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Taster's Choice: Sommelier Challenge Platinum Award Winners
By Rich Cook
Sep 28, 2022
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The Challenge Series of wine competitions was conceived over time by Wine Review Online publisher Robert Whitley as a way to offer different perspectives on wines in blind tasting formats.  The Critics Challenge came first, where critics from around the country got a chance to weigh in on wines from around the world with the thought that a particular writer’s “beat” would broaden the perspective on a given wine by putting differently tuned palates together.  This would ensure that regional characteristics were accounted for and allowed wines that might be outside of one judge’s experience would still get their due reward. This was followed by the Sommelier Challenge a few years later – another blind judging event where credentialed sommeliers from around the country would similarly weigh in and teach each other while celebrating excellence from wherever it might have come.

This 15th Annual Sommelier Challenge judges propose the wines listed below as being worthy of a Platinum Award, the series’ highest honor.  Below the each wine are my personal tasting notes on what they pushed forward.  The scores assigned are mine, and I hope that your reading inspires you in the way that a sommelier might inspire your choice of wine at your favorite restaurant.

The wines are listed in alphabetical order by producer – Bere felice!
7 Deadly Zins, Lodi (California) Zinfandel 2018 ($16):  Campy branding aside, this is a solid example of one side of the versatility of Lodi old vines.  Its mix of brambly fruit and toasty oak spice makes for – and I never use this word – a “smooth” wine with the edges rounded, but without smothering the Zin-y character that fans adore.  That’s the reason it’s such a big seller.  91

Barefoot (California) Malbec NV ($7):  More than maybe any other domestic line, Barefoot manages to produce varietally correct wines at budget prices.  This is no generic red – solid Malbec markers abound, like blackberry, black cherry and soft pepper, and supple structure knits them together through a long, mouth-watering finish.  What’s not to like?  92

Barefoot (California) Pinot Noir NV ($7):  Seven-dollar Pinot Noir is virtually non-existent, unless you factor in this large production, widely available wine. You should not only factor it in, but you should pick some up and taste it alongside some of your favorite examples.  It shows racy acidity and easy wood spice that props up cherry and strawberry fruit, and it’ll show best with food thanks to a grippy finish that keeps the flavor coming.  Try it with a burger or a marbled ribeye steak – and spend more on the meat since you saved some bucks on the bottle.  91

Baron Herzog (California) Rosé 2021 ($10):  Sometimes a wine that doesn’t smack you in the face with overt aroma and flavor is just what the doctor ordered.  Everything is toned down here, but it’s done so successfully, with strawberry, dried cranberry and faint dried herbs on the nose and in the mouth, delivered in refreshing fashion at 12% alcohol.  It’s kosher to boot!  91

Belle Fiore, Rogue Valley (Oregon) Red Wine Blend “Souspire” 2019 ($35):  Blending experiments are a favorite practice among intrepid winemakers, particularly at small producers that allow the freedom to come up with something delicious.  This is a winner in said category, blending Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Teroldego into a tasty red wine that shows moderate grip, bold fruit, and a little leathery note that offsets the fruit nicely. From an under-heralded region.  I’ll be making it my business to change that.  94

Branches Estate (California) Pinot Noir 2018 ($25):  This glass kicks things off with kirsch aromas joined by notes of crushed rock and dried herbs.  The palate presents drier than the nose might lead you to expect, allowing the secondary characteristics to balance the cherry notes and give the wine a depth not often found in this price range.  I suspect this wine sat around in a closed state, and release was wisely held until now.  Tasty stuff!  92

Canapino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2017 ($21):  Prugnolo Gentile (a.k.a. Sangiovese Grosso) makes up the bulk of this delightful Nobile, with 10% Caniaolo in the mix.  The result is a completely convincing Nobile, with dry cherry, sage, mixed dried herbs and textbook regional earthiness.  There’s a richness to the midpalate that runs through the finish, where the elements mingle together with length and elegance.  Beautiful!  95

Castelnau, Champagne AOC (France) Brut Rosé “Le Chemin du Roi” NV ($325):  This bottling has seen a little price drop over the past few years, but it’s still delivering toasty Rosé quality.  A lively mousse keeps the strawberry, lemon and toast flavors coming, and there’s a crispness to the finish that functions as a magnet, bring the glass back to your lips again and again.  It’s made for bottle service, and I can hear the corks a poppin’ at the club.  94

Chateau St. Croix (American) Chardonnay 2020 ($21):  Sometimes Chardonnay – or any varietally labeled wine for that matter – is more than it appears to be.  This offering contains a healthy dollop of Frontenac Blanc, and it works in harmony with the Chardonnay to the point that you would never guess that a little extra twist is involved. Sweet oak comes forward in the finish and seals the deal.  Score one for Wisconsin!  93

City Winery (American) Pinot Noir Reserve “Griffin’s Lair” 2020 ($45):  City Winery is in the Hudson Valley in New York State, but they source fruit from around the country, making the “American” designation necessary.  This wine comes from a serious Pinot Noir AVA – Sonoma County’s Petaluma Gap, and it shows that windblown cool climate vibe with style.  Bold cherry fruit is joined by rich fall spice and zesty acidity carries it all through a bright finish that keeps me coming back.  Well done!  94

Coventina, Rogue Valley (Oregon) Tempranillo 2016 ($35):  An interesting place, Rogue Valley… there are a lot of Rhône varieties finding success, both red and white, and Tempranillo has also found a fine home there, which certainly makes another good argument for the magic of microclimates.  This Tempranillo show big structure, richness of black and red berry fruit, deep oak spice and a finish that reaches into the distance. It’s delicious now and will continue to gain complexity with further bottle aging.  95

Cupcake (California) Rosé 2021 ($11):  I wonder if some writer in France is tasting this wine and writing something like “one sip of this and you’ll be instantly transported to the California Riviera, where the sun shines bright and the Rosé is flowing….”  Maybe not, but this wine could inspire such a take.  You’ll need no one to tell you to get the Rosé flowing once you taste the fresh strawberry, citrus and cherry mix with a touch of bay leaf and find your thirst quenched.  94

Cycles Gladiator (California) Merlot 2020 ($13):  It’s always good to be able to celebrate a wine that delivers solid varietal character in layered fashion for a price that allows a multiple bottle purchase.  Winemaker Adam LaZarre has always had a way with Merlot, and here he gets at the juicy, fruit forward style without sacrificing notes of pepper and gentle wood spice.  Beautifully realized wine!  94
Dandelion Vineyards, Barossa (South Australia, Australia) Mataro “March Hare of the Barossa” 2020 ($60):  This Mataro (a.k.a. Mourvèdre) stands ready to take you on a trip to Wonderland if your idea of such a place is filled with aromas of rich black fruit and peppercorns with hints of tar and brown spice. A sturdy backbone of acidity keeps all the flavors pushing through an extended finish, where crushed rock minerality comes forward slightly.  There aren’t many wines that I recommend with barbecue, but this one will work!  94

Dandelion Vineyards, McLaren Vale (South Australia, Australia) Shiraz “Lioness of McLaren Vale” 2021 ($30):  Here’s a Shiraz that roars with brightness from start to finish.  Aromas of blackberry, blueberry and menthol are edgy in a way that attracts, and the palate holds your attention with tension between the fruit and savory pepper and meaty notes.  A zesty finish keeps the echo of the roar in place until you sip again.  Very food friendly!  94

Dutcher Crossing, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) Red Wine “Kupferschmid Red” 2017 ($42):  I like the fact that I’m seeing older wines that are current releases crossing my desk in this world of “let’s get it out there ASAP” marketplace.  This Rhône-style blend hits all the right buttons, with black and red berry fruit complemented by notes of tar, brown spice and a dash of orange zest that give everything lift and length.  This will work with roast chicken or prime steaks.  94

Eberle, Paso Robles (Central Coast, California) Viognier 2021 ($34):  There’s been a lot of buzz about the 2021 vintage in California – particularly on the Central Coast – about low yields and extreme high quality.  If this wine is any indication, run to make your purchases now.  This couldn’t be any purer aromatically, and the palate follows suit, delivering the promised peach, honey and spice over clarion acidity and finishing with a pleasantly soft bitter herb note.  Chris Eberle is getting pretty good at this.  95

Four Stones (Australia) Shiraz 2021 ($25):  It’s unusual for a Shiraz of this quality to carry only the entire country as the appellation, but don’t let that concern you here – instead focus on the bold textbook fruit profile, where the black fruit and signature menthol find balance and linger long.  Lamb lollipops are the order of the day here!  92

J. Lohr, Arroyo Seco (Monterey County, California) Late Harvest White Riesling 2021 ($25/375ml):  Here’s another 2021 wine from the Central Coast that just sings with acidity and rich flavors, this time on the dessert end of the spectrum.  The balance that that acidity provides is particularly appreciated in a “stickie” precisely because it takes the sticky factor out, leaving pure sweet Riesling elements like apricot and spiced peach.  A fine dessert all by itself!  94

J. Lohr, Paso Robles (Central Coast, California) Cuvée PAU 2018 ($50):  This Cabernet Sauvignon driven tribute to France’s Pauillac region winks across the Atlantic without losing is California soul.  Great depth of aroma and flavor abounds, with well folded bell pepper, spice box and earth notes accenting the black fruit.  A firm grip promises a long, elegant unraveling over time.  The Cuvée series always represents great value, and this vintage of PAU is more than worthy of a spot in your cellar.  95

Jacob’s Creek (Australia) Moscato “Dots” 2022 ($12):  The “Dots” moniker refers to the label artwork, and it’s clear that the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed as far as what’s inside the bottle. It’s exactly what it should be – floral, fruity and bright without being edgy, and finishing with a pleasing sweetness.  Pound cake or popcorn, this will elevate things.  93

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Brut Cuvée Methode Champenoise 2018 ($40):  I visited Oregon late last year and was very impressed by sparkling wines that I tasted. Add this one to the list for its classy, stylized mix of pear, apple and toasty notes that ride a creamy mousse through the midpalate and finish crisp and dry, leaving the toast out front and compelling you to pour more.  King me!  95

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir “Domaine” 2018 ($60):  I don’t often get the cherry cola vibe from Oregon Pinot Noir, but it’s here in a big way aromatically, and that’s a good thing.  The palate delivers the promise of the nose and adds cardamom to the mix.  Carefully chosen barrels add a moderate toasty character, and everything finishes together with good push and length.  Thanksgiving is on the way, and this will run the table.  94

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Rosé of Pinot Noir 2021 ($19):  This wine proves that trying to pick out the palest Rosé on the shelf isn’t necessarily going to lead you to the best of the bunch.  This is on the darker side for a Pinot Noir rose, and it’s so loaded with flavor you might wonder of some of those pale offerings aren’t just tinged water.  This leads with ripe strawberry and peach aromatics, delivering those elements in a bright but dry style that is sure to win you over to the dark side.  94

Laetitia (California) “Sweet Sparkling Rosé” NV ($25):  I’ve been a fan of Laetitia sparklers going back to the days when they took over from Maison Deutz in the Arroyo Grande Valley.  Things have changed a bit with new ownership, and I’ll admit to cringing a bit when I saw the label reading, “Sweet Sparkling Rosé.”  Fortunately, I’ve learned over time not to judge a bottle by its cover, and was pleasantly surprised to taste a bright, crisp, strawberry apple driven wine that has just a touch of sweetness, landing it in the Extra Dry (dry with a little extra) category in my mind. With the current craze for Prosecco Rosé, this is a wise move on the producer’s part, and it’s a significant step above.  92

McIlroy, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay 2021 ($28):  Chardonnay is the number one seller in white wine world, largely because there seems to be endless stylistic possibilities.  This is a style that suites me nicely with its bright apple, pear and passionfruit, zesty acidity and just a kiss of oak that keeps the fruit as bright as can be.  Cocktail, fish accompaniment, thanksgiving dinner - it’s as versatile as they come.  95

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Dry Gewurztraminer 2021 ($25):  This bottling will get you. I’ve seen dyed-in-the-wool “Gavurtz” despisers change their tune when tasting this California classic.  While there is a little vintage variation year over year, one thing doesn’t change, and that’s purity of varietal character and quality of the winemaking.  This is one of the great white wines of the world — no question.  95

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Pinot Noir “Methode a l’Ancienne” 2020 ($35):  I’ve been a big fan of this, Navarro’s “mid-line” Pinot Noir, for many years, and this vintage reminds me why. It’s a gorgeous wine year in and year out, show its cool climate Anderson Valley roots with elegance and style.  The 2020 is perfectly ripe, with bright cherry and strawberry fruit, soft dry earth tones, freshening acidity and an extended, fully integrated finish.  This is a serious value.  95

Navarro Vineyards, Mendocino County (California) Chardonnay “Table Wine” 2021 ($19):  This is the winery’s daily drinker Chardonnay in a group of what’s usually three different levels, and it’s always offered at a generous case discount.  The ’21 is citrus forward aromatically, and that translates nicely to the palate where the lemon and lime are joined by a soft tropical note and some sweet oak.  You won’t find better Chardonnay at this price point.  92

Palazzo, Napa Valley (California) Left Bank Red Cuvée “Master Blend Series” 2018 ($50):  Scott Palazzo continues to turn out the hits.  This Cabernet Sauvignon forward blend shows sturdy oak tones that are just beginning to integrate, but the bold back fruit tells me that things will work out just fine. Give it a good decant if you decide to go in early, or age this five years for openers to get full enjoyment out of it.  Contains 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc.  94

Photograph, Central Coast (California) Pinot Noir 2020 ($15):  Here’s a “middle of the fairway tee shot” example of Pinot Noir, with dark side of the spectrum fruit that will please a crowd at a pleasing price.  Black cherry, cinnamon and nutmeg are supported by moderate grip, and they finish together in dark, delicious fashion.  I’d lean toward the red meat side of the food spectrum when pairing.  92

Ragtag Wine Co., Paso Robles El Pomar District (Central Coast, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($46):  This wine shows why Cabernet from this Paso Robles east side district is sought after – It’s bright, juicy, and full flavored, but doesn’t show any overripe character that would place it in the run of the mill category.  No ragtag band of suspects here – just pure pleasure in pleasant Paso style.  94

Scheid, Monterey County (California) Roussanne Hames Valley Vineyard 2021 ($28):  Roussanne isn’t often a center stage soloist, but this wine shows star quality with vibrant acidity that tames the grape’s naturally viscous character and makes the peach and nut character pop.  You’ll love the structural tightrope that this wine walks – particularly with medium strength cheeses as a pairing partner.  2021 is living up to the hype!  94

Serene Cellars, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($110):  Though this wine is a fairly late release at the age of seven, it could have gone even longer before leaving the winery.  That said, it’s always great fun to be able to experience a wine’s evolution as it matures.  If you’re into that sort of thing, this is a worthy candidate for tasting across years. It’s headed in a good direction as it begins to unfurl layers of black and red fruit, soft pepper, and faint dried herbs through its firm structure.  Buy with confidence.  94

Stoneriver Vineyards, Rogue Valley (Oregon) Mourvedre 2019 ($28):  If you think Oregon is all about Pinot Noir, it’s time to head south and see what’s going on in the Rogue Valley, where Rhône varieties have taken more than a toe hold.  This Mourvedre is herby and spicy, with rich red fruit benefitting from the layering.  A pleasant tarry note comes forward in the finish.  It’s the lighter side of this variety on full display, and made exceeding well.  94

Tom Eddy, Knights Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Elodian” 2018 ($65):  Tom Eddy keeps the great Cabernet coming, and not just from Napa Valley sources.  This Knights Valley offering from a heralded vintage in California is a fine standard bearer of that year as a generous yet reined in wine.  Classic Cabernet aroma and flavor profiles are here, with supple tannins and clarity of character throughout.  It’s a delight now and will cellar into elegance.  95

Tom Eddy, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($170):  Here’s a bold, uber-ripe wine that doesn’t shy away from showing a little heat on the palate.  It succeeds by keeping the heat in check with bright acidity, spicy oak toast and some earth tones that give the fruit a push.  The heat doesn’t linger in the finish, stepping aside for the full throttle fruit mix.  If you like a bold solo glass, this will more than fit the bill.  94

Tom Eddy, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard 2016 ($225):  If California were to adopt the “Cru” system at some point, this vineyard source would certainly be in the running for top status. Once again, Tom Eddy lets the vineyard shine through minimal intervention, letting all the fruit and earth elements do what they do and adding just the right barrel influence to get complementary spice into the mix.  Masterfully realized wine in an impressive string from the site.  96

Toro Loco, Utiel-Requena DOP (Valencia, Spain) Bobal-Merlot “Seleccion” 2020 ($16):  Here’s a wine that hits you with up-front black and blueberry fruit with a note of clay on the nose, and then goes full savory on the palate, with rich pepper and meat notes riding alongside the dark fruit.  Think of it as a spiced-up, Gamay style red when pairing – it’ll work with game birds, beef or even lamb.  93

William Hill, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($55):  This Cabernet takes me back to my early days of tasting Napa Valley wines, where a little green character was considered an asset and not something to try to mitigate through canopy management or long hangtimes in the vineyard. In other words, this is a rustic, old school wine with blackberry, currants, dried herbs and bell pepper that are nicely layered and linger long.  Nice to meet you – again!  94

William Hill, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 2020 ($30):  Here’s a step up your Chardonnay dollars if you’re a fan of the oak and butter style.  Those elements are here, but they don’t smother the dry fruit character.  The finish is where it all comes together and each piece shines through in the long finish.  It’s leaning Burgundian in character – something you won’t find at this price point very often. Well done!  94

Zilzie, Victoria (Australia) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($15):  I’m seeing more of this variety from Australia these days, and this bottling illustrates why that’s happening.  It leans toward New Zealand in style, but without overt gooseberry or grapefruit flavors.  It opts instead to tone down those elements and let minerality and melon move in and make the wine more versatile when looking to pair it with food.  I’m in!  94

Zinfandelic, Sierra Foothills (California) Zinfandel 2020 ($20):  This fairly large-production bottling does a great job at getting at true regional character, showing brambly fruit, pepper and fall spice notes over supple tannic structure and carrying through a long finish that’s well integrated and has enough stuffing to cut through gourmet burgers or well-marbled steaks.  92

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For complete results of the 2022 Sommelier Challenge Wine and Spirits Competition, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit SommelierChallenge.com                 

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