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Peer Review: Winemaker Challenge Platinum Award Winners
By Rich Cook
Apr 13, 2022
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As the director of several major wine competitions, I find it endlessly interesting to taste and review the variety of wines that rise to the top among judges who are tasting blind – particularly when the judging panels come from a particular segment within the industry.  The Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition is unique in that the products involved were tasted by creators of wine across a swath of time, from young up-and-comers like Emily Bloom and Faith Lawson to legendary winemakers like Gary Eberle and Ed Sbragia.  When consensus on quality is arrived at by such a group, you can count on those wines being worthy of your attention.

Below are my impressions of the wines that the judges felt were worthy of Platinum designation, with the hope that my descriptions might further pique your interest to the point of tasting for yourself.

Wines are listed alphabetically with reds appearing at the top, followed by whites, sparklers, and dessert wines.


Adkins Family Vineyards (Alta Mesa, Lodi, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018 ($98):  Think there isn’t serious wine in Lodi?  I know for a fact that there is, and this particular wine will show you so with its high-toned cassis and spice aromatics, structured palate, well folded pepper notes and dusty earth tones.  This has quite an extended finish even though it’s just beginning to come together – I’d age this long term or decant a full day before serving with your finest beef dishes.  95

Bella Luna Estate Winery (Paso Robles, Templeton Gap District, California) “Estate Riserva” Carly’s Estate Vineyard 2018 ($58):  Wow!  Here’s a stunning Super Tuscan styled blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese that could not hit the target more squarely.  Pulsing raspberry and spice aromas are layered and deep, and they translate beautifully on the palate where some dried herbs join in, all riding on a carpet of supple tannins and zesty acidity that push the finish into the distance.  I’m always impressed by this producer, but I don’t give the “Wow!” out lightly. This is truly worthy – not to mention age-worthy.  Yes, there are cellar trophies from this Paso Robles sub-AVA.  Bravissimo!  98

Brick Barn Wine Estate (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County, California) Grenache, Estate Grown 2019 ($54):  Whenever I taste a Grenache from this region, I wonder why I don’t see more of it.  This is a fine example, with delightful strawberry, white pepper and bay leaf aromas and flavors that come in waves over moderate oak toast that’s still folding in. Give this a good decant, or age further in the cellar for full enjoyment.  94

Cala De Poeti (Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC, Italy) 2020 ($17):  Here’s a very young wine that shows the vibrancy of its youth in its firm tannic structure, which, as it subsides, will leave a gorgeous wine.  Not that it’s not already beautiful in its expression of cherry, raspberry and pepper.  Decant this for a few hours near term to get at everything within, or age for five years or so before going in.  I don’t say that about wines in this price range very often – I’d go for a case!  93

Fox and the Flock (California) Pinot Noir 2019 ($18):  It’s not easy to find Pinot Noir of this quality at such a low price point.  It opens with aromas of ripe strawberry, pie spice and sweet oak toast, and the palate follows through with good translation into flavors.  Food friendly acidity gives the finish a zesty pop and invites more sipping.  Here’s to delivering value that a spectrum of tasters will appreciate!  94

Frei Brothers (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Reserve” 2019 ($27):  Always a solid value, this bottling shows sense of place with a tightrope red and black fruit act that keeps good definition between the two thanks to lively acidity and judicious oak selection.  It finishes with full integration and medium length, and it’s easy findable at a nice discount price.  Well done!  92

J Vineyards (Monterey County, Sonoma County, Santa Barbara County) Pinot Noir “Winemaker’s Selection” 2019 ($25):  I imagine it’s no coincidence that a wine designated “Winemaker’s Selection” would rise to the top of a blind judging by winemakers.  This Pinot Noir shows solid varietal character in a fairly ripe style with carefully chosen oak that adds cinnamon spice and structure without taking over the fruit character.  Bright acidity keeps it knit together through a long finish.  This is a nice fit for either beef, chicken or fish.  I like finding such strong versatility and value in the same bottle.  94

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Barbera, Cooper Vineyard 2020 ($32):  Jeff Runquist’s team has a way with this grape, particularly when it comes to this vineyard source.  The 2020 iteration is made in a big style, and it’s managed in a way that maintains the grapes signature acidity that makes the bold cherry fruit pop with rich oak spice adding layers.  A zesty kiss finishes things off nicely. You can go full saucy on an Italian dinner with this as a pairing and be completely satisfied.  95

Jeff Runquist (Amador County, California) Dolcetto, Logan’s Rock Wall Vineyard 2020 ($28):  Here’s a completely different take on Dolcetto over what you’d expect from an Italian version.  Well, we’re not in Italy here – we’re in the Sierra Foothills of California, where big diurnal temperature swings can make ripeness a factor.  That factor is embraced here, and it brings a savory element into the mix that’s very attractive.  Blackberry, brown spice, and supple tannic structure work well together. 92

Jeff Runquist (Paso Robles, California) Syrah, Three Way Vineyard 2020 ($33):  This Syrah leans into its ripe fruit, showing black and blue berry aromas and flavors, and it’s balanced with bright acidity that helps secondary and tertiary layers to show themselves clearly.  Vanilla, cinnamon, and a touch of oak char accent the fruit and extend the finish where things get a peppery push.  This is built for something on the gamey side of the menu and will also work with medium to strong cheeses.  94

Knotty Vines (California) Red Blend 2019 ($15):  This wine is a mix of six components, with Merlot making up nearly half of the blend. It succeeds with dry style, supple texture, medium oak toast that adds a little spice and a peppery note from a good dollop of Zinfandel.  At fifteen bucks, this will be flying off shelves everywhere soon if it’s not already, and it’s nice to find this quality level at such a low price.  92

Lightpost Winery (Paso Robles) Cabernet Sauvignon “Winemaker Select” 2019 ($40):  If it’s possible to have a Burgundian take on Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine accomplishes the task with finesse.  It’s red fruit-forward and brightly acidic, but maintains Cabernet character with red currant and black cherry.  Bright oak spice balances the fruit, and bold finish push keeps the flavor pumping. Winemaker Christian Roguenant continues to be an undeniable force on the Central Coast.  94

Lightpost Winery (Santa Cruz Mountains, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve Sevastien” 2019 ($65):  Lightpost has a few ponies in its Cabernet stable, and they are all exceptional. It’s nice to have choices, and this offering shows great depth without resorting to overt fleshy character.  Blackberry, cassis, gentle oak toast and brown spice are well integrated and lively acidity keeps things bright through an extended finish.  I’d look to red meat here for a pairing.  95

Oak Farm Vineyards (Lodi, San Joaquin County, California) Barbera 2019 ($25):  Barbera is most often about fresh red fruit and lively acidity, which makes it a great friend of food.  This bottling delivers on both counts, adding rich oak spice layers that stay with the cherry fruit through a long finish.  It’s more than up to pairing with your sauciest Italian dishes.  94

Raffaldini Vineyards (Swan Creek, North Carolina) Grande Riserva, Proprietary Red Wine 2019 ($65):  Sagrantino, Petit Verdot and Montepulciano from North Carolina?  Yep!  This works by letting Sagrantino’s structure shine, tempered by the other grapes to reduce the youthful tannins and allow a black fruit, pepper and orange zest mix full quarter.  This is going to sit beautifully alongside a well marbled rib eye steak or a saucy Italian dish – Osso Bucco comes to mind.  94

Sbragia Family Vineyards (Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon, Neal Vineyard 2016 ($125):  This is a label that prides itself on bold expressions, and while this bottling certainly delivers in that mode, it’s reined in quite nicely.  It’s a late release that is just starting to unfurl its flag, showing classic Napa fruit and spice character, sturdy yet supple structure and well folded oak toast that will all continue to deepen and gain complexity.  This is a long-term ager if you’re a cellar stasher, and you won’t regret having a few bottles for well down your road.  96

Scaredy Cat Ranch (Ramona Valley, San Diego County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Grown 2019 ($45):  I’m seeing more wine from this AVA come across may table at blind judging events, and that’s a good thing since the region is in my backyard.  This Cabernet shows a rustic quality that is quite attractive, delivering lively blackberry fruit and pie spice over grippy tannins and lively acidity that keep the flavors hanging in the mouth for a good while, and that character lets a little pepper and herb speak as well.  This is a perfect foil for grilled Angus burgers or salted seared sirloin.  94

Three Finger Jack (Lodi, San Joaquin County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon, East Side Ridge 2019 ($19):  This Cabernet is all about the dark side, with deep oak toast, black fruit and brown spice.  I sense a little Petite Sirah in the blend that serves to add structure, weight and a little brightening blue fruit.  Serve this with a peppery tri-tip slow cooked on a rotisserie for maximum pleasure.  92

V. Sattui Winery (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon, Preston Vineyard 2019 ($95):  There’s absolutely no doubt that you’ve got a Napa Valley Cabernet in your glass when you bring this to your nose – it’s quite classically styled, with blackberry, cassis, fall spice and a hint of dried herb that serves to deepen the fruit and add to its possibilities at the table.  Brooks Painter’s team has been making their mark with this vineyard source for some time, and it’s always dependable.  This may be the best Preston I’ve tasted.  97

V. Sattui Winery (Lodi, San Joaquin County, California) Zinfandel, Old Vine, Pilgrim Vineyard 2019 ($42):  This Zin is made in a lusty, plush, hard-to-put-down style that will please just about any taster.  Fully ripe, it manages to keep lively peppery notes intact, and they contrast the brambly fruit mix in a way that creates tension and interest.  Hard-to-put-down indeed – you’ll need a few bottles.  94


Eberle (Paso Robles, California) Muscat Canelli, Eberle Estate Vineyard 2021 ($24):  This is more than just a tasting room sweety built to fly out the door, and it always has been.  My first look at the 2021 continues the string of balanced, complex goodness with wildflower, Meyer lemon, peach and spice aromas and flavors that linger pleasantly without getting sticky.  It’s a fine sweet treat on its own or will work nicely with fruit and mild cheeses.  93

Engine House (Lake County, California) Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($25):  Produced by Lake County’s Chacewater Winery, this Sauvignon Blanc shows the freshness that the area is known for when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, mixing grapefruit, melon, lemongrass and stony minerality into a glass that quenches thirst and lends itself to seafood of just about any type or prep.  Oysters?  Yes, please.  92

Francis Coppola Diamond Collection (Sonoma County, California) Sauvignon Blanc, “Appellation Series” 2021 ($20):  This offering shows the stone fruit side of Sauvignon Blanc, with nectarine taking the lead and lemongrass and granite minerality keeping things on the refreshing side.  California producers seem to be embracing this style again rather than mimicking southern hemisphere styles, and that’s a good thing.  92

Frei Brothers (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay, “Sonoma Reserve” 2019 ($20):  A crowd pleaser of a Chardonnay, especially if the crowd has a hankering for lots of oak spice.  It’s well folded here, and sets off the baked apple and butterscotch nicely.  While it’s a style that’s fallen out of fashion with some, there are still plenty of fans, and kudos go to those who aim to keep the customer satisfied.  92

J Vineyards (Monterey County, Sonoma County, Napa County) Chardonnay 2019 ($20):  The iconic yellow “J” is a consistent sign of high quality at a value price, particularly at this price level.  This Chardonnay rings my crisp and creamy bell thanks to cleansing acidity that washes away the plush midpalate and gets you to return for another sip. Apple, pear and nut aromas and flavors are fully integrated and make this a fine solo sipping style.  93

Oak Farm Vineyards (Lodi, San Joaquin County, California) Fiano, Estate Grown 2021 ($26):  This bottling has been a great one from its start just a couple of vintages ago, The 2021 is fresh, lively and fun, with aromas and flavors of pineapple, peach, nut and mixed citrus presented in fruit forward style that wraps up with mouthwatering acidity that keeps you coming back.  Another variety that Lodi microclimates can manage with finesse.  94

One Hope (California) Chardonnay 2020 ($25):  Winemaker Mari Wells Coyle brings us this delightful Chardonnay sourced from across the Golden state, and it’s a winner thanks to a perfect oak choice – one provides spice and richness without overtaking the fresh apple and pear fruit character. It adds a little nut character in the finish, and it’ll have you going nutty for more.  Brava!  94

Saint Clair Family Estate (Marlborough, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Dillons Point 2021 ($25):  I like the balance point achieved in this bottle – it’s pure grapefruit aromas and flavors ride racy acidity through the midpalate, and a sour burst hits in the finish – if you love grapefruit, this will certainly please you.  It’s bone dry and eminently refreshing.  94

Schloss Vollrads Estate (Rheingau, Germany) Kabinett 2020 ($34):  Yes, it’s me and Riesling again, screaming from the rooftop, imploring more people to jump on the Riesling bandwagon.  Fortunately, this wine doesn’t need me to trumpet its virtues – It can take care of that all by itself.  Okay, I can tell you that the sweet stone fruit and citrus mix rides typical racy acidic structure that keeps things clean and lively, extending the finish and demanding a repeat performance.  Love it!  96

Talbott (Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, California) Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard 2019 ($45):  Though ownership of this brand has changed, its commitment to quality remains.  The famed site once again brings us a Chardonnay with power and finesse, layering apple, pear and lemon fruit with moderate oak toast, bright spice and keeping them intact from start to finish.  I’m a fan – again!  95

Upshot (California) White Wine Blend 2019 ($19):  Wines like this one are built to be delicious, and this particular bottling succeeds vintage after vintage, always with at least a tweak to the blend if not an all-out change. This year gets some Pinot Noir in the mix of the Grenache Blanc dominant blend, and it works like it does in sparkling wine, adding acidic structure and a zesty streak. A little pithy note in the finish adds interest to the lemon driven vibe, making the refreshment last.  Well Done!  92

Villa Bellezza (Upper Mississippi River Valley) St. Pepin 2021 ($21):  St. Pepin is a relatively new hybrid grape, a cross of Seyval Blanc and “Minnesota 78” by upper midwest icon botanist Elmer Swensen that started producing commercially in the late 1980s.  While all of that may not interest you, this wine will get your attention with peach, pear and white flower aromas that lead to a palate that’s dry, with a viscous midpalate that carries peach and a crisp finish that leans nectarine.  It’s delicious, and a great bottle to serve blind to your wine aficionado friends.  92

Whitehaven (Marlborough, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($20):  This bottling is always a favorite of mine – it’s not shy about letting you know where it hails from, but it doesn’t go over the top, instead leaning into balance and complexity rather than flash and fire. It’s consistent, and sometimes that pays big dividends for producer and consumer alike.  93

Wisdom Point (Western Cape, South Africa) Grenache Blanc 2021 ($28):  Grenache Blanc from this part of the world is new to me and based on this wine I expect to see some more of it coming into the marketplace.  This gets at the best qualities of the variety, showing nectarine, nut and citrus aromas that translate in linear fashion on the palate, with zesty lemon up in the finish which extends the proceedings nicely.  94

Barefoot Bubbly (No Appellation) Peach Non-Vintage ($10):  Think of this as a crystal clean Bellini – one where the peach has a good acidic bite, and just the right balance of sweet and sour. No pulp, no mess, just pure pleasure in this realm.  91

Domaine Carneros (Carneros, California) “Cuvee de la Pompadour” Brut Rosé Non-Vintage ($45):  House style.  Those two words together are treasured by Champagne lovers as a sort of guarantee that what’s inside the bottle will be consistent.  This domestic bubbly exemplifies the concept as one of the most consistent bottles in the state.  Strawberry, lemon zest, stony minerality and cleansing acidity that keeps flavor pumping through a long finish are always present here, and they satisfy completely.  Love it!  95

Barboursville Vineyards (Virginia) “Paxxito” 2018 ($40):  I’m a huge fan of what I call liquid dessert – the kind of sweet sip that requires no accompaniment that I appreciate after a large meal where stuffing in a solid dessert seems too much to bear.  This wine, produced in the Italian appassimento style (a method in which grapes are dried on and/or off the vine to concentrate flavors) fits the bill with aromas and flavors of marzipan, apricot and nutmeg, delivered on acidity that keeps the wine from becoming cloying and leaving a rich yet freshening impression.  Of course, a little chunk of Stilton wouldn’t hurt.  Sold in a 375 ml bottle.  94

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For complete results of the judging of the 2022 Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit WinemakerChallenge.com

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