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Wine Competition Daze
By Robert Whitley
Jul 30, 2019
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If you enjoy wine and occasionally read the retail “shelf talkers” in the wine department where you shop, you are no doubt aware that we are awash in wine “competitions” throughout these United States.

Wine competitions are nothing more than organized “blind” wine tastings, blind being the operative word. Each wine’s identity is concealed from the judges – generally respected wine industry professionals – to ensure awards are based on the merits rather than the prestige of a famous label.

Medals earned from wine competitions are used to promote sales based on the perception of quality conveyed by a platinum, double gold, gold, silver or bronze medal, or an even more prestigious honor such as best of class.

I have been operating wine competitions for 25 years and currently have four international competitions based in San Diego, where I’ve lived for the past 35 years. I frequently judge at competitions run by others, such as the San Francisco International coming up in November.

The judging gigs help me hone my tasting chops while the four international competitions, where most of my efforts are behind the scenes, keep me abreast of ever-changing trends such as the emergence of prosecco in recent years and the explosion of interest in dry rose wines.

But more than that, I get to see in real time who the major players are in terms of quality and consistency. For example, when I look back at the first half of 2019, I can state with utter confidence that V. Sattui remains a pillar of excellence in the Napa Valley.

This unique winery shuns traditional distribution channels and sells its wines only at the winery or online. V. Sattui wines are stunning across the board, although it is best known for its vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignons. V. Sattui entered 40 wines in my 10th annual Winemaker Challenge in January and collected 36 medals, including four best-of-class awards. It really doesn’t get much better than that. So, V. Sattui walked off with the Directors Award for Domestic Winery of the Year. No surprise there. What might surprise is that it was the third consecutive year V. Sattui has taken that honor.

That was January. By the time April and the 37th annual San Diego International rolled around, there were plenty of new wines to excite the palate. None more than the 2017 Oceano Chardonnay from the Spanish Springs Vineyard in California’s San Luis Obispo County or the Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut. The Oceano was a revelation, packed with extraordinary complexity and a stony minerality that earned it the title of Domestic Wine of the Year. Oceano is the new kid on the block, less than a few years old. Delamotte is a storied Champagne house and its Blanc de Blancs and iconic wine and richly deserving of the honor as Import Wine of the Year.

For each winery it was the first time entering the venerable San Diego International, which I have overseen for the past 16 years.

Then came June and the 16th annual Critics Challenge, judged exclusively by well regarded wine journalists. Here Italy’s Castello Banfi soared with a 100-point wine, the 2015 Excelsus, a red Super Tuscan blend that is without a doubt one of the finest red wines I’ve ever tasted at a commercial wine competition, or anywhere else for that matter. Thus, the Banfi legend continued to grow. Owned by an American family from New York, Banfi recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. It was founded in the Montalcino district of Tuscany long before the region’s signature wine, Brunello do Montalcino, came to critical acclaim. It has been a beacon of quality and innovation since its first vintage and, if anything, only continues to get better with age, just like its famed Brunello.

But as good as the Excelsus was, it wasn’t Banfi’s first 100-point wine and probably won’t be its last.

The story of the 2019 Critics Challenge was the performance of Jeff Runquist wines. The winery, situated off the beaten path in California’s Sierra Foothills, entered 31 wines. From that 31, 28 medaled. Among the 28 medals were four platinum, 15 gold and five best-of-class awards.

This was no fluke. Runquist has been making exceptional wines going on close to 40 years, including a successful stint at J. Lohr before striking out on his own. That said, the results from the 2019 Critics Challenge represented an epic performance, a tour de force worthy of a Napa Valley powerhouse.

The bottom line for me is that every wine competition I stage is a learning experience. If I surveyed the roster of wines in advance and tried to predict the outcome in advance, I would fail miserably. Each competition is both a journey and a discovery.

My next competition journey is the Sommelier Challenge in September. You guessed it, the judges are all professional sommeliers. I have no idea what new discovery the somms might present, and I can hardly wait.