Over the 30 years I've been writing a nationally syndicated wine column, I've easily sampled a couple hundred thousand wines — at least. At some point, you might think, the thrill of discovery would have worn off.
In reality, tasting great new wines never gets old. Neither does sharing those experiences, such as the two days of judging at the recent 17th annual Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition in San Diego. My panel evaluated more than 250 young wines over two days, assigning a Platinum, Gold or Silver award to wines of outstanding merit.
Platinum was the top award an individual judge could bestow. To earn Platinum, a wine must achieve a score of 94 points on the infamous 100-point scale. Over the weekend at the Critics Challenge, I had the opportunity to taste dozens of truly exceptional wines, but only 15 of those rose to the level of Platinum on my personal scorecard.
In sports terms, a Platinum award to me is the equivalent of a grand slam in baseball. A Platinum award should be rare or risk losing its meaning. Of course, during a competition judging, the wines are tasted "blind" to conceal the name of the producer, the vineyard and the price, factors that could produce bias. All we as Critics Challenge judges knew was the region of origin to provide context for stylistic differences.
Of course, after choosing a Platinum winner blind, a judge is anxious to learn the wine's identity. For me, discovery is the great appeal of a wine competition. Over the course of my career, I've judged wine competitions the world over, from New Zealand to Italy to Belgium to Portugal to Slovakia to right here in the United States.
I am truly pleased this week to share my most recent wine competition discoveries with you, dear reader.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Wallis Family Estate 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District ($100) — The Diamond Mountain District is one of the most coveted sites for Cabernet in California. There is a reason for that, and it is in evidence here. This wine shows extraordinary depth and concentration, and is richly layered and complex, with aromas of blackberry, cassis and spice. The balance is exquisite and the finish dazzling and long. Rating: 97.
Archimedes 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($120) — This brilliantly crafted Alexander Valley Cabernet has the trademark ripeness of the Alexander Valley without going over to the sweet, flabby side. Rich and fleshy, with aromas of blackberry and cassis, a note of pencil lead and cedar, and a mere hint of oak vanillin, it is the Alexander Valley at its finest. Rating: 95.
Jeff Runquist 2018 Sangiovese, Pioneer Hill Vineyard, Amador County ($27) — This wine has an alluring floral and spice note on the nose, and excellent follow-through on the palate. It has aromas of black cherry and raspberry, and finishes with a subtle note of wood spice. Rating: 95.
Navarro Vineyards 2019 Riesling Late Harvest, Cluster Select, Anderson Valley ($39) — A honeyed beauty. Rating: 95.
Wallis Family Estate 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Denali Estate Vineyard, St. Helena ($125) — The extraction and richness in Napa Valley Cabernet is what made the valley famous, and this wine has both in spades. Brilliant aromas of blackberry and red currant combined with beautiful texture and balance make this a Cabernet to savor now or lay down in a proper cellar for another five to 10 years. Rating: 95.
Brecon Estate 2019 Albarino, Central Coast ($31) — Aromas of citrus and stone fruit show exceptional intensity. On the palate, the wine is crisp and refreshing, with great persistence in the finish. Rating: 94.
Chasing Venus 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($18) — Citrus and gooseberry notes dominate, with a subtle pungency that tips you to its New Zealand origin. It's beautifully balanced with impressive palate length. Rating: 94.
Francis Ford Coppola 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Director's Cut, Alexander Valley ($32) — This wine is richly layered, showing aromas of currant and blackberry with firm tannins and impressive length. It drinks beautifully now, but another five to eight years in a temperature-controlled wine cellar would do wonders. Rating: 94.
Jeff Runquist 2018 Sangiovese 'The Hill,' Amador County ($28) — The wine has impressive intensity and depth. It shows notes of black cherry and wood spice, with exceptional palate length and balance. Rating: 94.
Jeff Runquist 2018 Syrah, Paso Robles ($26) — With exquisite balance, this Syrah combines richness and structure in the best possible way, showing notes of blueberry and other dark fruits with a gentle touch of spice that emerges in the impressively long finish. Rating: 94.
Navarro Vineyards 2019 Gewurztraminer Late Harvest, Cluster Select, Anderson Valley ($39) — Rich and beautiful, this wine shows ripe stone fruits, honeysuckle and spice. Rating: 94.
Robert Hall 2018 GSM, Paso Robles ($45) — This wine has complex layers of red and black fruits, with impressive richness and palate weight, and just the right touch of wood spice. Rating: 94.
Sea Bird 2017 Chardonnay, Courtney's Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills ($25) — Full-bodied and rich but without losing its edginess, this is a beautiful example of what California Chardonnay can be. With complex layers of baked apple, lemon creme and toasty wood spice, it has a little something for everyone. Rating: 94.
Trefethen 2018 Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District ($38) — The beauty of this wine is its exquisite balance. With fresh, mouthwatering acidity, it has backbone, and that makes the array of complex fruit aromas all the more enticing. Rating: 94.
Vineyard 511 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District ($149) — Another extraordinary example of Diamond Mountain's profound influence on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This beautiful Cabernet offers impressive richness and intensity, with a scintillating thread of minerality that exhibits ripeness and fleshy goodness. Rating: 94.