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Columns – Robert Whitley

2021 San Diego International Reviews
Robert Whitley
Jan 30, 2022

2021 San Diego International Reviews

Big Winners from 2020
Robert Whitley
Jan 5, 2021

The many setbacks of 2020 notwithstanding, there were numerous bright spots for the wine industry over the course of the challenging year just ended. As regular readers of this column know, I oversee four major international wine competitions. The insights I gain as I digest the competition results - from new trends and developments to confirmation of long-held truths - give me a unique window into the year-to-year evolution of the wine world. I've assembled highlights from the four competitions that provide a peek into the not-too-distant past, a 2020 that was better than you might have imagined given the circumstances of COVID 19 lockdowns and rampant disruption of our dining and consumption habits.

Bargain Buying Strategies
Robert Whitley
Dec 1, 2020

Early on in my wine journey I developed a healthy respect for budget wines, and not because I was cheap. My goal from the moment I got hooked on fine wine was to put together a collection of top-notch wines from around the world. A noble but expensive proposition no matter where you shop for wine. What I discovered in those early buying sprees was that I was consuming the collectible wines almost as fast as I could purchase them, which sort of defeats the purpose of creating a personal wine cellar. I wasn't aging my most precious wines to perfection because I was reaching for a 'great' wine to serve with dinner on a nightly basis.

Merlot Fights Back
Robert Whitley
Oct 27, 2020

October is Merlot Month. Before you yawn, consider this: Merlot was ascendant in the domestic wine market prior to the 2004 movie "Sideways." The movie, filmed in California's Santa Barbara wine region, glorified (rightly) Pinot Noir and dissed (wrongly) Merlot. The widespread popularity of "Sideways," nominated for an Academy Award, had a profound influence on what ordinary folks thought about the two wines. Pinot Noir sales soared, while Merlot sales plummeted. Merlot Month has been a way for Merlot producers to fight back. Yes, it's a gimmick. But as these things go, it's a useful gimmick because it serves to remind wine enthusiasts that Merlot is indeed a noble wine that deserves our respect and admiration.

Temecula's Akash Impresses at 13th Somm Challenge
Robert Whitley
Sep 22, 2020

The results of a wine competition are often predictable. Round up the usual suspects and you will likely see many of the same wines and wineries bagging Gold medals year after year, competition after competition. There was a bit of that at the 13th annual Sommelier Challenge, as the Wine of the Year award went to none other than the 2015 Tom Eddy Greeg Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($195) from the Napa Valley. The judges, all certified professional sommeliers, taste "blind," so there is no chance they were influenced by the Tom Eddy name. In a blind tasting it's all about the wine. On the other hand, sometimes a wine or winery will jump up and surprise. There was a bit of that, too, at the Somm Challenge. The Winery of the Year, selected by Director Rich Cook and yours truly, was the Akash Winery of Temecula, California.

Age Matters at Cognac Frapin
Robert Whitley
Aug 11, 2020

COGNAC, France - Here in this mysterious land known officially as Charente or Charente-Maritime, roughly an hour's drive north of Bordeaux, the rolling hills are covered with hundreds of thousands of acres of vines that produce wine no one will ever drink. The primary grapes planted in the region - ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard - yield wines that are typically thin and acidic and generally unfit for human consumption. They're perfect for the production of cognac, the epitome of grape brandy and one of the world's most refined and sophisticated spirits.

The Platinum Parade
Robert Whitley
Jul 7, 2020

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.

King of Cornas
Robert Whitley
Apr 28, 2020

Unlike many of the winemaking elites of the French wine industry, Jean-Luc Colombo was not born into the business. While growing up in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, France, Colombo was surrounded by chefs, particularly his mother and grandmother. He envisioned a career in a professional kitchen.

Bordeaux 2017: The Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
Mar 31, 2020

BORDEAUX, France - The annual primeurs event in Bordeaux, which previews the most recent vintage of Bordeaux wine for the trade and press, often proves a chore as everyone muscles through hundreds of tannic young wines in an attempt to assess their quality and potential. It may come as a surprise to some, but tasting barrel samples is work. The astringency of young red wine presents a daunting challenge to even the most experienced wine professional. Because many Bordeaux wines are sold 'en primeur,' well before their release in a couple of years, the primeurs tastings are of tremendous interest to those who sell Bordeaux wines as well as those who consume them. While I have my reservations about a number of wines from the Graves and Pessac-Leognan district in the difficult 2017 vintage, I found the wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, on the Right Bank, encouraging. They were riper, fleshier and less austere than many of the wines from Pessac and Graves.

Bordeaux 2017: Weathering the Storm
Robert Whitley
Mar 24, 2020

BORDEAUX, France - Although Bordeaux produces the world's most expensive and arguably its most sought-after wines, the journey from bud break to harvest is often fraught with peril for the region's vineyards. Vintage 2017 was fairly typical; a roller-coaster ride that started with an early spring followed by a devastating frost, followed by cool weather that delayed ripening, and ending with a wet autumn. Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume 2017 was a bad year for the wines of Bordeaux. And first impressions appeared to confirm that. The annual Bordeaux Primeurs evaluations, organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, kicked off with the wines of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, where lean and sometimes green seemed to be the order among the reds. The whites also tended to be austere. What saved these two districts from disaster was careful selection by the better chateaux and a delicate hand on the throttle by a majority of the regions winemakers, helping avoid the sin of too much extraction and the green, mouth-puckering tannins that result.

2020 Vision
Robert Whitley
Feb 11, 2020

There are numerous predictions of gloom and doom circulating throughout the wine business these days. Much of the hand-wringing has been inspired by a couple of business-insider reports that indicate a) we are in the midst of a wine glut and b) growth in wine consumption has stagnated as millennials seem to be gravitating toward other adult beverages, particularly hard seltzer and craft beer. Fear not, we've seen this play before. Let me address the glut first. After decades of consistent growth in consumption of 3 to 4 percent a year, growth was flat or down slightly, depending on who you listen to, in 2019. That dip, combined with increased vineyard acreage (especially in California), has left a considerable backlog of inventory heading into 2020.

The Wines of Bibiana
Robert Whitley
Jan 14, 2020

When Bibiana decided to quit her university studies in Columbia, she set out for France with little more than a backpack and a dream. Her full name is Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, and she was born and raised in a middle-class family in Medellin, Columbia. Since her early teens, and against all odds in a country bereft of a strong wine culture, she dreamed of one day becoming a winemaker. Bibiana's journey began in Cognac, France, where she talked her way into the region's school of enology. After earning a brevet de technicien superieur degree, or BTS degree, in viticulture and enology, she moved on to the University of Bordeaux, where she earned a bachelor's degree in enology and graduated with honors.

A Case for Domestic Wines at Thanksgiving
Robert Whitley
Nov 19, 2019

The default recommendation of many experts points to Beaujolais, a French wine, as the perfect complement to the Thanksgiving feast. That may be true, yet there is a case to be made that serving domestic wines on this uniquely American holiday can be every bit as satisfying. Not only that, it can be economical as well. For inspiration, I consulted my notes from the 2019 Critics Challenge International wine competition. The wines at Critics Challenge are evaluated by prominent wine journalists from across the United States and the results are typically consumer friendly. I combed the awards specifically looking for domestic wines awarded platinum or gold medals with a suggested retail price tag of $25 or less.

Older Wines: Risk and Reward
Robert Whitley
Oct 22, 2019

Anyone with even a passing interest in wine has no doubt heard that 'fine' wine improves with age. I emphasize the word fine because no amount of time in the cellar will magically transform a bad wine. Wines produced from exceptional vineyards, however, often morph over time into something so sublime that wine enthusiasts will pay a handsome sum just for the tasting experience.

The Spottswoode Story
Robert Whitley
Sep 24, 2019

On a recent tour of Southern California with longtime winemaker Aron Weinkauf in tow, Spottswoode's Beth Novak Milliken presented another stunning vintage of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2016 Spottswoode Cab is much like every Spottswoode Cabernet that came before it - a Napa Valley classic that seems to defy vintage variation. The late Jack and Mary Novak had no idea, of course, that they had settled upon one of America's greatest vineyard sites when they purchased the historic property in St. Helena in 1972. Their goal at the time was to move their five children from the San Diego area to a more rural setting. And given the property's history - the first wine grapes had been planted in 1882 - they became winegrowers, selling their cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc to iconic wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Caymus, Heitz and Duckhorn.

Vintage Wines Estates, A Stealth Juggernaut
Robert Whitley
Aug 27, 2019

Unless you're a wine industry insider, chances are you've never heard of the Vintage Wine Estates. Whether by clever design or simply an accident, Sonoma-based Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) is a high-fly act that manages to cruise under the radar, a stealth juggernaut that now controls 30-plus wineries and/or wine brands plus two separate spirits companies. You may not know VWE (or its visionary CEO, Patrick Roney), but you certainly know many of its better lights, such as the Napa Valley wineries Clos Pegase, Swanson and Girard, just to name a few.

Wine Competition Daze
Robert Whitley
Jul 30, 2019

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.

Runquist Wines Crush It at Critics Challenge
Robert Whitley
Jul 3, 2019

Over the course of my 29-year career as a wine columnist, I've staged more than 70 wine competitions and judged countless others. Each of those events has brought new insights and occasional revelations. The 16th annual Critics Challenge in San Diego June 8-9 delivered a revelation. Jeff Runquist, who took his first winemaking position at California's Montevina Winery in 1982, has emerged as a rock star this year, his 37th year on the job.

Bordeaux 2018: 20 Sensational Reds
Robert Whitley
May 7, 2019

BORDEAUX, France - The splendid 2018 vintage of red Bordeaux marks the fourth consecutive very good to outstanding harvest in arguably the world's most closely watched wine region. Given its marginal climate, which is often too cold to fully ripen the red grape varieties of Bordeaux, the current streak of above-average vintages is unprecedented in recent decades. The 2018 Bordeaux reds owe their lush aromas and generally fine tannins to a warm, dry summer that carried through the harvest without interruption. While a few chateaux suffered significant crop loss due to mildew or hail, the broader picture was one of healthy, ripe fruit that was picked in excellent condition.

Oceano Surprises at San Diego International Wine Competition Judging
Robert Whitley
Apr 16, 2019

The element of surprise is easily the most scintillating aspect of a "blind" wine tasting. When all bias in favor of region, producer and price is removed, anything can happen and often does. Such was the case at the 37th San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge on April 6 and 7. One of the youngest wineries (first vintage 2016) to enter one of the oldest wine competitions in the United States (founded in 1982) scored a stunning, some might even say surprising, triumph when the 2017 Oceano Spanish Springs Vineyard Chardonnay ($38) emerged as the domestic Wine of the Year at the venerable competition.

Bordeaux 2018: First Impressions
Robert Whitley
Apr 9, 2019

BORDEAUX, France - In an annual rite of spring, thousands of wine merchants and dozens, if not hundreds, of wine journalists descend upon this city to take stock of the latest Bordeaux vintage. It matters not that these wines will not be released into the market for almost two years. Interest is driven by the sale now of Bordeaux 'futures.' A futures contract allows a wine merchant to purchase Bordeaux at the opening price for delivery in approximately two years. They're wagering that after aging in barrel for two years the same wines will cost considerably more, especially after the media spread the (hopefully) good news. In good to great vintages, that bet can pay off handsomely.

Pauillac in California
Robert Whitley
Mar 13, 2019

HEALDSBURG, California - It has been more than four decades since Tom Jordan decided to bring Bordeaux to California. The vision he expressed with the opening of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, on the outskirts of the village of Healdsburg in the Alexander Valley winegrowing region, was a Bordeaux-style chateau that would produce refined cabernet sauvignon to rival those from the great estates of Bordeaux

The Best From 2018
Robert Whitley
Jan 16, 2019

For those who revel in great wine, 2018 was a splendid year for the wine industry. From the hundreds of new releases that I tasted and reviewed over the course of the past 12 months, I've singled out the two wines, one domestic and one imported, and the two foreign and domestic wineries that impressed me most. These are exceptional wines and truly great wineries, all deserving of the most enthusiastic accolades.

The Thanksgiving Feast
Robert Whitley
Nov 20, 2018

Thanksgiving dinner, with its unique combination of sweet and savory dishes, would seem to pose a challenge to even the most knowledgeable wine enthusiast. Oddly, exactly the opposite is true. It's a no-brainer that even a novice could manage. Over the years I've developed a three-stage approach to the Thanksgiving feast. I typically serve a sparkling wine aperitif to pair with the typically salty pre-dinner snacks. With the main event, roast turkey of course, I will offer two wines, a red and a white. Either works, which removes much of the mystery. For the final course, I will choose a spicy white to complement the fall spices found in a typical Thanksgiving dessert, such as pumpkin pie. Given that Thanksgiving is a decidedly American tradition, this year I've limited my suggestions to domestic made-in-America wines.

Harvest Hot Spots
Robert Whitley
Oct 23, 2018

Harvest is a special time in wine country. Trucks loaded with grapes chug down the narrow country roads, optimism and anxiety are abundant in equal parts, and wine lovers flock to the scene to observe history, and wine, in the making. The heavy lifting of the 2018 harvest in the northern hemisphere is all but over except for the handful of late-ripening grape varieties still hanging on the vines. The grapes are in the cellar, the pungent smell of fermenting wine hangs heavy in the air, and the fruit flies are everywhere. It's the best time of year for a wine country visit. This week we take a look at three of the world's most popular wine-harvest destinations, including recommendations for accommodations and dining spots that I have visited and can personally and enthusiastically recommend.

Sippin' Reds
Robert Whitley
Sep 25, 2018

A friend came to me recently seeking wine recommendations, which is not unusual. She specifically targeted red wines that would be smooth or easy to sip. "I'm not a Cabernet kind of girl," she said. "I've heard that red wine is healthier for you than white wine so I'm looking for some red wines that would be easier to sip than cabernet. Would that be Pinot Noir, or Malbec, or something else?"

The Epicenter of Wine?
Robert Whitley
Jul 31, 2018

I must confess, I turn a blind eye to most wine-related press releases unless they contain news of a sale or a death. There are exceptions, such as the dispatch this week from Washington State Wine, a trade organization that represents most if not all of the wineries in Washington. The pitch was the launch of an advertising campaign, scheduled to run through October, that positions Washington as 'the New Epicenter of Wine.' They even have a logo that makes that bold claim. Forgive me, but my eyes rolled on that one.

Napa Valley Pioneer Cuvaison Looking Good at 50
Robert Whitley
Jul 3, 2018

The Napa Valley Winery Cuvaison would appear to be a model of continuity in a business that is constantly shifting and evolving. Cuvaison is coming up on its 50th anniversary, which makes it one of the earliest pioneers in the modern era of California wine. Founded in 1969, Cuvaison long ago made its mark as a purveyor of fine Napa Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was purchased in 1979 by the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland and has been in the same hands ever since. Winemaker Steve Rogstad has been in the job for the past 16 years. But it turns out there's a whole lot of shaking going on at Cuvaison.

Critics Challenge 2018: The Big Winners
Robert Whitley
Jun 5, 2018

The 15th annual Critics Challenge, judged exclusively by prominent wine journalists and staged in San Diego in May, boiled down to one knotty problem: too many very, very good wines. As problems go, this is a good problem to have, but it made deciding the Director's awards something of a challenge. Consideration for Wine of the Year was most contentious, with six to eight solid contenders. After considerable deliberation, Competition Director Rich Cook announced this week that the Judd's Hill 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley ($80) had emerged as domestic Wine of the Year and the 2013 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, Italy ($80) had been selected foreign Wine of the Year.

Bordeaux 2017: Medoc Is the Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
May 8, 2018

BORDEAUX, France - The annual primeurs event in Bordeaux, which previews the most recent vintage of Bordeaux wine for the trade and press, often proves a chore as everyone muscles through hundreds of tannic young wines in an attempt to assess their quality and potential. It may come as a surprise to some, but tasting barrel samples is work. The astringency of young red wine presents a daunting challenge to even the most experienced wine professional. Because many Bordeaux wines are sold 'en primeur,' well before their release in a couple of years, the primeurs tastings are of tremendous interest to those who sell Bordeaux wines as well as those who consume them.

Burgundy: The Roads Less Traveled
Robert Whitley
Apr 10, 2018

BEAUNE, France - The biennial Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne this year took a look at the recently released 2016 and 2015 vintages, with a handful of wines from the 2017 vintage thrown in for fun.There is intense interest in the 2016 vintage in particular, because poor weather in the spring of that year brought down yields in many of the vineyards. It is an excellent vintage, but there isn't enough of it to meet worldwide demand.

For Value, Think Chablis
Robert Whitley
Mar 13, 2018

CHABLIS, France - France would be the last place most wine enthusiasts would look for great value in wine. The staggering cost of many of the most familiar estates in Bordeaux casts a mighty shadow over the entire French wine business. The problem with that narrative? It's simply not true. Here in the northernmost village of Burgundy, where the cool climate renders anything but white wine commercially useless, the chardonnay grape is the only game in town.

Lessons from 2018 Winemaker Challenge
Robert Whitley
Feb 13, 2018

While pricey Napa Valley wines dominated the top awards at the 2018 Winemaker Challenge at the end of January, other trends emerged, as they always do. The Winemaker Challenge is a 'blind' tasting, as all credible wine competitions are. Judges evaluate each wine without such vital information as producer or price. Blind tastings level the playing field and allow each wine to be judged on the merits rather than reputation or price. Anything can happen, and often does.

Bordeaux 2016: Excellent Vintage with Potential to Age
Robert Whitley
Feb 13, 2018

BORDEAUX, France - The 2016 vintage in Bordeaux got off to a rocky start, with heavy rains in the spring. The summer months began to sow optimism, with warm, dry weather that continued through harvest. Throughout the region, Right Bank and Left Bank, the vines were healthy and the crop bountiful. The result is an excellent vintage that should please collectors with wines that show tremendous upside potential to age.

My Top 20 'Value' Wines of 2017
Robert Whitley
Jan 17, 2018

Looking back at memorable wines from my 2017 evaluations, I would be remiss if I didn't reflect upon the exceptional value wines encountered throughout the year. Value, as Wine Talk readers know, doesn't necessarily mean cheap. I prefer to describe value wines as inexpensive and quality driven. In my calculations, they must always deliver a bang for the buck. They must taste like much more expensive wines. This year's Top 20 is actually 22 wines, including ties. To make the list a wine had to cost $20 or less and receive a numerical rating of 91 points or higher.

After the Wildfires
Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2017

Rightly or wrongly, when most Americans think of wine country - a vague term at best - they mean the Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco. The region embodies the good life. Rolling vineyards give way to wooded hillsides, and idyllic villages with world-class restaurants dot the landscape. Along the way, winery tasting rooms abound. It is Disneyland for adults, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the cares of the real world. At least it was until Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, when the peace and tranquility was shattered in the middle of the night by a series of wildfires that swept through the hills and canyons in what is now the deadliest siege of wildfires in California history.

Somms Know Value, too
Robert Whitley
Sep 26, 2017

It's not exactly news that professional sommeliers are generally well informed on the latest and greatest from the world of wine. What isn't as well known is that most top-notch somms appreciate wines from across a broad spectrum of price. They understand price is based on a variety of factors, some having little to do with how good the wine tastes. This point was driven home at the 9th annual Sommelier Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition September 23-24 in San Diego. In this event, wines are evaluated in a blind tasting by certified sommeliers. They know neither the producer of the wine nor its price, only what they like.

Labor Day Value Wines
Robert Whitley
Aug 29, 2017

 Although summer isn't officially over for a few more weeks, it ends emotionally on Labor Day weekend, when we usually cover the grill one last time in a summer state of mind. To celebrate the passing of summer, many take to the backyard for a final summer feast. They invite friends and family. Pretty soon, it's a crowd. Before you know it, everyone is thirsty. It's time for some good wine with good friends, but budgets are tight because of recent back-to-school purchases. Here's my solution for those who don't like to lower their expectations just because their wallets are a consideration: ten great value wines all priced at $20 or less.

The Paris Wine Scene
Robert Whitley
Aug 1, 2017

PARIS - The City of Light has everything a wine lover could want and more. Start with the ubiquitous cafes and tabacs that seem to line every boulevard. If wine and food are your thing, you're never more than steps away from a verre de vin blanc and a baguette with cheese and butter. At the humble cafe, your wine of choice is likely to be listed as blanc, rouge or rosé, with formalities such as vintage and producer left to the imagination. But if you're sitting at a sidewalk cafe on a summer afternoon with a thimbleful of anonymous wine and watching the passing circus, how bad can it be, really?

Ten Summer Value Wines
Robert Whitley
Jul 7, 2017

It's summertime and the living's easy. So, too, should be the wines you drink. May they go down easy and be easy on your wallet as well. I've selected a handful of superb wines that, in my humble opinion, over-deliver for the price. Some of these are perennial favorites, such as the Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, and some are recent discoveries, such as the well-balance and elegant Stateland Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County in California's Central Coast. The common thread among all of these wines is their ability to hold their own when tasted side-by-side by significantly more expensive wines of the same type. For summer entertaining, all should please even the most discriminating wine enthusiast and make you the host or hostess with the most!

Rose Revolution
Robert Whitley
Jun 6, 2017

In the nearly quarter-century that I've been organizing commercial wine competitions, with now more than 60 under my belt, the rose category has been one of my greatest disappointments. Once upon a time most of the rose wines entered were on the sweet side and of little interest to professional wine judges, so medals were few and far between. Even as more interesting and complex dry roses were produced, the judges mostly shrugged at the category. But the times are a changin. Witness the 2017 Critics Challenge, staged over Memorial weekend in San Diego.

League of Their Own
Robert Whitley
May 9, 2017

Maurizio Zanella didn't create Franciacorta. It only seems that way. When the now-famous wine region was awarded DOC status in 1967, the sparkling wine business in Italy was dominated by sweet fizz from Asti, and Prosecco was barely on the radar. Zanella came along a few years later and launched Ca' del Bosco on a piece of property in northern Italy's lake region - land that had been purchased by his mother, Annamaria, many years earlier. Today, Franciacorta is to Italy what Champagne is to France. It is Italy's most complex, elegant and sophisticated bubbly. Ca' del Bosco is one of its most celebrated properties.

Whites of Spring
Robert Whitley
Mar 14, 2017

The snowstorm that blanketed New York City and much of the northeast this week notwithstanding, there is good reason to think about the white wines we want to drink when the warmer weather of spring finally arrives. For one thing, nothing says spring like the move to daylight saving time, no matter what the thermometer of the back porch is telling you. With warmer days in mind, I've put together a wish list of 10 white wines that offer a range of flavors and interesting complexities without being overwrought or heavy. In other words, perfect for spring sipping. In alphabetical order:

Rethinking Beaujolais
Robert Whitley
Jan 17, 2017

ROMANECHE-THORINS, France - Georges Duboeuf, now 83 years old, is old enough to remember when Beaujolais was the French wine of choice for many, if not most, American wine drinkers. Light, fruity and absent of aggressive tannins, it was the perfect bistro wine. But the American wine scene has shifted substantially since Duboeuf began pedaling Beaujolais in 1964. Sales in the U.S. have slipped as much as 40 percent over the past decade, prompting Duboeuf to switch importers recently. But if the U.S. market has changed, so, too, has the Beaujolais region, where Duboeuf oversees a vast network of small growers and independent winemakers.

Lenoble's Champagne for the Ages
Robert Whitley
Dec 20, 2016

DAMERY, France - When Armand-Raphael Graser moved from his native Alsace, France, to the Champagne region in 1915, World War I was raging. He purchased a house built in 1772 and from there launched Champagne AR Lenoble in 1920. Unlike many of his German neighbors, who had moved to Champagne in the 18th and 19th centuries, Graser chose not to use his own name for the wines he made, believing a German-sounding name in post-World War I France would be too much of a liability for a new business.

J. Lohr Introduces Jerry's 'Signature' Cabernet Sauvignon
Robert Whitley
Nov 22, 2016

If there is any California vintner who deserves a monument to himself, Jerry Lohr would be at or near the top of the list of contenders. Over more than four decades, J. Lohr, his namesake winery, has delivered exceptional wines at fairly modest prices to slake the growing thirst for California wine. The monument is another J. Lohr wine, of course - probably the finest Lohr has ever made.

Five Obscure Gems
Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2016

Even those with a mere casual interest in wine know the term "wine country" applies to Napa, California, Sonoma, California, parts of California's Central Coast, parts of Oregon and parts of Washington. Beyond those well-established viticultural boundaries, however, there is a blossoming culture of winemakers who are not content with the conventional wisdom on the topic of what conditions are best suited for winegrowing.

E&J Gallo Dazzles at Sommelier Challenge
Robert Whitley
Sep 27, 2016

Throughout the weekend of the eighth annual Sommelier Challenge International Wine & Spirits Challenge in San Diego, California, the judges made a point of noting an improvement in the quality of entries from the previous year. The results reflected the initial impression as the assembled professional sommeliers, which included Master Sommelier Bob Bath of The Culinary Institute of America, awarded medals to 66 percent of the entries. The 2015 Somm Challenge saw a medal percentage under 50 percent.

Merlot Madness
Robert Whitley
Aug 31, 2016

October is International Merlot Month. Think about that for a moment. Merlot is the wine everyone loves to loathe. So it gets an entire month to call its own? Something must be wrong with this picture.

The Mystery of Wine Prices
Robert Whitley
Aug 2, 2016

A headline in a local shop recently caught my eye: "Why wine costs what it does." Ah, the mystery of wine. Is a $100 bottle of cabernet sauvignon really ten times better than a $10 bottle? The answer to this eternal question hardly comes down to numbers. The most important factor to consider is place. The most expensive wines come from somewhat hallowed ground, in my humble opinion. Bordeaux, for example, is revered around the world for the exceptional quality and longevity of its finest wines. Those would be the classified growths from the most famous chateaux.

California Wine's Best Kept Secret
Robert Whitley
Jun 21, 2016

The South Coast Winery in Temecula recently pulled off a feat no other California winery can claim, winning its fourth Golden Bear Trophy at the California State Fair earlier this month. The trophy is awarded to the California winery of the year, chosen from the hundreds that enter the state fair's annual wine competition. Considering more than half the wine consumed in the United States is produced in California, the trophy represents a significant accomplishment. That one small winery situated in the unheralded Temecula Valley, 60 miles north of San Diego, has captured the title four times against stiff competition speaks volumes about the winemakers,Jon McPherson and Javier Flores.

J One Year After Judy
Robert Whitley
May 10, 2016

WINDSOR, Calif. - J Vineyards & Winery is steeped in the history of California wine. It was founded 30 years ago by Judy Jordan, who grew up in the wine business as the daughter of Tom and Sally Jordan. The Jordan Winery, founded nearly 50 years ago by her parents, is a benchmark cabernet sauvignon brand that played a huge role in convincing a skeptical public that California wines could compete with the French. Judy chose a different path, striking out on her own at the age of 25 to create J, a winery dedicated to Russian River Valley sparkling wine and pinot noir.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte a Lifestyle Juggernaut
Robert Whitley
Apr 19, 2016

BORDEAUX, France - When Daniel and Florence Cathiard first laid eyes on Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte more than a quarter century ago, it was love at first sight, despite the chateau's run-down condition and spotty reputation. The couple met while they were on the French Olympic ski team in the 1960s. They took on other endeavors, and years later decided to sell their massive supermarket chain, one of the largest in Europe, as well as a successful sporting goods business, to purchase the chateau. It was a bold move, even though the property was historic (the first grapes were grown there in 1365), and even though it had maintained its Grand Cru Classe status within the Graves district of Bordeaux after going through some rough patches.

Lee Prospers, Siduri Thrives Following Sale
Robert Whitley
Mar 22, 2016

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - There was considerable weeping and hand-wringing among Pinot Noir connoisseurs when the cultish Siduri winery was purchased slightly more than one year ago by the big bad Jackson Family Wines, made famous by the massive Kendall-Jackson wine brand. Jackson Family Wines is certainly big, but not so bad in the eyes of Siduri founder and winemaker Adam Lee.

Wisdom of the Winemakers
Robert Whitley
Jan 26, 2016

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.

Wine of the Year: 100-Point Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon
Robert Whitley
Dec 29, 2015

When Jack and Mary Novak moved their five children from San Diego to the quiet wine country village of St. Helena in 1972, the goal was a lifestyle change. Jack sold his medical practice and the family purchased a 30-acre wine estate in the heart of the Napa Valley, which at that time was little more than a sleepy farming community north of San Francisco that probably had as many prunes planted as grapes. Jack died an untimely death of a heart attack at age 44, but Mary carried on with the plan to grow grapes and sell them to local vintners. The estate, known as Spottswoode, quickly gained acclaim for the remarkable quality of its cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.

John Jordan Remains True to His Roots
Robert Whitley
Dec 1, 2015

You could say John Jordan was born into the wine business, although he spent most of his adult life avoiding it. His parents, Tom and Sally Jordan, were dedicated Francophiles. They signed the deed on their Alexander Valley wine estate in May 1972, the same day John was born, so the story goes. John and his sister Jenny grew up amid the vines, while older sister Judy was away at college. Tom and Sally redefined California cabernet.

Hitting the Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
Nov 4, 2015

There is a widely quoted statistic that about 75 percent of all Champagne consumption in the United States occurs in the final two months of the year, over the prolonged holiday season. But there is one other category of wine that is even more of a holiday novelty: dessert wine.

Grape Expectations
Robert Whitley
Oct 6, 2015

Imagine a world without cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling or sauvignon blanc. Those popular grape varieties make the wines most of the world likes to drink. Familiarity is as much a factor in their popularity as quality. But what of other grape varieties and the wines they make? The reality is there are lesser-known grapes that make equally delicious wines that allow wine enthusiasts to broaden the palate and perhaps discover a new favorite or two.

The New Face of California Wine
Robert Whitley
Sep 8, 2015

Robert Mondavi, the man who almost single-handedly put California wine on the map, passed in 2008. That same year, Jean-Charles Boisset, president of the largest wine company in Burgundy, France, purchased his first winery in California. In the intervening years Boisset married Gina Gallo of the E&J Gallo wine dynasty and beefed up his California wine portfolio with the addition of Raymond Vineyards and Buena Vista Winery to go with his original purchase of DeLoach Vineyards. The two men have more in common than meets the eye.

Dona Paula Rising Star in Argentine Wine
Robert Whitley
Jul 21, 2015

First there was Nicolas Catena, who took the family winery in Mendoza to new heights when he brought in California winemaker Paul Hobbs to rock the Argentine wine world. Then there was Hobbs himself, who left Catena and opened his own Mendoza winery, Cobos, to much critical acclaim. The brilliant winemaker from Bordeaux, Michel Rolland, also established a base (in Rolland's case, many bases) in Argentina. Then along came Italian winemaker Roberto Cipresso, renowned for his superb Brunellos, to soar at the remarkable Achaval Ferrer winery.

Champagne for the Ages, AR Lenoble
Robert Whitley
Jul 14, 2015

One of the most enduring wine myths of our time is the belief that Champagne is not likely to improve with age, that it must be consumed young for maximum pleasure. Au contraire. Champagne - the real deal from the Champagne district in northeastern France - is nearly as ageworthy as Bordeaux or Burgundy, two other French wines that collectors prize in their dotage.

When Gold is a Gem
Robert Whitley
Jun 16, 2015

Over the past weekend I, along with many colleagues from various facets of the wine industry, evaluated nearly 5000 wine entries at the 34th annual San Francisco International wine competition, run by longtime wine journalist Anthony Dias Blue. My panel alone tasted more than 300 wines. This may seem a daunting task, and indeed it is for many if not most wine enthusiasts. That's why Andy, and those of us who also operate major international wine competitions, choose wine judges carefully, recruiting wine professionals who not only have a good palate but also broad experience tasting multiple wines on an everyday basis.

Choosing Wines Today Easy as ABC
Robert Whitley
May 19, 2015

Walk into any wine shop with a significant inventory and most likely the selection will skew toward wines made from the world's two most popular red and white grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. They are often referred to as 'international' grapes because both are versatile and adapt easily to different soils and climates throughout the world, even though historically Cabernet Sauvignon is most closely associated with the Bordeaux region and Chardonnay the Burgundy region - both in France. There is a sentiment, however, among many wine enthusiasts to take the road less traveled and challenge the taste buds with other flavors. Those who choose this path are commonly known as the ABC crowd; ABC as in anything but Cabernet or anything but Chardonnay. That may seem like a diss, but in reality it is a noble quest to expand the palate horizon and appreciate wines made from less familiar grape varieties.

Wine Competition Medals: The Meaning
Robert Whitley
Apr 21, 2015

We have now reached the meat of the wine competition season, with several majors - Sunset Magazine, Los Angeles International, Critics Challenge and San Francisco International - on the horizon in the coming weeks. Thousands of wines will be put before wine professionals for evaluation, and thousands will be honored with some type of award. You have every right to wonder what it all means. As I like to say, it's not rocket science. The oldest trick in marketing is the third-party endorsement. That endorsement is even more powerful if it is unbiased and comes from a trusted source.

Wineries of Distinction
Robert Whitley
Mar 24, 2015

The top wines are rightly the focus when a wine competition has been completed and the results announced. But there's always more to the story, particularly when individual producers win multiple awards and demonstrate exceptional quality over a broad range of wines. That was the case at the sixth annual Winemaker Challenge earlier this month in San Diego, where a record 839 entries from ten countries were evaluated by 19 professional winemakers in a 'blind' tasting (meaning the judges are unaware of the specific wines they're being asked to evaluate).

The Jackson Legacy
Robert Whitley
Feb 24, 2015

It has been nearly four years since Jess Stonestreet Jackson, the visionary vintner, passed away. Jackson was, like Robert Mondavi and Ernest & Julio Gallo before him, a towering figure in the California wine industry. His namesake winery, Kendall-Jackson, introduced an entire nation to the pleasures of chardonnay, one of the world's great white wines but barely a blip on the radar of American wine enthusiasts before Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay became a household name in the early 1980s.

The Wine Competition Niche
Robert Whitley
Jan 28, 2015

The wine competition occupies an historical niche in the wine industry. At its most basic, a wine competition provides a third-party endorsement of sorts for wines that have been submitted for evaluation by neutral wine professionals. The best wines typically receive medals that they then use to validate the quality of their wines to consumers eager for a bit of guidance given the glut of options. It was a wine competition, after all, that brought the California wine industry the kind of attention money can't buy. The Paris tastings of 1976 pitted Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays against the finest red Bordeaux and white Burgundy wines that could be mustered at the time.

Faves from the 2014 Wine Challenges
Robert Whitley
Jan 13, 2015

One of my perks as Director of the three international wine 'challenges' staged annually in San Diego is the opportunity to taste standout wines that have been pre-screened by respected wine professionals. The Critics Challenge, Sommelier Challenge and Winemaker Challenge are wine competitions with one thing in common: Each is judged by experts in their respective fields. Over the course of each Challenge I make it a point to taste every wine awarded a platinum medal. While I am seldom disappointed, personal favorites do emerge. As I look back on my tasting notes from the 2014 Challenges, the following 12 wines stood out to me as most memorable from the past year.

Millennial Marvels
Robert Whitley
Nov 25, 2014

The big question facing wineries large and small these days is how to connect with millennials, the next generation of wine consumers. There is a significant school of thought that social media will be the path to Generation Next. Others believe it's going to take clever packaging to rope in the 18- to 33-year-old demographic. Carlo Trinchero has another idea. It's the wine, silly. The 27-year-old Trinchero is co-proprietor of the Taken Wine Company, which he founded with best-friend Josh Phelps in 2009.

A Case for Thanksgiving
Robert Whitley
Nov 11, 2014

The Thanksgiving feast is the one meal every year certain to challenge preconceived notions about wine and food pairings. The combination of sweet and savory aromas that are presented at the Thanksgiving feast need not be daunting, however. My simple solution is to throw everything I have at the task, or so it seems. It need not strain your budget, for there are many fabulous Thanksgiving-table-friendly wines at modest prices, but it may well put a strain on your supply of stemware. No worries. When it becomes a necessity, I often use the same wine glass for white wines as well as reds, and even bubblies.

Things I Think I Would Like to Drink
Robert Whitley
Oct 14, 2014

Truth be told, there are but a handful of spots in the world where sparkling wines made in the methode champenoise tradition, with the second fermentation in the bottle, are the rule rather than the exception. Most bubbly is made using the bulk Charmat process, which produces perfectly fine sparkling wine but generally without the structure and complexity of bubbly made using the traditional Champagne method. America is one of those places you can count on for excellent sparkling wine made using the Champagne technique, but even here that process is restricted to a few regions and a handful of dedicated producers. Domestic sparkling wine will never quite replicate Champagne in taste or mouthfeel, owing I believe to the unique combination of climate and chalky soils found in France's Champagne region.

Drinking Pink
Robert Whitley
Aug 19, 2014

It was a warm summer day in the south of France. The entire village of Grasse, it seemed, had turned out for lunch this Monday afternoon on the terrace at La Bastide Saint Antoine, where the Michelin-starred chef Jacques Chibois oversees the kitchen. Everything about the day was impeccable. The sunlight, the fresh air, the glint of the Mediterranean in the distance all served as the perfect backdrop to Chibois' legendary cuisine.

Wine Bar Blues
Robert Whitley
Jul 8, 2014

It can be said with a degree of certainty that the evolution of the modern wine bar has been a net positive for anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine and is even remotely discriminating. The days of sitting down in a bar or restaurant and ordering a generic glass of 'Chablis' are pretty much over. Those were the days, some may remember, when just about any white wine, regardless of the grape or origin, could be labeled 'chablis' on a list of wines by the glass without raising an eyebrow.

15 Summer Sippers for $15, or Less
Robert Whitley
Jun 10, 2014

One aspect of summertime wine sipping is cost. Much of the action occurs in convivial settings around picnic tables, where the wine and conversation flow in equal parts. Throwing a party or inviting friends over for a casual barbecue needn't mean you have to compromise wine quality to control the cost. While we are often impressed by price when we are served an expensive bottle of wine, the discovery of outstanding wine at a low price can be equally exciting. As the summer barbecue season heats up, I've assembled a summer cellar of 15 superb reds, whites and bubblies that retail for $15 or less. Just add a few friends, throw a few brats on the grill and enjoy the rest of the summer.

The 100-Point Solution
Robert Whitley
May 27, 2014

A word or two about the 100-point scale so controversial these days among those who engage in the critical evaluation of wine. Those opposed argue that it is impossible to assign a wine a numerical rating with such specificity. They mock the scores that accompany reviews in popular wine publications such as The Wine Advocate (Robert Parker's famous wine newsletter) and Wine Spectator. They ignore the reality of the critic's task, regardless of the topic under review. Arriving at a wine recommendation involves, among other things, a deliberate weaning of options until the field has been narrowed and clear preferences established.

First Love
Robert Whitley
May 13, 2014

VILA NOVA DE GAIA, Portugal - The walk to the Croft Port lodge from The Yeatman, easily the finest hotel in the Porto area and perhaps one of the finest in the world, is all of ten minutes, but it is steep and somewhat treacherous on the slippery cobblestone street that winds its way down to the Douro river. Not far from the bottom the path to Croft demands a hard left toward the neighboring Sandeman lodge. As I walked up the rugged stone steps to the Croft entrance, remarkably for the first time, it brought back a memory that still lingers of the 1963 Croft Vintage Port, a legendary wine from a legendary vintage.

When In Beaune
Robert Whitley
Apr 15, 2014

BEAUNE, France - Inside the largely intact ramparts of this relatively sleepy village of 20,000, there are four restaurants with at least one Michelin star. Outside the city walls there are several more. The center of the village, around Place Carnot, is lined with shops pedaling gourmet food products, as well as the latest fashions from Paris, a couple of hours to the north. From early spring through the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction in late November, the cobblestone streets are clogged with tourists, particularly on Saturday, which is market day. On most weekends in the high season, hotel and restaurant reservations are a must.

A Bitter Pill for Bordeaux
Robert Whitley
Apr 8, 2014

BORDEAUX, France - Making wine in Bordeaux has always been a dicey proposition. Situated close to the Atlantic coast in the southwest corner of France, Bordeaux is too cool in most years to fully ripen cabernet sauvignon, the dominant grape variety planted on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. On the right bank, with its cool clay soils, cabernet sauvignon is a hopeless case; there, merlot and cabernet franc, earlier ripening varieties, hold sway.

The Mystery of Chablis
Robert Whitley
Mar 18, 2014

CHABLIS, France - The mystery of Chablis is hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that this famous wine from the Burgundy region tastes like no other white wine in the world, including its kissing cousins from the nearby Cote de Beaune. The village of Chablis, from whence the wine takes its name, is the northernmost wine-growing region in Burgundy. The only French wine-growing regions to the north of Chablis are Champagne and Alsace. This is an important aspect of the taste profile found in Chablis, though hardly the only factor, and perhaps not the most important.

The Wonder of Wine Competitions
Robert Whitley
Feb 18, 2014

I made a point on my next trip to France to schedule visits with producers in the region, which sits on a spit of land that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Montpelier in the broader region of Languedoc-Roussillon. I learned that the primary grape of La Clape was Syrah, that producers were firmly committed to quality, and that the wines were consistently brilliant over many vintages. That was many years ago, and since my first visit it has been gratifying to watch La Clape rise to Grand Cru status and finally earn the recognition it so richly deserved. But for me, the discovery of these great wines and my enduring appreciation began many, many years ago - at a wine competition.

The Old Guard
Robert Whitley
Jan 21, 2014

It was 1978 or thereabouts, and I was sampling an array of wines with two friends at Froggy's, a downtown restaurant just a couple of blocks from my offices at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This was a regular gathering of three wine enthusiasts on a mission of enlightenment. In those days we drank mostly French; the usual suspects from Bordeaux and Burgundy, with an occasional foray into Italian wine. California wine wasn't even on the radar. In the eastern United States, at least, California meant Gallo or Almaden from a jug. Robert Mondavi was making some noise at the time, but there was rampant skepticism that California wine would ever rival the better wines from the Old World. I doubt I could have found the Napa Valley on a map.

A Passion for California Bubbly
Robert Whitley
Dec 27, 2013

CALISTOGA, California - To walk the grounds of the heavily forested Schramsberg winery is to step back in time. While most of this historic facility is state-of-the-art, much of it is as it was when German immigrant Jacob Schram pioneered winemaking on Diamond Mountain more than 150 years ago. The location, at the northern tip of the Napa Valley, was so warm that Schram was left little choice but to dig caves to protect his young wines from the heat as the wines aged. The caves, the first in the Napa Valley, were completed in 1870.

The Winter Wine
Robert Whitley
Oct 29, 2013

It was a chilly autumn night as I sat in front of a crackling fire sipping a glass of Champagne while savoring the comforting aromas of braised veal shanks, aka osso buco, wafting from the kitchen. My reverie was abruptly interrupted when the call came from the dining room to fetch a 'winter' wine for dinner.

Consider the Source
Robert Whitley
Sep 3, 2013

In wine, location does matter. The French have a word, terroir, that succinctly expresses the theory that grapes farmed for wine are what they are, for better or worse, because of the soil, climate, elevation and exposure to the sun at the vineyard site. Thus, grapes from a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy will produce a better wine than grapes from a premier cru vineyard planted lower on the same hillside, all else (the winemaker's hand) being equal.

Medals with Meaning
Robert Whitley
Jul 9, 2013

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.

The New Frascati
Robert Whitley
Jun 11, 2013

Wine enthusiasts of a certain age will remember the Chianti bottle encased in a fiasco, otherwise known as a straw flask. It was as ubiquitous as the red-checked tablecloth in Italian restaurants of the 1960s. A typical wine list in a neighborhood Italian restaurant of that era would feature several Chianti in fiasco, a token Bardolino, a token Valpolicella, a token soave and a token pinot grigio. Better Italian restaurants would class up their wine lists with a Frascati, the delicious white wine produced from various clones of malvasia, trebbiano and greco grown in the hilly vineyards outside of Rome. Frascati in its heyday was the most popular of the Italian white wines sold in the United States.