot 842” 2019 ($14):  Blended from 60% Syrah, and 40% Grenache, this offers up a convincing combination of gutsy fruit with savory and even pleasantly earthy undertones that play together extremely well.  Medium-bodied, with mostly red fruit notes but also some black fruit tinges, this features soft texture but with enough tannin to work at the table and more than enough character to succeed with stews and braised meats like lamb shanks that make optimal use of the faintly rustic aspects of this type of wine.  93  Michael Franz

Campo Viejo (Rioja, Spain) Gran Reserva 2015 ($25):  Campo Viejo is a bodega that turns out some of the highest value wines of any producer in Spain, but this release shows that it can also compete at higher levels of seriousness with aged wines offering real complexity.  This bottling is just starting to hit its stride at 7+ years of age since the fruit was vinified, and the interplay of spicy oak with bright fruit and savory undertones is very successful.  Blended from 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, and 5% Mazuelo, it is emphatically not too woody for immediate enjoyment, yet for those with patience and decent storage capabilities, it will become considerably more complex over the next five years—even as its flavors and structural components become more integrated.  93  Michael Franz

Campo Viejo (Rioja, Spain) Garnacha 2020 ($11):  This is the sort of wine that could help many more wine lovers around the world learn how different Garnacha/Grenache from Rioja can be by comparison to renditions from southern France, Australia, or the appellations in Spain’s Aragón region.  Light and bright and full of fresh red fruit notes, a wine like this can fulfill all the purposes usually filled by Pinot – but with a lower price and routinely higher quality even at a low price like $11.  Savory undertones lend real interest in this release, providing compelling interplay with the fruit notes, which recall pie cherries that are slightly sweet but also pleasingly tart.  91  Michael Franz

Campo Viejo (Rioja, Spain) Tempranillo 2020 ($11):  Campo Viejo is turning out wines with such a high ratio of quality to price that they should be causing sleepless nights for winemakers and accountants all over the world.  This release has Tempranillo flying solo, showing a little more weight and savory character than its Garnacha stablemate from 2020—but still very nice freshness that will allow this to pair up successfully with chicken or fish as well as the meat dishes that one might think of first as pairing options for Rioja.  91  Michael Franz

Carol Shelton (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) White Blend “Coquille Blanc” 2021 ($28):  A Rhône-style blend comprised of 30% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussanne, 30% Viognier and 10% Marsanne, this is aromatically alluring, rich and rounded in texture, and packed with ripe flavors.  Light floral notes get it off to a great start, and flavors recalling peaches and pairs keep the party rolling.  The acidity is more than sufficient to counterbalance the ripe flavors, but this is surely at its best now.  Promising pairings include swordfish, lobster or…yes, scallops.  93  Michael Franz

Carol Shelton (Fountaingrove District, Sonoma County, California) Zinfandel “Karma Zin” Bastoni Vineyard 2019 ($34):  Razzleberry and spice is a good summary of this bottling, just one of the many Zinfandel bottlings Carol Shelton brings us each vintage.  The ’19 Karma Zin has a sturdy backbone, and while it will please fans of the variety anytime, I’d hold this one a while to enjoy down the road when its youthful exuberance calms just a bit.  That’s just me, and don’t you worry – I’ll be drinking it young as well.  94  Rich Cook

Carruth Cellars (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Kelly Family Vineyards 2019 ($64):  Adam Carruth’s San Diego winery team has a knack for sourcing, as evidenced by this fine Cabernet.  It’s nicely structured, with a healthy yet well folded oak spice character that supports the expected blackberry and black currant fruit.  As the oak continues to fold in over time it will morph into an elegant example that represents its provenance perfectly.  Beautifully realized wine!  95  Rich Cook

Carruth Cellars (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($64):  According to the copy on the back of this big, heavy bottle, this wine resulted from an emergency picking of the remaining fruit from Reynoso Vineyards ahead of the Kincade Fire on October 23.  That’s pretty late in the growing season, and the finished alcohol in this is stated at 15.9%, so there’s no reason to think the fire made for premature picking—however lamentable the fire itself surely was.  Inky in appearance and very dense in physical terms, this delivers a big wallop of blackberry and black currant fruit as soon as it hits one’s tongue…and the flavors stay symmetrical and strong through the finish.  Interestingly, however, there’s still a whiff of dried herbs and autumn leaves that keeps this reminiscent of Cabernet rather than coming off as a fruit bomb.  Impressive Cabernet that was evidently impressively sourced.  94  Michael Franz

Carruth Cellars (Rockpile AVA, Sonoma County) Branham Vineyard Petite Sirah 2019 ($40):  Packed with power and bolstered by lots of new-ish oak, this somehow remains a relatively approachable Petite Sirah that could be enjoyed now or allowed to improve for at least another five years.  Predictably dark in color and full in body, it is less predictably open in its fruit presentation even with a lot of oak in play, showing black currant and blackberry flavors that are easily up to the task of counterbalancing the spicy, toasty oak notes.  Formidable but not forbidding, this hits a very nice balance point.  92  Michael Franz

Dandelion Vineyards (Eden Valley-Barossa, South Australia) “Red Queen” 2020 ($250):  Just to be sure I don’t anger the Queen, my formal designation for this wine botches her full title, which on the label reads, “Red Queen of the Eden Valley.”  Even at this early stage in the wine’s development, it is phenomenally complex and interesting, showing power as well as freshness and layers upon layers of compelling accents.  It has already soaked up most of the wood involved in its upbringing, allowing the extraordinary fruit to show its many facets as well as a whole host of accents ranging from lifted floral notes to deeply flavored blackberry preserves.  Priced as this is for a very special occasion, it needs to be truly compelling for me to support it enthusiastically, but truly compelling is exactly what it is.  Wicked good wine now, and likely better and better over the next two decades.  97  Michael Franz

Dandelion Vineyards (McLaren Vale, South Australia) Red Wine “Moonrise Kingdom” 2021 ($120):  I don’t know if the fanciful name is a nod to Wes Anderson’s great motion picture, but I’d say that the wine delivers the same combination of whimsy and depth that the film does.  A blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Petite Sirah, it’s bold in front, bolder in the middle and layered and deep on the finish.  I’m digging the blackberry liqueur vibe here – presented in dry style, it just works.  95  Rich Cook

Dandelion Vineyards (Adelaide Hills, South Australia) “Wishing Clock” 2022 ($28):  The relatively cool growing conditions of the Adelaide Hills make it possible to craft fresh, fine-boned renditions of multiple varieties, including Pinot and Chardonnay as well as Shiraz and—as in this case—Sauvignon Blanc.  This is an interesting example of the variety, as the acidity isn’t all that assertive based on what one might expect from Adelaide Hills, whereas it is a stony minerality that provides distinctiveness from other Aussie renditions and lends a more Old World character to the wine.  This is especially well suited for use at the table.  92  Michael Franz

Eberle (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Zinfandel 2020 ($32):  Winemaker Chris Eberle brings us this well reined in Zinfandel – one that delivers food friendly acidity and layered aromas and flavors without running off the ripeness rails.  Raspberry, bright pepper and a little bay leaf are well knit together and the ride a supple grip through a long finish.  Dare I say elegant and Zinfandel in the same sentence?  In this case yes, and wholeheartedly.  94  Rich Cook

French Blue (Crémant de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France) Brut NV ($27):  Blended from 80% Merlot, 13% Semillon, and 7% Muscadelle, this is very well made, with soft texture but quite energetic mousse.  There’s a lot of yeasty character to ride alongside the primary fruit notes, and the two are nicely proportioned.  It is a fair question whether Bordeaux varieties can make renditions of Crémant that can hold their own against what Burgundy producers work with, but likewise a fair answer that when sparkling winemaking is quite skillful, that variable can over-ride other production factors.  Quite impressive.  92  Michael Franz

Gloria Ferrer (Carneros, California) Sparkling Wine “Royal Cuvée” 2015 ($72) This is seriously high-end bubbly.  Although some consumers will simply never pony up $72 for anything with bubbles from anywhere outside of Champagne, I have serious doubts that anyone who buys and tastes a bottle of this will conclude that they got less than their money’s worth from it.  The bouquet is very complex but with only positive oxidation through the cork, so far from seeming played out, I’m not sure this has even hit its apex in aromatic terms.  On the palate, it has the uncanny combination of edgy energy and soft creaminess that marks the world’s best sparkling wines, and there’s still some primary fruit poking through the yeasty characters derived from autolysis.  Complex, complete and convincing.  96  Michael Franz

Heirloom Vineyards (Coonawarra, South Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($40):  This is a fine example of Cabernet from Coonawarra, which is notably cooler than the other famous red wine appellations of South Australia such as McLaren Vale or Barossa.  This translates into Cabernets that are typically fresher in acidity and more focused in “shape” and texture, often with a light herbal tinge reminiscent of Cabernet from the world’s best regions prior to the acceleration of climate change.  This wine will still unfold many complexities in the years ahead for those who can manage to stay patient, which won’t be easy as the wine is already delicious in a straightforward way.  Still, what I like best about this is how tightly coiled the wine is now, but without seeming at all “hard” or inexpressive.  94  Michael Franz

Heirloom Vineyards (McLaren Vale, South Australia) Shiraz 2021 ($40):  Heirloom has two very interesting renditions of the same variety in current release, this burly Shiraz from McLaren Vale and a tauter Syrah from the cooler Adelaide Hills.  The pair offer an instructive primer on the starkly differing shades that this great variety can show from two Aussie sites separated only a short drive.  This Shiraz is very deeply colored and commensurately deep in flavor.  Although there are no surprises in these respects, the wine provides special interest in its immaculate purity of fruit, with a low oak load and an absence of eucalyptus notes leaving it with a straightforward—but not simple—character marked by great linear intensity.  This has a tightly coiled profile that will permit many years of positive development, but it also offers immediate enjoyability with robust foods.  94  Michael Franz

Heirloom Vineyards (Adelaide Hills, South Australia) Syrah 2021 ($40):  Here we’re turning—with the same producer—from Shiraz to Syrah, and from a warmer climate to cooler growing conditions in the Adelaide Hills, with the result of a less fruity, more savory, peppery take on the variety.  In this bottling the fruit shows tones that lean more toward red than black, with an elegance and freshness opening a very different range of possibilities at the table.  Which will you prefer?  Lean toward this offering if you prefer Côte-Rôtie from the northern Rhône, but toward the McLaren Vale Shiraz if Cornas is your preference.  Or, better still, try both, and do so side-by-side.  94  Michael Franz

Hocking Hills Winery (Ohio) Leon Millot 2021 ($29):  One of the pleasures of working with wine competitions is seeing new things that are going on in the wine world at large, and there are always a few surprises discovered as judges pass their bind finds to me for review.  The grape is a hybrid developed in Alsace at the Oberlin Institute in 1911.  Winemaker Ryan Scott has shepherded this Ohio version into a very tasty offering – it doesn’t carry any foxy character, and presents like a soft version of a Mencía with gentle savory notes joining elegant red fruit.  I’m betting we’ll all be seeing more of this soon.  93  Rich Cook

Hocking Hills Winery (American) Pink Moscato NV ($14):  Winemaker Ryan Scott used a dash of Pinot Noir to tinge this Moscato a light salmon shade.  It doesn’t diminish the white grape’s floral and fruity character at all here, and the wine finishes clean with a lingering mixed stone fruit impression.  Nicely done!  91  Rich Cook

Imagery Estate (Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak, Sonoma County) Upper Ridge Vineyard Lagrein 2019 ($49):  Lagrein?  Damn right, Lagrein!  The variety remains largely landlocked in the Dolomite portion of the Alps in Italy’s Alto Adige / Südtirol region, and it would be far more famous if it were not hemmed in by mountains for the good reason that the variety makes one of the world’s best food wines.  This rendition shows all of its many virtues, starting with inky color and deep pigment concentration, followed by bright blackberry fruit scents and flavors that follow suit, with impressive flavor impact but only moderate weight and wonderfully fresh acidity.  Keep your mitts off this for another few years if you can, as it will relax and fill out into an even more compelling wine.  But if the intrigue is too much for you, crack a bottle now and then buy more.  94  Michael Franz

Jeff Runquist (Alta Mesa, Lodi, California) Grenache Silvaspoons Vineyard 2021 ($29):  I appreciate Jeff Runquist’s ability to go in his winemaking choices where the fruit leads him rather than exerting any overt force of personality.  Grenache might be the variety that shows the most variation vintage to vintage in his lineup, and whether they’re light, heavy, or somewhere in between, they’re always good.  This vintage leans light, oaky and bright, with strawberry, cherry and zesty citrus, with fall spice hints adding interest.  If you like a refreshing quality to your red wine, you can’t go wrong here. I’d even cellar some a while to fully integrate the wood.  92  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Zinfandel Nostro Vino Vineyard 2020 ($30):  Jeff Runquist usually has four or five Zinfandels in the stable each vintage, and they run the stylistic range.  This offering moves right up to the bombastic side without crossing over, delivering rich briary fruit, chocolate and nutmeg aromas and flavors.  There’s a touch of heat evident in the finish, which will only serve to endear it to fans of the type.  Just another success….  93  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Zinfandel “Z” Massoni Ranch 2021 ($30):  The Zin with the Zorro “Z” on the front label carries the swashbuckling character that you’d expect from such a marque.  Brambly minx fruit and fall spice get some rich vanillin and toast notes as offsets, and the whole package finishes with fresh fruit that keeps it reigned in without sacrificing a rustic edge.  As usual, well done!  94  Rich Cook

Josh Cellars (California) Merlot 2019 ($15):  It is impressive to see a relatively affordable and widely available wine like this be awarded a Platinum medal when judged in its peer group.  Of course, judging panels are not infallible (nor am I, equally obviously), but I had no difficulty understanding why the panel that judged this put it up for top honors.  Medium-bodied but full in flavor, it shows mostly red fruit tones but also some black fruit notes, with just enough wood influence to add a little tug of tannin for grip in the finish—but without denying this the rounded character that has always been Merlot’s calling card in the USA market.  91  Michael Franz

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2021 ($22):  The house that Pinot Gris built does more than just Pinot Gris on the white side of the house.  This budget friendly Chardonnay is properly dry, showing pear, lemon crème and nuanced barrel influence.  Couple that with bright acidity and you get a wine with a long, freshening finish with layered push and persistence.  It’s built for seafood – dive in.  94  Rich Cook

Lake Chelan Winery (Columbia Valley, Washington) Syrah “LCW” 2019 ($55):  This bottling does what Syrah from this region often does, presenting a little auto shop aromatic up front that can be off putting to the uninitiated.  My advice?  Dig deeper.  Take a slow inhaling draft on this wine and you’ll notice that the motor oil/exhaust subsides quickly and becomes a blackberry liqueur with a dash of smokiness.  On the palate meat and pepper notes join the blackberry and finish boldly.  Go for something gamey when pairing.  94  Rich Cook

Marqués de Caceres (Cava, Spain) Brut NV ($15):  This is a relatively new Cava in the USA from the very large Rioja house of the same name, and is comprised of 50% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, and 20% Parellada.  It is attractive both in packaging and price, but even more in terms of flavor and character, with more open fruit than the overwhelming majority of Cava Bruts in its price range, and much less of the wet straw undertone that can put some consumers off on the whole category.  The effervescence is both abundant and fine in texture, with juicy fruit notes edged with citrus acidity.  There’s actually so much ripe fruit in this Cava that many tasters will look twice to see if it is really designated as Brut, but hey, when the everyday sparkling market is increasingly dominated by flowery, vaguely sweet Prosecco, open fruit with ripe flavors is likely a prerequisite for survival.  A standout for value.  92  Michael Franz

McBride Sisters (Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand) Sparkling Brut Rosé NV ($23):  Full of foamy flavor and fun, this is not an “obvious” wine nor one that is overtly sweet and playing to a particular market segment—as opposed to the broad swath of wine lovers who delight in fresh flavors with lift from energetic effervescence.  There’s nice creaminess in the soft mousse offered up in this sparkler, as well as a fine balance of fruit and acidity, with just enough yeast influence to lend complexity without elbowing the fruit from center stage.  91  Michael Franz

Menage a Trois (Italy) Prosecco “Dry” NV ($14):  So – there are serious sparkling wines out there, and this isn’t one of them.  Which is completely appreciated by yours truly.  There’s no reason a glass of fizz needs to be complex in every iteration.  When what you require is fun and freshness, this is a fine go-to  choice that you’ll find for just over ten bucks at your favorite grocer.  It’s clean and bright from start to finish, emphasizing Meyer lemon, and there’s no bitterness in the finish.  Go get’em!  91  Rich Cook

MJA Vineyards (Mendocino County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($80):  This wine states unabashedly its significant alcohol content on the front label, but I’ll avoid disclosing it here as it will prejudice some tasters in a negative way—and that would be unfair in this case.  There’s no evident heat on the nose or in the mouth, and solid varietal character shines brightly.  Moral of the story?  Taste, taste, taste!  93  Rich Cook

Muse Vineyards (Shenandoah Valley, Virginia) Red Wine “Clio” 2019 ($35):  We California folk call this “the other Shenandoah Valley” with tongue fully in cheek.  A wine like this one stakes the claim for the “original” in Virginia with bright cherry and lively fall spice aromatics that translate well on the palate in dry style.  A supple grip knits things together nicely, and the flavors finish in mellow fashion.  This has lots of pairing possibilities – I’m leaning roast fowl as a pairing.  94  Rich Cook

Muse Vineyards (Shenandoah Valley, Virginia) Roussanne 2021 ($33):  Roussanne is notoriously difficult to grow and vinify well even in less-than-challenging locales, which Virginia is not among (as I can aver as a DC-area resident).  Humidity, heat and harvest season hurricanes will give you the idea, and we’re just sticking with “H” words there.  Be that as it may, this is a clear success, with lovely floral aromas offering lots of aromatic appeal but not tipping over the line into a “perfumed” profile like, say, Muscat or Gewurztraminer.  The wine’s flavors are nearly as generous, with notes of ripe peaches and the flavor of wild honey—but without the sweetness.  There’s enough acidity to keep all this delicious opulence in balance, but the balance is right already, so grab this soon and give it a rip.  93  Michael Franz

Nello Olivo (El Dorado, Sierra Foothills, California) Malbec 2020 ($32):  I prize Malbec for its savory character – it makes sense that in Argentina, the land of beef, that Malbec took such a foothold in the vineyards.  It performs well in other locales as well, as evidenced by this Sierra Foothills wine.  Grown at 2400 feet of elevation in this case, it manages to keep that meaty vibe while showcasing rustic mountain fruit.  It’s built for the grill and awaits your selection of burgers or steaks – it’ll be a mutual elevation society picnic.  94  Rich Cook

Nevada City Winery (Sierra Foothills, California) Barbera Reserve NV ($37):  While it may be unusual to see a non-vintage wine in this category, this bottle makes an argument for the practice of blending wines from two or three vintages to achieve a fine result.  This shows the dark side of Barbera, with both freshness and richness thanks to ripe fruit, typical varietal acidity, and judicious use of oak.  Nicely realized wine!  94  Rich Cook

Oak Creek Vineyards & Winery (Willcox, Arizona) Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($35):  This is an up-and-coming region in the wine world, one that seems to be coming into its own more and more with every bottle I get the opportunity to taste.  This leans toward the Old World in style, with aromas tending to white flowers and stony minerality rather than the forward fruit of New World examples.  A hint of malt is attractive, with tart Sorrento lemon and a little pithy note on the palate.  Very interesting wine!  92  Rich Cook

Kevin O’Leary Wines (California) Moscato “Reserve Series” 2021 ($25):  To say that not every wine suits every taste is true, and true equally of Penfolds “Grange” and of this wine.  Although it is far too sweet for my taste, and arguably sweeter than its acidity component can counterbalance, it was awarded a Platinum Medal at a major wine competition, and also—from what I understand—sells extremely well.  If you enjoy wines with floral aromas and have a sweet tooth, your ship has come in.  90  Michael Franz

Ragtag Wine Co. (San Luis Obispo County, California) Syrah Spanish Springs Vineyard 2018 ($48):  This site spends most of its nights under a moisturizing blanket of fog, but during the day it usually basks in coastal sunshine, which makes it a very desirable site.  I’ve tasted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this site, but I think this is my first go at a Syrah.  It succeeds thanks to the acidity that you’d expect from such a site.  It tames the ripe fruit and lets the pepper and spice ride right up to the same level.  Well done!  93  Rich Cook

Red Yonnie Estate Winery (Limestone Coast, South Australia) Shiraz 2021 ($17):  Let us hope that Aussie wines will roar back into the USA market in the wake of a long, lamentable downturn in availability of examples like this that pack loads of flavor into a reasonably priced bottle.  Lest that last sentence be misunderstood, this wine is no stupid fruit bomb, as the relatively cool climate in the Limestone Coast resulted in a lengthened growing season and more layered aromas and flavors than one would likely expect from $17 Shiraz.  With fruit that is robust but not obvious and interesting savory accents, this is substantial and interesting at once.  92  Michael Franz

Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards (Umpqua Valley, Oregon) Malbec “Estate Selection” 2021 ($36):  Stephen Reustle proves again that his brand is about more than “just” Grüner Veltliner with this vibrant Malbec.  Things start with deep red and black fruit aromas joined by notes of vanilla and soft pepper. The palate delivers these elements as palate flavors on an energetic  texture where weight and acidity are in fine balance.  There’s great finish push here, with all the components remaining present to the end where a zesty citrus kiss wraps things up. Spectacular Malbec!  95  Rich Cook

S & J Cellars (California) Dessert Wine “Caldeaux” NV ($36):  If you’re a fan of something sweet to drink with moderate to strong cheeses, but don’t care for the alcohol strength of a port, this is a fine option.  At 16.3% alcohol, it gives a port impression without seeming overheated, and the wood tones add a nutty character to the deep berry fruit.  I’m thinking Point Reyes Blue is a perfect match here.  Sold in a 375ml bottle.  94  Rich Cook

St. Francis, Behler Vineyard (Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California) “Artisan Collection” 2019 ($50):  Whether Merlot will ever fully return to the commercial its glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s remains to be seen, but in terms of sheer quality, there’s no doubt that the wines are really on the rise.  St. Francis was always among the best producers during those glory days, and clearly the team at this address is contributing to a renaissance based on the quality of this release.  Deeply colored and flavored, with excellent physical density but no overly hard edges, this features dark berry and plum notes with impressive flavor impact and persistence in the finish, along with very attractive spice accents from oak that never intrude too much on the wine’s delicious core of fruit.  95  Michael Franz

St. Francis (Moon Mountain District, Sonoma County, California) Zinfandel Montecillo Vineyard 2019 ($50):  St. Francis is a bit of an under the radar gem.  If you know, you know – as the cool kids say – and you should get this Zinfandel on your radar if you are seeking food friendly, peppery wine to go with spicy beef or Mexican food.  It combines fruit, savory notes and pepper seamlessly, and it leaves a lasting, fully integrated impression. Beautifully realized wine by Katie Madigan.  95  Rich Cook

St. James Winery (Ozark Highlands, Missouri) Vignoles “Explorer Collection” 2021 ($17):  Vignoles is a hybrid grape variety with murky origins now that some longstanding theories about its origins have been debunked.  What is known for sure is that it is resistant to winter kill in states such as New York and Missouri, and also that it can achieve impressive complexity without “foxy” aromas or characters that often prove jarring for those unaccustomed to hybrids.  This release is very successful, with notes of pears, Golden Delicious apples, and dried apricots.  Lightly sweet but not cloying, this will prove popular on porch swings over the coming summer.  90  Michael Franz

Seaglass (Central Coast, California) Pinot Grigio 2021 ($12):  If the question is, how does $12 domestic Pinot Grigio win a Platinum Award at a major wine competition, the answer is, with open fruit scents and juicy fruit flavors with just enough sweetness to flatter the average palate but also enough acidity to keep the balance agreeable to experienced wine judges.  Bingo…that’s exactly the formula for success here.  90  Michael Franz

Sister’s Run (Barossa Valley, South Australia) GSM “Cow’s Corner 2021 ($23):  This hits the international markers for a GSM blend – red and black fruit, a little tar and some nice spice – and its adds in some local Barossa color with eucalyptus and mint that serve to brighten the fruit and give lift to the texture.  It’s bright from start to finish, leading to a wine judge and restaurant buyer’s blind tasting comment: “By the glass, all day long!”  ‘Nuff said!  93  Rich Cook

Spangler Vineyards (Oregon) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2020 ($39):  This presents itself aromatically with a hint of pleasant smokiness, which could be an oak note or conceivably a result of atmospheric conditions, but that’s a moot point because the note certainly doesn’t stand as a flaw or a streak of taint.  At its core, this is medium-bodied and stylishly so, with a Bordeaux-like style in some respects (leafy and lightly herbal aromas) but also some pure, punchy and ripe fruit notes that keep this straddling the line between the Old and New World style profiles for Cabernet.  Complex and interesting, this seems to offer up new nuances with each sniff and sip.  93  Michael Franz

Tall Dark Stranger (Mendoza, Argentina) Malbec 2021 ($13, Vintage Wine Estates):  Argentina continues to take the lead when it comes to budget friendly Malbec.  This offering might jump into your basket in the grocery aisle on packaging alone, and if it does you’ll be equally impressed with what’s inside.  Black cherry, green peppercorn and savory meat aromas entice, and the fruit takes the lead on the palate with the other characteristics playing a supporting role.  There’s a fair amount of oak here, so go with something fatty when pairing to tame the astringency.  92  Rich Cook

Upshot (California) White Blend 2019 ($19):  I confess to having looked at this bottle askance when an under-$20 blend from 2019 showed up after being awarded a Platinum Award, but this is still in great shape at this stage, and not just because of the preservative superiority of its screwcap closure by comparison to a cork.  Blended from 53% Grenache Blanc, 18% Pinot Noir, 16% Gewürztraminer, 8% Viognier and 5% Sauvignon Blanc, this is a clever blend skillfully rendered.  For example, the bouquet gains a lot of panache from the component of Gewürztraminer, but that notoriously low-acid variety is freshened by the dollop of Sauvignon Blanc.  Tasting is believing.  90  Michael Franz

Le Vigne Winery (Paso Robles, California) Estate Cabernet Sauvignon “di Domenico” 2019 ($51):  If there was actually a hardworking guy named Domenico as depicted in the label image of this wine, his labors were fruitful at a very high level.  This shows all the flavor impact expected from Paso Robles, but without any extraneous ripeness and more linear energy than is the norm—by more than just a click or two.  Another virtue in my estimation is that the fruit doesn’t seem to have been manipulated more than minimally and the oak is quite reserved, leaving room for this to pick up additional complexity from “tertiary” characters as it develops over time—rather than having secondary characters actively imposed on it in the cellar to gussy it up for immediate consumption.  Terrific Cab.  95  Michael Franz

Le Vigne, Paso Robles (Central Coast, California) Merlot 2019 ($28):  Merlot, Paso Robles, and 13.9% alcohol:  Three items here that you won’t often see grouped together on a wine bottle.  You’ll be glad that they do when you pop a bottle open.  Lively cherry and blackberry fruit, moderate oak influence, and notes of nutmeg and cinnamon show in this wine in an ensemble that is balanced, bright and lingering.  It makes for a fine solo glass as well as a solid red meat partner.  93  Rich Cook

Le Vigne (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Sangiovese 2019 ($28):  It’s a shame that more Paso Robles producers haven’t embraced Sangiovese, even when accounting for its challenges in the region.  This seems to have been wisely harvested a little early, which keeps it fresh and inviting.  A minty top note is a plus, and it contrasts the cherry and strawberry fruit nicely.  It’s not the sage or garrigue sensory package that you’d find from Chianti – nor should it be.  92  Rich Cook

Villa Pozzi (Italy) Sweet Red NV ($12):  This is exactly what it declares itself to be—a Sweet Red—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a surprise or two.  First, a lightly spritzy character freshens the wine and amps up the fun quotient, and good acid balance keeps this from turning cloying and makes for a drink that stays fresh and interesting for prolonged sipping.  As “gateway” wines go, this is a clear winner.  90  Michael Franz

Wakefield / Taylors (Clare Valley and McLaren Vale, South Australia) Shiraz “Jaraman” 2021 ($32):  Leave it to the often-informal Aussies to compose a wine from two different growing regions and then turn out something really special.  Both floral and meaty and peppery and muscular, this successfully melds some of the most appealing characters that can be derived from Shiraz in South Australia into a complex but coherent whole—one that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Although still very young, this is so deftly blended that there’s no reason to wait before cracking into this.  Bloody brilliant.  94  Michael Franz

Windsor Vineyards (California) “Fusion Red” 2020 ($12):  The blender’s art is highly underrated in the wine world – particularly when trying to make a fine wine at a price that anyone can afford.  So, raise a glass of this fine yet inexpensive blend and toast those who work hard to make it happen.  Teroldego takes the lead here, with peppery red and black berries propped up texturally by Petite Verdot’s plushness.  For twelve bucks?  Yes, please.  92  Rich Cook

Windsor Vineyards (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California) Merlot 2019 ($30):   Merlot somehow still gets a bad rap from the public at large, which is quite unfortunate.  Wines like this should be used to quell the fears of the haters who think Merlot can’t be structured, complex and delicious.  This mix of fruit and spice is compelling, and racy acidity keeps the flavor pumping through a long finish that keeps the complexity to the end.  Bravo!  94  Rich Cook              

For complete results of the 2023 San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge judging, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit SanDiegoWineChallenge.com