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Medals with Meaning
By Robert Whitley
Jul 9, 2013
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The meaning of a wine competition medal to the winery that earns it is self-evident. The winery that wins a medal can then claim to be an award winner and presumably trumpet that claim to sell more wine.

But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is the meaning of a medal to the wine consumer, which was the original intent when wine competitions took hold in the United States about three decades ago.

Competition organizers in the day rounded up wine professionals to taste and evaluate new vintages, noting wines of merit by awarding gold, silver or bronze medals. Wine competitions today might be more technologically advanced than those of yore, but they still rely upon trusted wine pros to weed out mediocrity and identify excellence.

The results are a consumer guide to outstanding wines and wineries and nothing more.  As Director of four international wine competitions, I pay close attention to the results for the same reason, scrolling through the list of award-winners to find out which wineries are doing the best work.

The most recent was the 10th annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in June. The wines were evaluated by wine journalists from across the United States, and one from Great Britain.

The journalists taste blind, meaning they know neither the producer nor the name of the wine, but they do take into account regional context and price as they make their assessments.

What’s interesting to me is when one winery begins racking up top awards from different tasting panels, each panel with its own bias based upon personal taste of the judges at the table. That’s a sure sign of excellence across a broad range of stylistic preferences. For example, you may not like New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but you might be able to spot a good one when it’s in the glass in front of you.

With this in mind, I would like to share a few observations gleaned from the results of this year’s Critics Challenge.

•    Baileyana Winery in California’s Edna Valley is on quite a roll. It not only won Best of Show white wine with its 2010 Grand Firepeak Chardonnay ($28), it also took a gold medal with its 2010 Grand Firepeak Pinot Noir ($30). What makes this outcome so stunning is that the same two wines, but from the 2009 vintage, replicated that feat earlier this year at the Winemaker Challenge, where only winemakers are invited to judge. Now that’s consistency.
•    The Oregon winery Four Graces entered four wines and won three gold medals and a platinum. The platinum went to its 2011 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($45) while its 2011 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($32) took gold. But everyone already knows Four Graces pinots are superb. The other two golds went to the 2012 Pinot Blanc ($24) and 2012 Pinot Gris ($20), both from the Willamette Valley. Four Graces is one of the classiest acts in the wine business today.
•    The Australian winery d’Arenberg won 10 medals overall, including Best of Class Shiraz with its 2008 The Dead Arm Shiraz, McLaren Vale ($65). No surprise there. The Dead Arm is one of the most celebrated wines in Australia for good reason. But I also loved the 2011 The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne, McLaren Vale ($17). The d’Arenberg wines are outstanding across the board.
•    The other big Aussie showing came from Dandelion Vineyards, which also claimed 10 medals, including a platinum for its 2011 Lionheart of the Barossa Shiraz ($25). Dandelion also gave d’Arenberg a run for its money in the fanciful names category. I especially liked the 2011 Managerie of the Barossa Grenache Shiraz Mataro ($25), a gold-medal winner.
•    The renaissance at Bolla, the northern Italian produced once known for bland Valpolicella and even more bland Soave and Bardolino, seems to be the real deal. The wines have rocked at various competitions over the past year and it continued at Critics Challenge. Bolla won five medals, including platinum for its 2010 Creso Rosso del Veronese IGT ($25) and golds for its 2011 Bardolino DOC ($8), 2010 Le Poiane Valpolicella Ripasso DOC ($15), and Prosecco DOC ($11). Gotta love the value in those wines, too.
•    Conde de Valdemar had been a consistent producer from Rioja but somehow dropped off my radar. They’re back on it, however, after picking up gold medals for the 2006 Rioja Reserva ($20) and 2008 Rioja Crianza ($15). Both of those wines demonstrate the tremendous value many Spanish wines deliver. The Conde de Valdemar Crianza could well become my house red for the summer, and it’s sensational with grilled meats.
•    Dr. Konstantin Frank lodged a tremendous showing for New York’s Finger Lakes region with two platinum and two gold medals. The platinums went toa 2012 Reserve Riesling ($25) and a 2012 Semi-Dry Riesling ($15) while the 2012 Dry Riesling ($15) and 2011 Rkatsiteli ($15) got gold. Frank’s sister winery, Chateau Frank, chimed in with three medals, including two golds, for its fine sparkling wines.
•    Last but certainly not least, the V. Sattui Winery from the Napa Valley had another prodigious medal haul with 26, including Best of Show dessert wine, Best of Class Merlot, Best of Class Zinfandel, three additional platinums and nine golds. Had it not been for the stellar wines submitted by DeLille Cellars of Woodinville, Washington, V. Sattui might well have claimed the Director’s Award as Winery of the Year, too.