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Platinum Award Winning Wines: The 20th Annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition
By Michael Franz
Jun 28, 2023
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Over this past weekend, judges gathered in San Diego for the 20th judging of the Critics Challenge, which was established by Robert Whitley in a series of initiatives that included the 2005 launch of Wine Review Online.  Both ventures are still running strong, as the reviews of top award winners from the Challenge here will indicate, and as will become evident from a redesign of WRO that will debut soon.  The wines reviewed here were the cream of a crop of nearly 1,000 entries, all of which were tasted blind before being deemed Platinum Award winners.

After receiving this highest-level award, all the wines were then re-tasted, reviewed and scored either by Rich Cook, Competition Director, or Michael Franz, Chief Wine Judge.  In every review that appears below, the taster and writer is identified — in keeping with WRO’s longstanding practice of attributing every word of every review to a particular taster, so that you can determine whether your palate accords (or not) with our reviewers.

As an aside, the full name of the current competition is “Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition.”  The spirits judging was conducted shortly after the wine competition, and results will appear on Spirits Review Online.

Reviews appear below within categories, progressing from whites to sparklers to reds and then rosé wine.  Within the categories, the highest scoring wines appear higher up, and alphabetical order prevails for wines with the same score:


Lightpost Winery (San Luis Obispo County, Central Coast, California) Spanish Springs Vineyard Chardonnay Reserve 2021 ($39):  This is a Chardonnay crafted near California’s current stylistic midpoint, yet that is not the same as regarding it as “average.”  It is much, much better than average, showing real richness and depth of flavor, but without any extraneous ripeness nor more overt wood than is needed to lend complexity.  And complex it is, with appealing notes of baking spices, light toast, and roasted nuts.  The fruit notes recall baked apples and peaches, with such balanced and integrated acidity that the acid component comes off more as a dimension of the fruit itself than as a distinct element.  In a word, brilliant.  95  Michael Franz

Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards (Umpqua Valley, Oregon) Grüner Veltliner Estate Selection “Hefeabzug” 2021 ($34):  This is so good—so consistently—and so true to the variety’s character in its Austrian homeland that the conclusion seems inescapable that Reustle Prayer Rock’s Grüner has become one of the top white wines from anywhere in the United States.  Always satisfyingly aromatic and flavorful without ever seeming too perfumed or weighty, it draws its immense and lasting appeal from a natural-ness in which its elements all seem to have been attained effortlessly.  That’s an achievement of importance in its own right, but when a wine comes off as natural and effortless but is still highly complex, that’s another level of success.  Medium-bodied, with wonderful symmetry of open fruit flavors and energetic acidity, it finishes with the famous peppery accents that are this variety’s calling card.  Complete, convincing wine.  94  Michael Franz

Walnut Creek (American) Riesling 2022 ($15):  This comes from a new-to-me producer that hails from Holt, Missouri, and it serves to continue to solidify my view of the Midwest making a serious move toward quality.  This Riesling may or may not be locally sourced, but it’s true to type all the way, delivering citrus, white flowers, bracing acidity and dry style.  For Riesling lovers, which I proudly count myself among, this is a find from another corner of the planet that’s worth seeking out.  94  Rich Cook

JL Wood (Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, California) Chardonnay “Premier” 2021 ($32):  This relatively new producer makes several different Chardonnay bottlings, and this “premier” offering hits all my markers – crisp, creamy, apple, pear, lemon, minimal oak use, and I would guess only partial malolactic fermentation.  I could be wrong on that last point as the vintage has fooled me a few times with its riveting acidity.  Right or wrong on that point, I’m confident that I’m correct that the wine is delicious.  Well done!  94  Rich Cook

Rabble (Central Coast, California) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($18):  Crisp, refreshing, tart grapefruit, lemongrass, stony minerality, lime zest…it’s all here in this sure to please summer quencher.  It’s the sort of Sauvignon Blanc that fans of different ends of the varietal style spectrum will be able to appreciate, and that’s not easy to come by.  It’s a great bottle to bring to a summer barbeque or friendly bocce match as a gift thanks to great packaging coupled with great stuff inside.  93  Rich Cook

Minnterra (American) White Wine Blend NV ($24):  Beauty can be found in unexpected places.  Whether it’s a midwestern lake sunset, as depicted on this bottle’s label, or the contents, a 50/50 blend of Brianna and Traminette, you know it when you see it.  Or taste it in this particular case.  Made in an off-dry style, it gets at the best of what both varieties have to offer, with zesty acidity carrying citrus, peach and stony minerality through a long finish.  It’s low in alcohol, and it’s delicious.  92  Rich Cook

Trump Winery (Monticello, Virginia) Viognier 2021 ($30):  Virginia is surely among the world’s leading locations for growing Viognier—if not indeed the single best source.  This is a fine example, with excellent aromatic expressiveness but none of the heaviness or alcoholic heat that results from the high levels of ripeness needed to bring forth the grape’s floral aromas (a problem that’s quite chronic in California, for example).  Classic notes of honeysuckle and flavors of ripe peaches are both evident and nicely tuned in this rendition, which was both grown and made very skillfully.  92  Michael Franz

Jacob’s Creek (Australia) Pinot Grigio “Classic” 2022 ($12):  I taste well over 100 Italian releases of Pinot Grigio each year (for a consulting project each year) that are perched on the “everyday pricing” tier, and though this wine’s place of origin is simply “Australia,” it surpasses roughly 85% of its Italian counterparts.  Medium-bodied on the lighter end of that category, with vivid flavors of orchard fruits with citrus edging and excellent balance between acidity and a fruity impression of sweetness, this gets the balance just right.  It doesn’t show the mineral tinges of the few examples from Italy that are arguably superior, but its proportionality will make it enduringly pleasurable to drink.  92  Michael Franz

The Seeker (California) Chardonnay 2022 ($14):  It’s not all that often that I encounter an inexpensive Chardonnay that gets the balance between oak, fruit and acidity “right.”  I realize that in wine world “right” is a subjective term, but it seems to fit well here.  Nothing is screaming for attention – it’s just a tasty sipper that keeps me coming back.  That’s what this price point should deliver more of, which makes this a leader to follow.  92  Rich Cook

Kenwood Vineyards (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay “Six Ridges” 2020 ($17):  This is quite dramatic Chardonnay in relation to its asking price of $17, with lots of fruit flavor and a bold lashing of oak.  These two components work well in relation to one another, with enough acidity to keep the dramatics in check to some degree, so this is successful by any reasonable measure, and extremely successful in terms of value.  91  Michel Franz

The Simple Grape (California) Pinot Grigio 2021 ($15):  It is hard not to look askance at a Pinot Grigio from the 2021 vintage in the Northern Hemisphere with the issue of current freshness in mind, but this is holding up very well.  The fruit shows fine purity and balance, and though the overall impression is—as suggested by the wine’s brand—“simple,” it is also very tasty in its simplicity.  90  Michael Franz

The Simple Grape (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($15):  If you prefer your Chardonnay on the lighter side but still carrying a fair amount of oak influence and at a budget price to boot, this might be the ticket for you.  Lively acidity manages that oak load well, and the finish is bright and inviting with nice oak spice and apple interplay.  In other words, simple is sometimes good.  90  Rich Cook


Castelnau (Champagne, France) Champagne Brut “Le Chemin du Roi” NV ($160):  While this bottling has shown some inconsistencies in the past, when it’s been “on” it’s been so in a big way, as it is with this particular bottle.  Brioche, pear and tart citrus ride a fine mousse through a long finish with cleansing acidity that stops just short of scouring.  It’s a beautiful apertif style with some gravitas, and the swinging package will be a big hit in some circles.  95  Rich Cook

Champagne Castelnau (Champagne, France) “Le Chemin du Roi” Brut Rosé NV ($299):  Although this is eye-popping in both packaging and price, it is a strong performer that arguably follows through in terms of performance.  Blended from 54% Pinot Meunier, 40% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, with a portion of the Pinot added as still red wine to take it to the desired level of pigmentation (a common practice in Champagne), it is quite flavorful but with the class and restraint that one would expect from a premium offering from the region.  Yeasty for a Rosé Champagne relative to the more fruit-driven norm, this is still very successful, and more distinctive than many higher-end specimens of the breed for this reason.  93  Michael Franz


Palazzo (Napa Valley, California) “Master Blend Series Left Bank Red Cuvée” 2019 ($50):  A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc, this is a serious and seriously delicious wine that isn’t overdone in any respect—a combination that is lamentably rare.  Among its virtues is that it doesn’t taste like Napa Cabernet with some tidbits of other varieties thrown in, but rather a true blend made with a view to achieving a result that is both softer and more complex.  That doesn’t make this “better” than varietal Cabernet from Napa, and yet it would surely be better in certain applications, such as pairing with prime rib as opposed to a grilled steak.  The texture is very soft but certainly not formless, and the flavors are deep and satisfying—just not overly assertive.  Very smart styling, resulting in superb wine.  I wish the bottle wasn’t so imposingly hefty, which really isn’t in keeping with the stylishness of the wine, but that’s a personal opinion and not a judging parameter.  96  Michael Franz

Louis M. Martini (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($42):  A very successful Napa Cab in all respects at a price that isn’t painful in the context of the category, this is firmly rooted in robust but pure fruit without any impression of excessive cellar treatment.  Stated differently, this is honest, gutsy Cabernet that relies on dark-toned fruit at its core, with a few spicy and toasty accents that are…accents, and no more assertive than that word suggests.  Blackberry, black cherry, and cassis are the fruit notes that first come to mind by analogy, and though those could seem a bit imposing, this isn’t rough or astringent, though most tasters will consider it a wine for the table rather than for stand-alone sipping.  I wish many more wines from Napa were made in this style.  This is the best vintage of this wine I’ve ever tasted.  95  Michael Franz

Merriam Vineyards (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Merlot Estate, Windacre Vineyard 2018 ($54):  I believe this wine has already collected several accolades, and I’m happy to add my own to the list.  Elegant and powerful at once, this manages to get at all the best aspects of Merlot, with rich fruit, well folded dried herbs, pepper and spice, with moderate barrel influence supporting it all.  Supple structure carries it all through a long finish with great push.  It’s very approachable at present and will reward further bottle aging – I love it now for exuberance on entering maturity.  95  Rich Cook

Palazzo (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Franc Reserve 2019 ($119):  If you are in the market for a big, serious red from Napa that will give you a bit of a shift in flavor profile from Cabernet Sauvignon, this is the ticket.  By contrast, if you’re looking for a Cabernet Franc that’s a slightly amped-up California take on Chinon from France’s Loire Valley, this will likely be more than you bargained for, as the step up in wattage and weight is very considerable indeed.  Quite deeply pigmented, with fully ripe aromas that show just a whiff of Franc leafiness, this hits the palate with formidable density and depth of flavor.  There’s enough wood to hang in with the concentrated fruit, but not so much that it over-rides the black-toned fruit flavors, which predominate through the plush finish without yielding to the tannins, which are well measured.  It is fair to ask whether this sufficiently “varietally correct” to earn such a high score, but I put no stock in that as a scoring criterion, as it makes no sense to hold all the world’s Cab Francs to a standard set in any one place.  In sum, this is a delicious, age-worthy, highly impressive powerhouse – judged here on its own merits.  95  Michael Franz

Concannon Vineyard (Livermore Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018 ($42):  This is the finest Cabernet Sauvignon I can ever remember tasting from Concannon.  It shows very appealing savory notes accenting a core of fruit that still packs plenty of primary punch, with mostly dark-toned fruit but with a whiff of red berries in the mix as well.  There’s a whiff of oak lending spice and toast, but the now-maturing fruit is the star here, and one that shines brightly, thanks to virtually perfect acid balance and tannins that offer a gentle tug in the finish to provide focus but no notable astringency.  Seriously impressive.  94  Michael Franz

Eberle (Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, California) Barbera 2021 ($40):  There’s not a lot of Barbera coming out of California’s central coast region, but Gary Eberle has been dedicated to making great Barbera for many years now.  This is another stellar example, showing a bold side expression while maintaining the singing acidity that makes the variety such a treat.  The sourcing can vary a bit year to year, but the quality is always top tier.  94  Rich Cook

Eberle (Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Eberle Estate Vineyard 2020 ($52):  As a long-time fan of Eberle Cabernet, I can tell you that I’ve been very impressed with how the wines age – I’ve had the good fortune to taste previous vintages at as much as fifteen years into their development, and I’ve never been disappointed.  This 2020 offering certainly will be in the same category down the road if you can keep your hands off of it.  That said, there’s no reason to wait if you lean toward vibrant acidity, lively fruit and peppery spice delivered with youthful vigor.  It’s a dilemma of first world problem proportions…you’re safe either way.  94  Rich Cook

Eberle (Paso Robles, Central Coast, California) Zinfandel 2021 ($35):  I was once a serious Zin lover before my interests shifted in other directions, but this wine has definitely re-kindled my affection.  Its wonderfully pure, red berry fruit aromas and flavors show a very impressive level of precision in ripeness.  Of course, that means by extension that the timing of harvesting was also very precise, which would be impressive even if all the fruit had been sourced from just one little plot.  However, the front label indicates that fruit from four different vineyards was sourced for this wine, and that points to great skill as well as an excellent growing season in 2021 for California’s Central Coast, corroborating some early reports that reached me.  The wine recalls—above all—the best red raspberries you’ve ever eaten, and the flavors are so vivid and natural that one almost needs to seek out the vinosity of the drink to remember that it is a wine.  Given that the typical knock against Zinfandel is that it is overly obvious in alcoholic punch, the purity and poise of this wine is its key virtue.  It will become more complex with time, but whether it will increase in sheer beauty is not quite clear, so try a bottle early on—while you can still buy more.  94  Michael Franz

Heirloom Vineyards (Adelaide Hills, South Australia) Syrah 2021 ($40):  Yes, this bottle does say “Syrah” on the label instead of “Shiraz” as usual in Australia, and it’s appropriate here for stylistic reasons.  The regional tell here is notable from the relatively cool Adelaide Hills, with a focus is on the savory side of the grape variety, with black and blue berry fruit and a little tar and pepper joining in.  Beautifully executed wine.  94  Rich Cook

Raymond (Napa Valley, California) Merlot “Reserve Selection” 2020 ($24):  Not everything burned down in Napa Valley in 2020 as some reports might have you believe, as this delicious Merlot testifies.  It opens with depth of fruit over generous oak influence, and that oak load is well chosen, soaking up a bit of the structure and making the wine a pleasure to drink now.  Add in a very attractive label that will get your guest talking, and factor in fairly wide availability and reasonable pricing and you’ve got a solid go-to bottle.  Bravo!  94  Rich Cook

Raffaldini (Swan Creek, North Carolina) Sagrantino 2021 ($40):  This grape is perhaps the big red monster of the wine world – It can make Petite Sirah seem delicate and demure by comparison in some cases.  Here, winemaker Chris Nelson opts for a more approachable style that shows the red fruit side of the variety to great effect.  There’s still plenty of tannic structure—a hallmark for Sagrantino—but a well marbled ribeye will make this shine near term, or age it several years and you’ll have a lovely Italian grandmother on your hands.  Lovely!  94  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (San Joaquin County, California) Petit Verdot Reserve 2020 ($48):  Jeff Runquist seems to say, “why think of Petit Verdot as a blending hole filler?” with this tasty offering.  It’s got his signature oak spice profile, and as usual it’s a perfect fit for the ripeness level of the fruit, and it’s a different sort of horse in his stable of excellent wines.  It’s a bold statement on the fact that trying everything is always the best play.  94  Rich Cook

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Sangiovese Pioneer Hill Vineyard 2021 ($29):  Here’s a lesson in a bottle about reading too much into the alcohol content on the label.  This bottle weighs in at 14.9%, but in a blind tasting you’d never guess that the number was that high.  Why?  Balance.  I’d say it’s as simple as that, but it’s anything but simple to achieve a wine that’s got some weight, but it remains light on its feet thanks to racy acidity and moderate oak influence.  Kudos to Jeff’s team – this is remarkable.  94  Rich Cook

Tuzko Birtok (Pannon (Hungary) Kékfrankos 2020 ($20):  I was reminded again that this grape takes several different names depending on the finished wine’s place of origin.  Usually known (to me at least) as Lemberger or Blaufränkisch, the grape called Kékfrankos in this instance delivers medium body, rich black, blue and red fruit, complementary pepper and supple grip that extend the fully integrated finish.  These wines, by whatever rendering, are often some of the “best buy” category leaders, and that’s certainly true here.  Egészségére!  94  Rich Cook

Eberle (Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($28):  Eberle added this “entry level” Cabernet to their lineup a few years back, but you can bet it bats well above its price tag.  It’s a brightside expression, and the acidity level allows for a nice oak influence without sacrificing fruit character.  Winemaker Chris Eberle told me that he really enjoyed working with the ’21 vintage, and it shows here beautifully.  93  Rich Cook

Robert Green (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($219):  Seeing a Cabernet that’s still available from the producer when nearing 13 years of age is quite surprising, but then, many wine lovers in apartments with minimal space or houses without basements for cellaring could appreciate an opportunity to acquire a mature Cab for a special occasion.  Thankfully, this is indeed mature but definitely not “played out,” as it continues to show primary fruit notes along with savory scents and flavors as well as very soft feel, as the tannins have rounded with age and any overt wood notes have now been fully absorbed.  In “winespeak,” that makes this an extremely unusual current release that shows primary and tertiary notes, but almost no “secondary” ones from the winemaking process, as all of those seem to have timed out.  No mere curiosity, this is a very fine wine.  93  Michael Franz

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Zinfandel Cooper Vineyard 2021 ($30):  From a site renowned for bold, fruity character comes yet another full throttle Zinfandel.  Jeff Runquist has been working with Cooper from many years and knows just how to get the most out of it.  Brambly fruit is joined by clove spice and zippy acidity keeps them close knit through a long, integrated finish.  As always with Runquist, balance is the order of the day.  93  Rich Cook

Concannon (Livermore Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve “Mother Vine” 2020 ($46):  A historic label with a historic run of Cabernet Sauvignon (I once tasted the 1963 vintage at age 40 or so, and it was holding its own) brings another solid offering to market here.  Dry style holds court here in an elegantly rustic way, with lots of brown spice serving as a foil for the dark berry fruit.  It’s very drinkable now, and will cellar well for the next ten years or so.  92  Rich Cook

Herzog (North Coast, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($20):  This offers an acid-driven style that I really appreciate in Cabernet – there’s real food friendliness here, with no rough edges, layered spice and fruit, unobtrusive oak and staying power in the finish.  A sturdy mineral core carries those layers well, and a slightly fatty slab of beef will show it off nicely.  92  Rich Cook

Kenwood Vineyards (Russian River Valley) Sonoma County, California Pinot Noir “Six Ridges” 2019 ($22):  A striking over-achiever on price, this shows supple texture but excellent flavor impact, which is not easy to achieve at any price with Pinot Noir, and is very rarely achieved in this price range.  The fruit recalls bark berries and Bing cherries more than the strawberry and pie cherry notes that are typically found in comparably priced Pinots, and though a bit of oak influence is still in evidence, it lends spice notes and just a touch of grip without seeming astringent.  Clearly suited to enjoyment at the table thanks to its intensity of flavor, it could nevertheless be enjoyed for sipping on its own.  92  Michael Franz

Lone Cardinal (California) Zinfandel 2021 ($16):  This wine will benefit hugely from some time in the decanter, as a little reductive note needs some time to blow off.  When it does, you get solid Zinfandel character in a dry style that’s more refined than bombastic, making it suitable for the main course of red meat, whether steak or burgers.  It will be nice to have around, and the price won’t break the bank.  92  Rich Cook

Louis M. Martini (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($23):  The Sonoma County Cab under this label is softer and more open than the Napa Valley Cabernet, which is in keeping with the general stylistic norms for the two growing regions.  This Sonoma release isn’t as “impressive,” but it is priced lower and will likely prove even more versatile due to its somewhat lighter weight and more gentle flavor impact.  Still true to the variety in profile, it adds some red-toned fruit to the mix, with lovely freshness even though it has spent some time under cork.  Reach for this when grilling a pork chop, whereas its Napa stablemate would prove preferable when steak is on the menu.  92  Michael Franz

McKenzie-Mueller Vineyards (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($58):  This offers a rather wild ride, with imposingly dark color, billowing aromas, formidable concentration, and very strong flavor impact.  With more than just a touch of earthy “brett” character showing, those tasting without seeing the place of origin could easily be excused for thinking this was Bordeaux from Saint-Estéphe rather than Napa.  Whether the earthy undertones will be found appealing or not is an entirely subjective matter, but I tasted this along with three others who found it very impressive.  Robust in every respect but not harsh in feel, with emphatically black-toned fruit, it should be paired with something up to the challenge it will pose at the table, such as braised lamb shanks.  92  Michael Franz

McManis (Lodi, San Joaquin County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Estate  Grown” 2021 ($12):  Don’t forget – sometimes there is real value to be found below eye level at your favorite retailer.  Due to its low sticker price, you may find this wine on one of the two bottom shelves lurking with mass production juice, but it’s got plenty more to offer than its neighbors might.  Cheery varietal character is here, adorned with a little toast and a little vanillin character and fall spice notes.  It’s ready to go, and you’ll likely find it for less than a Hamilton.  92  Rich Cook

Miramonte Winery (Temecula Valley, Riverside County, California) Garnacha 2019 ($40):  As lovers of Spanish wine will recognize, this Garnacha is an echo from Iberia much more than a take on Southern Rhône Grenache—much less the formidable old vine Grenache renditions from Australia.  Stylistically, considered from a Spanish point of reference, it hovers between the light-and-bright Garnacha we know from Rioja Baja and the thicker versions from multiple appellations in Aragón.  That’s a very useful profile, as the wine can span usages from simple sipping to pairing with grilled fish or chicken but still hang in with a pork chop.  The aromas and flavors recall the red cherries that mark most successful takes on this grape, and though the wine may seem a little light in relation to its $40 price tag, that could also be said of many Pinots—but unfairly in both cases, as delicacy can be a virtue even in fine renditions of both varieties.  92  Michael Franz

Miramonte Winery (Temecula Valley, Riverside County, California) Tempranillo 2019 ($47):  Like Miramonte’s Garnacha from the 2019 vintage, this Tempranillo really rings true to its Spanish counterparts.  In both cases, the only cause for concern is that they ring up strikingly loudly at the cash register, again in relation to their Spanish counterparts.  But with that caveat in hand, this is undoubtedly a successful wine, with medium body, very modest oak influence, nice freshness and purity to the red berry fruit, and fine symmetry as the flavor components tail off through the finish.  92  Michael Franz

Oak Farm (Lodi, California) Cabernet Franc Estate Grown 2020 ($40):  A medium-bodied beauty that displays the relative restraint of Cabernet with a last name of “Franc” rather than “Sauvignon,” this is still a flavorful and deeply satisfying wine that shows the richness and generosity one expects from California.  The bouquet offers a rather showy topnote of vanillin oak, but not so much that one can’t also pick up a whiff of Cab Franc’s leafy aromatic signature.  The oak is a bit less assertive on the palate and through the finish, but this will still be even better with a few years of additional aging to enable further integration.  But make no mistake—it is already delicious and a solid value at this price.  92  Michael Franz

Rodney Strong (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($20):  Ever the value leader, Rodney Strong strikes again with this Sonoma County Cabernet – one that’s widely available at discount.  The 2020 vintage shows here, with a little dash of smoke that enhances deep blackberry fruit and forward oak toast.  The finish shows real grip, and serves to release the fruit character into full expression.  I’d drink this near term, and at this price you can feel comfortable doing so in quantity.  92  Rich Cook

Dark Horse (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($8):  The front label of this bottle seeks to give the prospective buyer a clue as to what they might expect with these words: “Bold – Complex – Oak.”  It does a reasonably good job in this case, with bold dark fruit and a complex mix of herb and spice knit together by toasted oak, all present aromatically and as palate flavors.  For 8 bucks?  C’mon!  91  Rich Cook

DeLoach Vineyards (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2019 ($25):  Thanks to a few years under cork, this Pinot shows some savory notes developing even as the fruit remains quite fresh and expressive.  Classic flavors of red and black cherries lead the way, followed by strawberry and cranberry tinges, with nicely rounded feel thanks to quite fine-grained tannins and fully resolved oak.  Very well done, and a strong value to boot.  91  Michael Franz

Estancia (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($13):  Solid varietal character, bold structure and layered aromas and flavors for thirteen bucks?  And usually obtainable at a discount?  I would say that is a lot to ask for, and Estancia manages to make it happen here.  2021 was a low-yielding but very even-ripening vintage that maintained popping acidity with full ripeness.  I haven’t run into much from the vintage that I wouldn’t recommend, and the value represented here is worth hunting down.  91  Rich Cook

Jacob’s Creek (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Classic” 2021 ($12):  I’m not sure I’ve tasted a wine bearing an appellation that embraces an entire continent, but I’m entirely sure I’ve never tasted a better wine under such a designation.  This is real Cabernet with real textural guts and flavor, plus excellent faithfulness to the flavor profile of the variety, all at a remarkably low price.  Dark berry fruit is punchy but pure, with just a touch of oak shading, yet it wouldn’t need a stronger wood signature to prove convincing.  Wines like this are among the best reasons for having wines judged blind by seasoned tasters in a wine competition:  Over-achievers that would otherwise fly under the radar (including my radar, I confess) have a fair chance to show their strength.  91  Michael Franz

Jolo Vineyards (North Carolina) Red Blend “Jolotage” 2022 ($39):  A particularly interesting blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17.5% Chambourcin, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10.5% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot, this is quite juicy and bright, as one might expect based on its youthfulness.  What you might not expect is that the relatively small portion of Chambourcin (a high-quality hybrid) seems to over-ride the Cabernet Sauvignon in particular while riding abreast of the Bordeaux varieties in general.  This is expressed by means of a very pleasant cranberry-like fruit note that wouldn’t show up in a “Meritage” as opposed to this “Jolotage.”  This would make a fun sipping wine, and would show very nicely during summer with a light chilling, but would also be great with lighter spicy fare, and could really sing in harmony with a pepperoni pizza.  91  Michael Franz

Line 39 Wines (California) Pinot Noir 2020 ($11):  This rendition of Pinot is relatively simple, but by dint of that very characteristic, it steers clear of the pitfalls that undermine many of its California counterparts:  Too rich, too sweet, too oaky, too thick…and so forth.  What this does in fact provide is purity and clarity of flavor, with delicate tannins that can suit this to stand-alone sipping or pairing with moderately assertive dishes such as poultry or pork tenderloin.  91  Michael Franz

St. James Winery (Ozark Highlands AVA, Missouri) Red Blend “Project 1970” NV ($19):  A blend of 76.1% Norton, 9% Chambourcin, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Dornfelder and 4% Zweigelt, this offers a very fun walk on the wild side.  Any blend incorporating a significant portion of Norton will already have walked you out into the wilds, but the other varieties in this blend have had some civilizing influence without overly domesticating the wine.  It could also be that incorporation of some aged Norton has also reined this in, given that this is a non-vintage-dated release.  However, that’s guesswork on my part, whereas I’m on more solid ground when conveying my direct experience of the wine:  It is darkly pigmented but not dense or heavy; bright and youthful despite the “NV” designation, and notably nuanced rather than monolithic in character, as Norton-based blends can be.  All in all, this offers an admirable ratio of fun to cost when ringing up at $19.  90  Michael Franz


Dark Horse (California) Rosé 2022 ($10):  It might surprise some readers to see a score of 92 on a review of a widely available $10 rosé from a brand that can be found in supermarkets, but you’ll understand the score you try this wine.  As for its underlying possibility, it clearly results from well grown fruit that was picked (almost certainly by machine) at the right time and then handled with a light touch in a high-tech cellar, yielding pure flavors of red cherries and fresh strawberries with excellent freshness.  The balance between fruit-based sweetness and energetic acidity is just right, enabling this to seem juicy and generous through the finish while never turning overtly sweet.  Not every delicious wine is made by some guy wearing a beret and working by hand, however romantic that nostalgic thought may be.  92  Michael Franz

For complete results of the 2023 Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition judging, including Best of Show and other special awards, visit CriticsChallenge.com  

More wine reviews:   WineReviewOnline.com