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Wisdom of the Winemakers
By Robert Whitley
Jan 26, 2016
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When we launched the Winemaker Challenge more than seven years ago, there was a fear expressed by some of the potential contestants that winemakers would be too critical, or at least more critical than other wine professionals, such as sommeliers or wine journalists.

Then there was the question about so-called "cellar" palates that evolve as winemakers lock in on a particular style of wine.

Alison Crowe, whose winery in Napa's Carneros district, Garnet Vineyards, specializes in Pinot Noir, asked point-blank prior to this year's evaluations: "How do I evaluate a wine that I wouldn't make myself because I'm not fond of the style?"

Crowe, a first-time judge at the Winemaker Challenge, was advised that all wines made in a legitimate commercial style should be judged by how well they measured up to the taste parameters for that style, regardless of personal preference.

Those were the marching orders and I am pleased to report the winemakers took to the task with a strong sense of purpose and delivered a fair and equitable number of medals (551) from the 809 wines entered. Nearly 29 percent of the wines entered won either a platinum or gold medal. The overall medal-percentage was a healthy 68.7 percent. Call the winemakers critical if you must, but don't call them stingy.

As is my custom following every wine competition I've managed over the past 22 years, I look back to see what the judges have wrought, and I always learn something useful.

This year (the Winemaker Challenge was staged January 16-17 in San Diego) I looked back and had a New York, New York moment.

That's because Dr. Konstantin Frank, from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, scored three gold medals and a platinum. Considering Dr. Frank only entered four wines — a gewurztraminer, a gruner veltliner and a dry and off-dry riesling — it's difficult to imagine a more impressive performance. Considering all four wines retail for $14.99, it's all the more stunning.

This is hardly surprising, however, for Dr. Frank has long been one of the benchmark wineries in the Finger Lakes. Its 2014 Gruner earned the platinum and had to beat out California's Zocker 2014 Gruner Veltliner ($20) from the Edna Valley to take best-of-class in that category.

I have long believed one or the other is the finest example in America of this popular Austrian white wine.

Adding to New York's laurels, Wolffer Estate of Long Island produced the best-of-class dessert wine with its 2013 Diosa Late Harvest ice wine ($37).

Of course, for sheer impressive numbers there is always V. Sattui, the Napa Valley winery that perennially dominates this competition. V. Sattui took 24 medals from 29 wines entered, and that included seven gold medals and two best-of-class wines, a malbec and a zinfandel.

Two small family wineries from California's Mendocino County - Handley Cellars and Navarro Vineyards — also stood out.

Handley rang up platinum and best-of-class awards with its 2014 gewurztraminer and 2014 pinot gris, both from the Anderson Valley and both priced at $20 retail. The Handley gewurztraminer is annually among the top five produced in the United States, in my humble opinion. Handley also notched three gold medals and two silvers.

Navarro bagged 11 medals, including a platinum for its 2014 Late Harvest Cluster Select Riesling ($69), and four golds.

J. Lohr held the banner high for California's Central Coast with 14 medals overall, including platinum medals for its 2012 Cuvee Pom ($50), a red Bordeaux-style blend, and its 2014 October Night Chardonnay ($25).

Gloria Ferrer dominated the sparkling wine category with two platinum awards, including best-of-class sparkling wine with its 2004 Carneros Cuvee ($75). Overall Gloria Ferrer won took medals from 10 wines entered, including four golds to complement the two platinums.

From the Old World, Castello Banfi and Banfi (Banfi's Tuscan properties not located in Montalcino) combined to take seven medals, including best-of-class Chianti with its 2013 Fonte Alla Selva Chianti Classico DOCG ($24). Banfi added four gold medals to go along with the best-of-class platinum Chianti.

Value wines also shared the wealth, with Barefoot Cellars and Barefoot Bubbly earning 24 medals combined, and Lodi's Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi five medals. None of those wines retail for more than $9.99.

Complete results, including best-of-class winners, can be found at www.winemakerchallenge.com.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.