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A Celebration of Quality: The 40th Annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge Platinum Award Winners
By Michael Franz
Feb 4, 2022
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For some time now, reviews of the top wines from this well-respected event have graced the pages of Wine Review Online, and for the judging’s 40th Anniversary, we thought it appropriate to run them all together in this space so that the collection can be viewed as a set—one that gives an overall sense of the excellence an event like this can bring forward.  

Judges worked through well more than a thousand wines to see that the cream rose to the top, and then two of WRO’s writers sought to describe the attributes characterizing the very best wines.  As you’ll see below, all Platinum Award winners were reviewed either by Rich Cook, Competition Director, or Michael Franz, Chief Wine Judge.  Although both tasted almost every wine profiled below, the review writer is always identified.  This is 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.

Wines are listed alphabetically with reds appearing on top, followed by whites, a rosé, sparklers, and dessert wines.  

RED:

Alta Vista (Mendoza, Argentina) Malbec Estate 2019 ($18, imported by Kobrand):  This wine shows the dark side of Mendoza Malbec – a side that will please fans of a little charred oak character that balanced the back fruit and savory character that make it such a great pair for grilled red meats.  Order up!  94  Rich Cook

Benziger (Sonoma Valley, California) Syrah “Stone Dragon” 2018 ($39):  The 2018 vintage release is my first encounter with this wine, and we are off to a very good start together.  It is rich and deeply flavored and quite impactful, yet also admirably fresh and nicely balanced with a bright beam of acidity.  Wood influence is notable but hardly overbearing, lending an edge of spice that nicely augments the red and black fruit tones.  Already delicious and promising for a wide variety of foods, this will nevertheless reward patience, as it will gain complexity for at least another 3-5 years.  93  Michael Franz

Benziger Estate (Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California) Red Wine “Oonapais” 2019 ($49):  An extremely alluring blend, the 2019 Oonapais offers up loads of soft, sexy aromas and flavors, but then also backs them up with more serious layering of flavors and just the right amount of structural grip to set of the fruit and frame the finish.  The blend is 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec, 14% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, but I’m not convinced these percentages are as important as the judicious timing by which the varieties were picked.  The finished wine displays lots of ripe flavors across its spectrum of sensory signals, but none of them seem over-ripe or raisiny.  The overall impression is more about sexiness than structure, making this a candidate for relatively early enjoyment, but there’s no rush, as this will last and even improve for five years.  93  Michael Franz

Burtech Family Vineyard (Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California) Merlot 2019 ($58):  This is truly first class Merlot, with real guts as one would expect from a grape that can produce the profound, age-worthy wines of Pomerol, but also the relative softness that makes the variety worth seeking out rather than going with the default choice of Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is neither too gutsy nor too soft, and this is evident immediately as well as enduringly.  It isn’t juked up with wood, though some spice and a touch of toast is evident.  It isn’t overly thick, though it is far more substantial than $30 supermarket Merlot.  As it avoids the opposite extreme of being too “domesticated,” it displays deep color and even deeper flavors, with dark berries and black plums coming to mind, with enough tannic backbone to enable it to pair beautifully with, say, a ribeye steak.  Charming in terms of styling…and skillful in making the style work.  94  Michael Franz

Cameron Hughes (Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy) “Super Tuscan, Lot 837” 2016 ($20):  This wine offered my first taste of an Italian wine from the ever-enterprising Cameron Hughes, and it is very good.  Impressive for its gracefulness and integration rather than trying to impress with power to live up to the “Super Tuscan” moniker, it is a stylish rendering of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Syrah from the fabulous 2016 vintage.  Medium-bodied, with sleek texture built on fresh acidity and ultra-fine tannins, it delivers lovely cherry and berry flavors with admirably restrained oak and some subtle savory accents.  Although it is now entirely enjoyable five years after the fruit was harvested, it doesn’t show the faintest signs of cracking up, so you can buy this with confidence that it will last for another couple of years at a minimum.  92  Michael Franz

Carol Shelton (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California) Wallstrum Vineyard Zinfandel “Wally Zin” 2019 ($34):  Zinfandel icon Carol Shelton is always on the lookout for interesting new sites, and I’m always thankful when a new one crosses my path.  This finds the perfect middle ground between serious claret style and fanciful forward fruit.  The focus here is raspeberry, fall spice and lively acidity that keeps the flavor coming.  Carol gets a good amount of recognition, but I’ll say that still it’s not enough.  Brava!  95  Rich Cook

La Croix d’Argent (Bordeaux Supérieur, France) 2019 ($14, imported by Plume Ridge):  Some say value from Bordeaux is gone forever.  Clearly, they haven’t giving this wallet friendly wine a spin.  Solid regional character, rich fruit and a sturdy backbone will have you guessing that it sits at a much higher price point.  Bravo!  94  Rich Cook

Don Miguel Gascon (Mendoza, Argentina) Malbec 2019 ($15):  A fresh, fruit-forward Malbec is the obvious intent here, and it gets delivered with style and grace thanks to a faint savory white pepper note that brightens the fruit and adds some texture.  Throw in that it’s easy to find and more than fairly priced, and you’ve got another winner from this venerable estate.  92  Rich Cook

Dry Creek Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California) Red Blend “The Mariner” 2018 ($50):  Delicious and age-worthy every year, but especially strong in 2018, this is a wine to be thankful for on account of the family that owns it not having a “keep up with the Joneses” mentality.  The price has been both stable and modest over the years, offering real value for a flagship wine from an established property.  The blend here is 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 8% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc, and the wine’s degree of complexity and structural layering suggests that something meaningful was derived from each of these varieties—even if the integration is already so convincing that none of the varieties really sticks out (with the obvious exception of Cabernet Sauvignon…though the wine is certainly not just a Cab with some other stuff tacked on in mimicry of Bordeaux).  Full-bodied and boldly flavored, with blackberry and cassis but also some red fruit notes showing, this offers up lots of fruit, but there’s also plenty of tannin and just the right dose of oak to firm things up and fit this out for a decade of positive development.  Very, very well done.  94  Michael Franz

Dutcher Crossing (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California) Maple Vineyard Zinfandel 2019 $50):  The Maple Vineyard is a dry-farmed site with a distinctive mix of vine age, from over 100 years old to much more recently planted – it seems to allow bold ripeness without sacrificing the peppery character so prized by fans.  Kerry Damskey’s team has a long track record of handling the dry farmed fruit to its optimal expression, and this bottle continues the string with sturdy structure carrying blackberry, pepper, chocolate and a zesty kiss in the finish. It’s big, and it satisfies completely.  94  Rich Cook

Elysian Springs (Adelaide Hills, South Australia) Syrah “Spring Lamb” 2019 ($30):  Before any sensitive readers have a conniption about the proprietary name, “Spring Lamb,” that’s not a menu offering but, rather, a designation in honor of the sheep and lambs that keep the weeds down between the vine rows at this property.  The wine is bright and fresh and wonderfully food-friendly, all because of excellent acidity that’s no doubt explained by the relatively cool growing conditions in the Adelaide Hills appellation.  Although this shows all the flavor impact that one expects from an Aussie Shiraz, it is much lighter on its feet and much less thick and “muddy” than the stereotypical rendition, which probably explains calling it “Syrah” rather than Shiraz.”  Bright blackberries are what this is all about, with modest wood that doesn’t get in the way of any of the sheer deliciousness of the fruit.  93  Michael Franz

Grape Creek Vineyards (Texas Hill Country) Tannat “The Individualist” 2019 ($65):  I’d have added a word to the proprietary name of this wine, as it would be more than apropos in this case. “Rugged Individualist” hits its character between the eyes, with all of its expected tannic structure managed beautifully and allowing the core of black fruit and tarry notes to carry the day.  Think Rooster Cogburn – a rugged individualist with a heart.  94  Rich Cook

Heath Vineyards (Willow Creek District, Paso Robles, California) Vineyard Blocks 4B/5 Cabernet Sauvignon "Liberation" 2018 ($94):  This brand is part of the Grape Creek portfolio in Texas, but it reaches into California’s Central Coast for this exceptional Cabernet.  It delivers classic varietal character in full bodied Paso Robles style over solid structure and finishes long with moderate grip.  Yee Haw!  93  Rich Cook

Imagery Estate Winery (Sonoma County, California) Barbera 2019 ($45):  Imagery continues to impress with Italian varieties. This Barbera exploits its inherent lively acidity to push ripe cherry and blueberry fruit from start to finish, with a zesty citric kiss and toasty oak making the end pop pleasantly. Serious effort is evident here.  94  Rich Cook

Lazarre Wines (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) “Moshina – Mosh Pit Blend” 2018 ($54):  Here’s a not seen every-day blend that shows owner winemaker Adam Lazarre’s skill at bringing harmonious nuance out of unexpected partners.  Each variety gets to speak here, with Petite Sirah's blue fruit, Cabernet Franc's red fruit, and Alicante Bouschet's dark plum flavors all having their turn supported by well folded-in oak toast and peppery spice.  If a mosh pit can be a place of balance, this is it.  94  Rich Cook

J. Lohr (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Red Blend “Cuvée St. E” 2017 ($50):  This consistently excellent blend runs true to form in 2017, showing the richness and depth to be expected from a high-end blend from Paso Robles, yet with the textural softness hoped for from a wine styled as an homage to Bordeaux’s “Right Bank.”  The blend is 63% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 1% Malbec, and the integration of these varieties is quite impressive.  Notes of cedar, cocoa powder and a faint undertone of dried herbs all work well together, and the tannic backbone of the wine is likewise well measured in relation to the wine’s density and fruitiness.  94  Michael Franz

Ledson (Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California) Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018 ($96):  Ledson continues their roll of late with this latest in a string of fine Cabernets.  It’s a bold expression, with rich berry fruit, vanilla, lively oak spice and a firm grip that will loosen with further bottle aging. It hints at Napa style without losing its west of the Mayacamas roots.  94  Rich Cook

McGrail Vineyards (Livermore Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 ($48):  Among the best wines I’ve tasted from Livermore Valley in recent years, this is big-time Cabernet that merits its price tag and will likely make those tasting “blind” wonder if something from Napa has landed in front of them.  Deeply colored and concentrated in feel, the dark-toned fruit is braced by ample oak, with the balance between these principal elements seeming just right.  Time will bring additional integration, but this is highly enjoyable as it stands today.  92  Michael Franz

Mettler Family Vineyards (Lodi, San Joaquin Valley, California) Petite Sirah Estate Grown 2019 ($25):  This wine is always a favorite in blind judgings.  As Petite Sirah goes, this is not at all clunky or overwrought – it’s balanced and supple, with layered varietally correct aromas and flavors that entice immediately.  I notice that each vintage seems to pull a similar score from me…kudos for consistency!  93  Rich Cook

Nello Olivo (El Dorado, Sierra Foothills, California) Malbec 2019 ($32):  The Sierra zone might not be the first place you go looking for Malbec, but it makes sense that elevations similar to Mendoza could serve the variety well.  This is a fleshy expression with good acidic structure, ripe berry fruit and sturdy oak toast all playing together nicely and finishing with a grip that suggests a well marbles steak as a pairing.  93  Rich Cook

Oak Farm (Lodi, San Joaquin Valley, California) Malbec Estate 2020 ($35):  Winemaker Sierra Zeiter has moved on from Oak Farm, but she definitely left her mark there with wines like this supple Malbec. The contrast of berry fruit and meaty savory notes delivered over bright acidity show her style, and they linger long on the finish with great fruit push.  Great stuff!  95  Rich Cook

Palazzo (Napa Valley, California) Reserve “Proprietary Red” 2018 ($90):  Although this producer’s “Left Bank Red Cuvée” is also very good, my preference leaned toward this bottling, as it offers every bit as much depth and flavor impact but with softer structure that will make for a longer period of enjoyability and an opportunity to find more flavor nuances before the tannins and wood foreshorten the finish.  Only later did I learn that this is priced at $90 and the “Left Bank,” Cab-dominant stablemate at $50, but that seems right in terms of their relative merits.  This shows very dark color and quite impressive physical density, yet the wine softens in the glass (slowly, but evenly) to reveal a lovely mélange of red and black fruits, with bright berry notes offering lift and the darker flavors contributing a solid foundation.  Both the wine’s size and its intended price tag must have made it tempting to hit this with a lot of new oak, but that temptation was either resisted or—equally likely—the oak was not heavily toasted or employed for too long before the wine was racked into more neutral vessels.  In any case, the results are entirely convincing, and the finished wine quite complete.  95  Michael Franz

Photograph (Central Coast, California) Pinot Noir 2020 ($15):  The snapshot takeaway here is that there’s no need to fear a large AVA designation like Central Coast when it comes to value in Pinot Noir.  This wine delivers fresh raspberry and cherry fruit, bright fall spice and sweet oak that adds depth and structure to the wine.  It’s definitely suitable for framing.  93  Rich Cook

Pope Valley (Napa Valley, California) Sangiovese 2019 ($42):  This wine shows full throttle California style, with bold black cherry, vanilla, deep oak spice all riding a plush feel through a long supple finish.  It’s absolutely okay not to expect Italian style here – this wine embraces its provenance beautifully.  94  Rich Cook

Las Positas (Livermore Valley, California) Cabernet Franc Estate 2019 ($55):  Here’s a bold take on Cabernet Franc that succeeds with aromas of black cherry, blackberry and smoy oak toast that folds into the fruit nicely, allowing notes of chocolate and faint dried herb to speak clearly.  The finish is layered and fully integrated – a delicious expression!  94  Rich Cook

Rancho Coyote (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Lucca’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($50):  This carefully constructed Pinot Noir shows great complexity of aroma and flavor, with linear translation of the nose elements on the palate.  Cheery, strawberry, soft spice and moderate oak taost all ride bright acidity through a finish that keeps everything together and lingers long.  This will continue to evolve – well done!  95  Rich Cook

V. Sattui (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($55):  This is V. Sattui’s most approachable Cabernet in each vintage (as opposed to the more structured, vineyard-designated wines), but don’t underestimate it on that ground.  Impressively dense and very deeply flavored, it packs a punch in terms of initial flavor impact, and follows that up with delicious mid-palate flavors that really hold together in the finish, which is long and very pure.  Blackberry and black cherry are the fruits that first come to mind, and as adjectives go, “pure” is once again at the top of my list.  “Delicious” is right behind it, and I’m every bit as emphatic about that descriptor.  The blend is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec and 2% Petite Verdot, and though there’s some layering evident from the presence of these additional varieties, this is an object lesson in what Napa can achieve in terms of sheer fruit quality with Cabernet Sauvignon.  94  Michael Franz

V. Sattui (Carneros, California) Pinot Noir 2019 ($41):  What a pleasure it is to find Pinot Noir with depth of flavor but also delicacy and intricacy, and all at a reasonable price.  This shows lovely fruit with both red tones recalling wild strawberries and some darker notes reminiscent of Bing cherries, and also a pleasantly herbal undertone that suggest some whole clusters may have made it into the fermentation vessels.  These herbal or “leafy” aromas and flavors keep the wine from seeming grapey or obvious, and they do that very effectively rather than leaving the job to overtly oaky notes, which can easily mar Pinot with toasty or vanillin aspects, or render the finish harsh with wood tannins.  Very well grown and quite deftly crafted.  93  Michael Franz

V. Sattui Winery (California) 20 Year-Old Port NV ($52):  This domestic tawny Port from traditional port varieties is a fine look at what the “new world” can bring to the table in this style.  Although the nod to tradition is obvious, It’s not trying to copy its more famous Portuguese forerunners – a little dill character freshens the fruit and puts an American stamp on it.  Here’s to expanding possibilities!  Sold in a 500 ml bottle.  94  Rich Cook

Wakefield Taylors (Clare Valley, South Australia) Shiraz “St Andrews” 2019 ($80, Seaview Imports):  This is a bottle remarkable for its consistency year after year – it lets you know where it hails from with mint and eucalyptus notes that offset the rich blackberry and blueberry fruit perfectly, and a peppery finish closes things out, though not at all quickly.  The hits just keep on coming.  95  Rich Cook

ZD Wines (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018 ($230):  When this wine is on its game, it is a qualitative comparison threat to anything made anywhere, and in the 50th Anniversary of this producer, it is definitely on its game.  Essentially opaque all the way to the rim even when tipped and peered at with a white background, one knows something is serious is on the way even before getting a nose in the glass.  That initial impression is corroborated at every subsequent stage, with very expressive and detailed aromas, excellent physical density and depth of flavor, and a finish that is impressively long and—more important still—symmetrical, with fruit, wood, tannin and acidity all tailing off in sync.  Although the wine is a decade or more away from its ultimate apogee, it is already extremely impressive and enjoyable on account of its uncanny balance.  Nothing “sticks out” and yet everything sticks out, which is very high praise in my book for such a young wine with so much sheer size and ambition.  If my score of 98 points is off, I missed on the low side, and only time will tell in that regard.  In any event, this is awe-inspiring wine.  98  Michael Franz

WHITE, ROSÉ AND SPARKLING:

Appolonia Winery (Mosel, Germany) Riesling “Shades of Blue” NV ($12):  One might look at this wine and wonder why no vintage date appears, but nobody will much care about that after cracking into it for a taste.  Floral aromatics that suggest Riesling clearly and emphatically, and the flavors follow suit deliciously, with sweetness that is evident—but not so prominent that the wine can’t serve many purposes.  A fine porch sipper for spring, but also well suited to pairing with spicy dishes, this also offers excellent value.  91  Michael Franz

Champagne Delamotte (Champagne, France) Blanc De Blancs NV ($91, imported by Vineyard Brands):  Tasting this wine blind confirmed precisely my impression from tasting a press sample in late December of 2021, right down to the exact score.  The current release of this is probably the best I’ve ever tasted over three decades of admiration for the Blanc de Blancs from Delamotte.  Made with Chardonnay sourced from the famed Grand Cru villages of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, and Cramant, it is crafted in a straightforward manner to display the fruit from these great chalky limestone terroirs, with low dosage and only 10% reserve wines added to the base vintage.  Both of these last two facts would seem to presage an austere wine, but that’s emphatically not the case here, thanks to long aging on the lees prior to disgorgement and then additional aging under cork.  The aromas are delicate but very complex, with yeasty notes perfectly balanced against suggestions of ripe fruit, and the flavors are at once very fresh but also quite generous, with creamy texture enlivened by soft effervescence.  Another indication of the quality here is that the wine was even better when re-tasted several hours later, while still chilled, and arguably better still when tasted after another few hours at room temperature after being left un-stoppered.  Those are indications of truly exceptional quality, and an ironclad guarantee the the wine can improve with another couple of years of cellaring.  95  Michael Franz

Champagne Delamotte (Champagne, France) Brut NV ($66, imported by Vineyard Brands):  This terrific Champagne was even more impressive tasted blind than it seemed to me when looking at a press sample in late December of 2021, and it may be that it suffered by comparison to the undoubtedly exceptional Blanc de Blancs bottling, which is a longtime favorite.  Considered sight-unseen in a wine competition setting, I was especially impressed by its combination of virtues that don’t usually coexist:  Very energetic effervescence and driving flavors, on one hand, with a sense of delicacy and grace as the finish tails off.  That’s a very appealing duo:  Flash and flair in a single wine, and in the sensory impressions at either end of a single sip.  The blend is Chardonnay 55% Pinot Noir 35% Pinot Munier 10%, and the wine’s energy demonstrated that this can become more complex and creamy if cellared—for those who prefer their Champagnes in that style—or  enjoyed immediately who prefer a more assertive presentation.  94  Michael Franz

Duck Hunter Wines (Marlborough, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($20):  If you’re in the market for zesty wine that will bring summer to mind before the warmth of late spring presents it to the rest of you, this is the ticket.  It displays the soaring aromatics and driving flavors that have made Kiwi Sauvignon a worldwide powerhouse, with fruit scents of limes, gooseberries and tropical fruits plus herbal notes that lend complexity without seeming overly “green” in any distracting or inappropriate way.  The label may be amusing, but there’s nothing unserious about this wine:  Good juice here.  92  Michael Franz

Kevin O’Leary (California) Pinot Grigio “Reserve Series” 2021 ($25):  Mr. Wonderful doesn’t need my help to sell wine, as you might imagine.  That said, this Pinot Grigio is worth a mention outside his normal realm.  It’s spot on as California examples of the variety go, with dry style citrus, peach and a little hard candy note that fans will adore.  Bright lemon zest in the finish seals the deal and will have you sipping again and again.  90  Rich Cook

La Marca (Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Veneto, Italy) “Luminore” NV ($33, La Marca USA):  Many wine lovers remain understandably confused about the “tiered” nature of Prosecco, which has undergone massive growth but also important changes in how it is designated.  Rosé versions were initiated most recently, but before that, the biggest chance was designating the ultra-prime growing region around the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano with DOCG status (the highest under Italian wine law) while opening a broad area for the production of Prosecco DOC.  Sparklers bearing this latter designation are almost always priced in the teens, so consumers who see higher priced bottles with an appellation indicator of Valdobbiadene—as in this case—are likely to shy away from buying.  The national distribution in the USA of this wine makes it a great candidate to put a dent in this lamentable situation.  It shows notably more expressive aromas and deeper flavors that the majority of DOC bottlings, with much softer, creamier effervescence and a pure, long finish.  Its price puts it within shouting distance of lower-grade Champagne, but it is a different animal to be judged on its own merits, made with a different production method from a different grape, with more flowery aromas and juicier, fresher fruit.  You owe it to yourself to pony up for a bottle like this at least once to see what “the good stuff” – Prosecco Superiore— tastes like in relation to other excellent sparkling wines.  94  Michael Franz

Navarro (Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, California) Dry Gewürztraminer 2020 ($24):  They say that confession is good for the soul, so I should acknowledge up front that I am not generally a fan of Gewürztraminer, which is often too perfumed and insufficiently acidic for my taste.  But with that said, when even I find an example that I consider outstanding by any standard, we’re definitely onto something special.  Navarro has as good a track record with this variety as any producer anywhere—including Alsace and Alto Adige—and a record that is way, way better than most.  This is very expressive aromatically, with lovely floral topnotes that aren’t pungent or overbearing, and hence not “perfumed” in the way I employ that term (which is derogatory).  The scents are alluring, and the flavors deliver on their promise, showing generous and pure fruit that is energized by much more abundant and energetic acidity than is the norm.  Moreover, the acidity is perfectly integrated with the fruit, and the dry finish doesn’t seem at all discordant with the floral aromas (which can suggest that sweetness is on the way, producing a disconcerting sensory effect known as “disagreement”).  This is undeniably delicious, and hence I anticipate no disagreement with my admiration from anyone who tastes it.  94  Michael Franz

Photograph (Central Coast, California) Chardonnay 2019 ($15):  I’ve tasted this wine a few times over the past several months and thought it needed a little time in the bottle to come around, and I’m happy to report that the few extra months were just the ticket.  The wood tones have integrated nicely into the rich apple fruit, and fresh acidity keeps things lively through the finish.  Right on time.  92  Rich Cook

Las Positas (Livermore Valley, California) Verdelho Estate 2021 ($38):  If this wine is already in release in the marketplace as of this writing, I’d be surprised if it’s not already completely sold out.  The nose seems to scream “if you think that’s good, wait ‘til you taste me!” and then proceeds to deliver on the promise.  Bold white flower aromas are joined by pear, Meyer lemon and a little spice note, and they deliver lip smacking delight on the palate.  94  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (River Junction AVA, San Joaquin County, California) Muscat Canelli 2021 ($18.50):  It isn’t easy crafting a wine in the USA that can match the delightful Moncato d’Asti wines from Piedmont, but Jeff Runquist has the chops to do that and more, as this is better than many renditions from the historical homeland.  Floral scents are delightfully expressive without being overwhelming, and the flavors follow suit, with an abundance of juicy fruit flavors that show virtually perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.  At just 7% alcohol, this is the ticket for an afternoon sip with a clean conscience, and would also serve as a wonderful aperitif prior to dinner or a refreshing cap-off afterwards.  92  Michael Franz

Rancho de Philo (Cucamonga Valley AVA, San Bernardino County, California) Triple Cream Sherry NV ($42):  This traditionally-styled and very traditional looking fortified wine is a southern California legend—one that often sells out in a single day after a new lot is released.  Quite rich and viscous, it really delivers on the palate with no aromatic heat at all, and only the faintest flash of alcohol showing in the finish (which is to be expected at 18% alcohol, and which is actually quite welcome as a foil for the sweetness).  The flavors might make you think of the best caramel you’ve ever tasted, albeit in an adult delivery vehicle.  This is the sort of product that many people would shy away from even trying—but then return to whenever possible, with all the zeal of a convert.  94  Michael Franz

Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards (Umpqua Valley, Oregon) Grüner Veltliner Estate Selection “Hefeabzug” 2020 ($28):  One might suspect that it would take many decades to properly locate, grow and vinify Grüner Veltliner at a level that can challenge the best renditions from Austria, where it is the nation’s calling card white variety.  But that suspicion would be erroneous, and this is the bottle to prove the point.  Excellent aromatic expressiveness displays notes of fresh fruits with spicy-seeming accents that turn to downright spicy flavors on the palate.  Medium-bodied, it is beautifully suspended between a zesty, acidic light white and a fully flavored, full-bodied one.  That’s the great virtue of top-shelf Grüner, an attribute that provides it with an uncanny ability to pair up beautifully with all sorts of foods while also being both refreshing and satisfying as a stand-alone sipper.  Only 267 cases were produced in this vintage, so don’t delay.  94  Michael Franz

Europa Village (Temecula Valley, Riverside County, California) Late Harvest Chardonnay 2020 ($28):  Here’s a subtle, soft dessert wine that delivers spiced peach and apple aromas and flavors over gentle acidity that finishes with a retro-nasal floral impression.  I’d give it a go with the mildest cheeses to show off the nuance in both items.  Sold in a 375 ml bottle.  90  Rich Cook

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For complete results of the judging, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit SanDiegoWineChallenge.com