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The Professionals Weigh In: Sommelier Challenge Platinum Award Winners
By Rich Cook
Sep 27, 2023
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The Challenge Series of wine competitions was conceived by original Wine Review Online publisher Robert Whitley to offer different perspectives on wines in blind tasting formats.  The Sommelier Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition – where credentialed sommeliers from around the country bring their experience to bear in a blind tasting, was held in San Diego, California last weekend.

To wit, the 16th Annual Sommelier Challenge judges offer the 86 wines listed below as being worthy of a Platinum Award, the series’ highest honor. Below each listed wine are my personal tasting notes on what they deemed worthy. The scores assigned here 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 within color or type categories in alphabetical order by producer.  I hope you’ll join us with a bottle that catches your eye in a toast to excellence!

Avanguardia, Sierra Foothills (California) Red Wine “Premiato” 2015 ($28)
Here’s something you don’t see every day:  an eight year old blend of Barbera and Dolcetto (varieties typically consumed in their youth) with a dash of Negrara (a rare player in Valpolicella) that’s dead center in its drinking window and transports you to northern Italy.  It’s begging for food, as you will be after the first sip.  Cherry, vanilla, soft spice, supple tannins, a pleasant clay earth note – I’m tempted to stop right here and take this directly to lunch.  Beautiful wine!  95

Barboursville (Virginia) Nebbiolo Reserve 2020 ($35)
I love the fact that Barboursville has remained steadfast with Nebbiolo virtually since their inception, and as the vines age, the wine continues to gain panache.  This is correct in the Italian sense of the variety, and while it’s got the expected tannin profile, it’s rather forgiving in its youth – you won’t experience the pain that a young Barolo or Barbaresco brings alongside its goodness.  You just get the goodness.  Keep it up!  94

Bezel, Edna Valley (San Luis Obispo County, California) Pinot Noir 2021 ($30)
The Bezel project falls under the Cakebread umbrella, reaching south to Edna Valley – a still somehow undersung region for Burgundian varieties in particular.  Just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, it delivers a cool climate vibe that is unique in the state.  Here, that results in a wine with tart cherry fruit, dry earth minerality, riveting acidity and mild herb notes.  This will fit your Thanksgiving table perfectly, and its price will allow for a few extra pies for dessert.  94

Bochorno (Spain) Tempranillo 2021 ($14)
A super value from a super value country – one with true-to-type character.  Tempranillo in this price range is often a great choice from Spain when you’re looking for an unpretentious, easy to drink red wine that you can serve with just about anything.  That’s just what’s on offer here – toss in a structured backbone and food friendly acidity, as this does, and you’ve got a wallet-friendly winner on your hands.  Be sure to look up the Spanish slang brand name – it’ll make for targeted gift giving.  92

Bottega, Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG (Italy) “Il Vino Degli Dei” 2017 ($44)
Amarone is not for the faint of heart, and this one will get your heart pumping.  What I tend to think of as a stylistic aromatic signature – dried raisin – is lacking here, but that doesn’t hinder the proceedings in any way.  Intense concentration still holds the field, and a proper heated push finishes things off.  If you’re a fan, you know this is a price you can get excited about – it’s a great value.  94

Ca’Momi, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($25)
An obvious value leader from its appellation, and one that leans into the winemaking side of the spectrum, with layered wood spice tones that are up to balancing the ripeness of the fruit.  It’s juicy and ready to drink with end of summer grilled meats and gourmet burgers.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this on by-the-glass lists everywhere, as it is a crowd pleaser.  92

Cerebella, Columbia Valley (Washington) Cabernet Franc 2017 ($40)
With so much Cabernet Sauvignon being crafted in a way that eliminates any sort of green character, it’s good to know that such character can still be found in bottles labeled as Cabernet Franc.  There are certain herb-driven meat preps that just cry out for a little bit of the garden in the glass, and this offering from Cerebella – a new player to me – will get your cerebellum firing about pairing possibilities.  The green elements are well folded without being erased, and they linger through a long finish.  Nice!  94

Chacewater, Lake County (California) Malbec “Krev” 2020 ($35)
You may have been hearing some noise about “volcanic wines” – meaning wines that hail from volcanic soils profiles – and their uniqueness.  Whether that’s truth, marketing or a combination of those things, this is definitely top-quality Malbec.  The proprietary name “Krev” means mighty and robust in the Cornish language, and it’s more than apropos here.  Fleshy, deep and dark, it’ll find plenty of fans.  93

Chacewater, Sierra Foothills (California) Syrah “Limited Edition” 2020 ($30)
Zinfandel isn’t the only star in the Sierra Foothills – several practitioners are showing that Rhône varieties excel there as well.  Chacewater’s take on Syrah here is a fine one, letting the typical meaty character speak with Foothills flair, meaning a nice dose of winemaking in the for of barrel choice and harvest date choice are in play.  I’m always surprised that Syrah doesn’t have more traction in California – there’s a lot of stylistic ground being covered.  93

Clos De La Tech, Santa Cruz Mountains (California) Pinot Noir “Domaine Lois Louise, Cote Sud” 2016 ($95)
This producer used to affix a silicon chip to each bottle – a reminder of what made having a first-class winery possible.  The chips must have run out, but the quality of this wine is certainly “in the chips” as a wisely held late release – at nearly seven years since harvest, it shows fresh as a daisy, with bold fruit, bold structure and real complexity, with attractive dry earth character complementing the rich black cherry fruit.  Lois Louise would be proud.  95

Coyote Canyon, Horse Heaven Hills (Washington State) Barbera 2021 ($36)
Washington might not be the first place that you’d direct your gaze when seeking Barbera, but I’ll say that it’s a place worthy of making the list of possibilities.  This wine shows characteristic bright red and blue fruit, wildflowers, and a dash of vanilla on the nose, and the transfer to the palate keeps the fruit lively and the vanilla as an accent.  Food friendly acidity carries it all through the long finish, and as soon as you sip, you’ll be thinking about pairing options.  Nice!  94

Dandelion Vineyards, Fleurieu (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Pride of the Fleurieu” 2021 ($30)
Australian Cabernet Sauvignon is unique in Cabernet world – the regional character tends toward the overt, but in some cases it can be well managed, as it is here.  The menthol/eucalyptus “tell” is here, but it’s nicely integrated into the fruit, making for a complex wine that has enough signature to pair beautifully with lamb as well as what the Aussies might call the lesser meats.  Nicely executed wine!  94

Dandelion Vineyards, Barossa (Australia) GSM “Menagerie of the Barossa” 2022 ($30)
GSM – as in Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro (or Mourvèdre in other locales) can be beautiful in the New World as well as the old, as exemplified here.  Red fruit takes the lead on the nose and in the mouth, with complementary pepper and blue fruit notes joining in, making for a wine with wide ranging pairing options, from white meats to red meats.  Something on the gamey side would be well suited as well – the acidity here is just the ticket to make some wild boar work.  94

Dandelion Vineyards, McLaren Vale (Australia) Petite Sirah “Midnight Rainbow of McLaren Vale” 2021 ($120)
Before you scoff at the seemingly outrageous price for this Petite Sirah, keep in mind that this stuff, handled properly, can age for decades and turn lovely in the process.  Of course, that doesn’t apply to every bottling, but I’m confident that it does indeed apply to this bottling.  Dandelion has a track record for solid picking timing, proper structure, and overall deliciousness, and those are all present here, so even with a variety that’s newer to them, the results are spot on.  Decant for a day if you go in early, or lay it down for a long rest.  95

Dandelion Vineyards, McLaren Vale (Australia) Red Wine “Moonrise Kingdom of the McLaren Vale” 2022 ($120)
I loved the 2021 vintage of this wine, and the 2022 doesn’t disappoint.  Shiraz, Grenache and Petite Sirah make up the cast, and the players hold your attention from the overture to the finale.  Bet on this to go long thanks to the Petite Sirah’s structural strength, but you’d be fine to opt for an early screening – it’s a delight already.  94

Elkhorn Peak, Napa Valley (California) Pinot Noir Reserve Elkhorn Peak Estate Vineyard 2019 ($65)
While there certainly is a fair amount of Pinot Noir in Napa Valley, it definitely doesn’t get the raves that Sonoma or Santa Barbara get for the variety.  I’ll take the rave bullhorn on this offering – one that delivers lively wood spice over cherry and ripe strawberry fruit.  The acidity keeps it all knit together and it remains integrated through a long finish.  It’s a solid middle of the road style that will run the table from fish to fowl to meat.  Well done!  94

Finca del Marquesado, Rioja DOC (Spain) Tempranillo 2022 ($20)
The floral label on this bottle is well chosen – the wildflower aromatic notes leap from the glass, countering Tempranillo’s distinctly vinous character nicely and attracting you for a sip.  That sip is spot-on young Rioja made for near term enjoyment, with fresh fruit, a little dill and lively oak spice that enhances without taking over.  Tapas, burgers, steaks…yes, please!  93

Florbela, Dão DOC (Portugal) Red Wine 2021 ($21)
After tasting this, I’m even more excited for my upcoming trip to Portugal.  A blend of Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Touriga Nacional, it’s a gorgeous glass with red fruit and white pepper aromas that translate directly to palate flavors and linger long.  The texture is rather puckery at present, but you’ll have no trouble resolving that with either some cellar time or a well marbled ribeye steak – your choice!  94

Global Trails, Cotes du Rhône AOP (France) Red Wine “MRS” 2021 ($15)
I’m not sure what the proprietary “MRS” is meant to represent here – the wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan – but let’s say that you might want to make this wine your missus after you taste it and factor in the low fare.  It tips off its locale nicely, with some damp and dry earth minerality over a mix of red and black fruit and a lingering finish.  I’m thinking pork tenderloin as a partner for this.  92

Halleck Vineyard, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir “Three Sons Cuvée” 2019 ($55)
Here’s the rare Pinot Noir that combines full throttle ripeness with racy acidity, thus extending what we might think of as regional style.  Russian River Valley has so much to offer, and this bottle gets at so many aspects of it all at once, it’s hard to single out a predominant characteristic.  I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what winemakers hope to have an opportunity to work with – fruit that sings in multi-part harmony that they can gently guide to fruition.  Mission accomplished here in a big yet elegant way.  Bravo!  96

Heirloom, McLaren Vale (Australia) Red Wine “Anevo Fortress” 2022 ($80)
You might guess that a blend of Grenache, Touriga and Tempranillo isn’t very common in Australia, and you would be correct.  This is the only one that I’m aware of, but others might be in the offing based on the success of this wine.  It is dark fruit-driven, with notes of meat and a subtle minty note that keeps the black berry and black cherry just north of the brooding line.  Regionally, it’s a great alternative to Shiraz to have around, and internationally, you’ll enjoy having some around.  94

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir 2021 ($28)
I’m always happy to write about high quality, budget friendly wine – particularly in the Pinot Noir category, where it can often seem that the floor for the good stuff starts at fifty dollars.  This is plush without being flabby or sweet, with juicy black cherry, mixed brown spice, bright acidity and a weighty texture.  It finishes long and fully integrated already, and it’s got some aging potential to boot.  I wouldn’t worry about that though – your first case will be gone by the end of this year.  93

Kunde (Washington) Syrah 2020 ($15)
My daughter would call this wine “ridonkulous” – her descriptor for crazy value.  It’s that indeed, with Syrah’s attractive savory character slathered in vanilla in a way that’s hard not to love.  At this price, it’s a solid go to cocktail glass, and one that on a by the glass list will win myriad fans if a wiley steward can talk it up the right way.  This could start the long-awaited Syrah renaissance.  A guy can dream, right?  92

Ledson, Moon Mountain District (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Block 13” 2019 ($180)
If you like your Cabernet to breathe a little fire, this will not only start a fire but it will keep it burning until the bottle is empty.  I don’t mean this in a derogatory way at all – it manages its heat beautifully and keeps the focus on pulsing fruit character that pushes through the finish and even a little bit after.  Wines like this aren’t possible in every vintage, and the crew at Ledson seized the opportunity to great effect.  94

Ledson, Sonoma Valley (California) Red Wine “Bellisimo” Estate Vineyard 2019 ($94)
I love producers that don’t rest on their laurels but continue to relentlessly pursue excellence.  Sure, a great vintage is helpful, but recognizing one while its in process takes experience.  The team at Ledson has seen good and bad, but keeps bending the arc toward greatness.  This is a Merlot driven blend that lives up to its proprietary name in a bold way, with full throttle fruit from front to back and supporting oak spice adding depth.  Very beautiful indeed!  Contains 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.  95

Mandrarossa, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Nero D’Avola 2021 ($15)
The handling of this variety has taken a very positive turn in Sicily toward a lighter style, and the wines coming out now are a true joy to drink.  This example features bright cherry and raspberry with notes of pepper and brown spice that ride a medium body and lively acidity through an extended finish that will keep you coming back.  The Black Devil ain’t what he used to be.  94

Miguel Caratachea, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Bracero” 2019 ($100)
This is a brand-new label, and right out of the gate great things are afoot.  A “bracero” is a laborer, and this wine is clearly a labor of love.  Made in an old school Napa style, the wine doesn’t shy away from a little herbal character that enhances the mix of black and red fruit, and some pepper adds even more depth.  Great finish push wraps things up – decant well in youth, or age this for several years.  Excellent!  94

Miguel Caratachea, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Venerable Vines” 2019 ($295)
This is a new, eponymous project for the longtime winemaker of Punch Vineyards and other highly sought after Napa Cabernet Sauvignons.  The word “venerable” in the case of this bottle refers to 100 year old vines – old vines which tend to have lower yields and that often have to be worked completely by hand to keep safe from damage.  Cabernet vines of this age are quite rare, and here they make for something quite unexpected.  Your first guess would be France on a blind whiff, with a rather classic Bordeaux character jumping out of the glass, slowly giving way to a deeply layered, perfumed mix of fruit and brown spice.  All of this shows on the palate, with great depth and supple texture.  The finish goes on and on – It’s the most unique Napa Cab I’ve tasted, and it’s certainly a cellar trophy if you roll in this price tier.  Bravo!  98

Mountain Terraces, Moon Mountain District (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Block 14” 2019 ($240)
Sonoma’s Moon Mountain for years worked as a sort of secret ingredient in some of Sonoma’s best Cabernets, making its approval as an AVA in 2013 sort of let that cat out of the bag, and its appearance on labels the likes of this one won’t do anything but drive the price up.  This is stellar Cabernet in its chosen style – bold, bright, fruit driven and seemingly endless in the finish thanks to a little kiss of heat.  Go big when pairing…it can handle whatever you’d like to throw at it.  95

Mountain Terraces, Moon Mountain District (Sonoma County, California) Petit Verdot Estate Grown 2018 ($160)
This label is a relatively new project from Steve Ledson, and it’s focused on making the best possible expression of a given variety.  The target is hit on the bullseye here, with a grape usually used in small percentages to boost other wines stealing the spotlight as a soloist.  Petit Verdot on its own can be sort of a one note tune, but there’s a full swing band operating here, with harmonious depth on prime display. It makes me wonder if the usual stage hogs are playing a supporting role here.  Any way you slice it, this is great stuff.  95

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Pinot Noir “South Hill” 2021 ($59)
South Hill was Navarro’s first Pinot Noir site, and though it’s been replanted since initially developed, it shows the combination of wisdom and luck when it comes to site selection.  Usual the fruit from South Hill is part of the “Deep End Blend” offering, but in occasional vintages the team decides that the individual sites merit their own bottlings.  It’s a beautiful choice here, the wine showing rich cherry fruit and lively fall spice tones, supple structure and a spice driven finish at present – as this integrates more fully it’ll turn into a polished gem.  95

New Clairveaux (California) Red Wine “Abbot’s Reserve, Paul Mark Schwan” 2019 ($45)
The winery makes two different Abbot’s Reserve bottlings, each a tribute to a different Abbot at the monastery where the wine hails from.  The Paul Mark Schwan is a 50/50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and if the wine is any indication, I’d guess that he’d be a “the sum is greater than the parts” kind of guy with a sunny disposition and a contemplative core.  In other words, a fine blend, personified.  Artfully blended by winemaker Aimee Sunseri.  94

Nichelini, Napa Valley (California) Zinfandel Reserve 2021 ($58)
Usually folks reach for Zinfandel when they want something on the fun, fruity and more rustic side of the red wine aisle, but this wine defies expectations in that arena, as its price might lead you to believe.  It’s elegant in style without turning into a wallflower, with bright red fruit, complementary vanilla and reined in fall spice notes.  Reach for this where you might otherwise choose a bold Russian River Pinot Noir for a change of pace.  94

Palazzo, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Franc 2019 ($115)
This wine was a hit at the Critics Challenge back in June of this year, and it’s a hit again at the Sommelier Challenge, and it’s certainly a hit with me.  Scott Palazzo’s team excels in bringing solid Napa Valley expression to life with minimal intervention and an eye toward reined in full throttle style – think Formula One car with the best driver behind the wheel.  It’s got just a hint of green that tips you off to the variety, and the rich texture folds that tone into the plush fruit beautifully.  This is certainly one of the best Cabernet Franc offerings available today.  95

Poggio Leano, Temecula Valley (Riverside County, California) Sagrantino Sandia Creek 2020 ($74)
Sagrantino is the beast of the red wine world, noted for its power and savory character, little known outside its native Umbria, it’s always worth tasting.  I’m happy to report that it’s been slowly gaining a toe hold in Southern California – Sandia Creek is just a few miles north of me in the very western reaches of the Temecula Valley AVA.  This bottling will transport you to Umbria with its authenticity of structure, aroma and flavor profiles, and this bottle is worthy of cellaring, which will give you the bonus brag of prescient discovery.  Great stuff!  94

Rodney Strong, Sonoma County (California) Merlot 2021 ($23)
If you can’t pick up a dictionary and look up California Merlot and see a photograph of this wine, then something is probably wrong with that dictionary.  Pound for pound, vintage after vintage, this bottling shows just what Merlot for the Golden State can be in a widely available at a discount offering that will please both the red wine novice and the expert at the same time.   That’s a big ask, but somehow the folks at Rodney Strong keep on delivering.  Boom!  94

Rookanga, Limestone Coast (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2021 ($20)
The appellation on this bottle would lead you to believe that there will be some cool climate acidity enclosed within, and your suspicions would be correct.  This is a bargain-priced wine that overdelivers in the quality department, with lively fruit, menthol and pepper character that lingers and satisfies.  For 20 bucks?  Yes please.  93

Sea Bright, Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County, California) Red Wine “Petit-Cab” 2019 ($40)
An interesting choice here – the winemaker was clearly in love with the Petit Verdot as evidenced by the aromatic profile here – violets loom large – but the 50/50 blend serves to rein that character in without removing its charm.  The Cabernet fills in the edges nicely, but lets the Verdot shine center stage.  You’ll love this with a gourmet burger topped with jalapeno cheese.  93

Serene Cellars, Atlas Peak (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($135)
One of my favorite sub AVA’s of Napa Valley, Atlas Peak in this rendering delivers the goods in this bottle in uber-ripe fashion while maintain the charm of the area’s earthy character.  It’s full throttle for sure, with a little heat showing in the finish, but that will likely further endear most tasters.   For me this is a perfect cheese course wine, and I’d lean into the stinky side for the board.  94

Sister’s Run, Barossa (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Bethlehem Block” 2021 ($22.50)
The Sommeliers who awarded this wine a Platinum Award in September, 2023 somehow managed to push forward Cabernet from just about every corner of Australia at this year’s tasting, for reason that seem obvious now that I’ve gotten a little taste of each.  This wine is long on tart berry fruit, easy oak spice and real finish push that make is a fine solo glass or a pair for red meats of all kinds.  I’ve gotta get down there.  93

Soirée (California) Pinot Noir 2020 ($25)
With all the talk about fires in California in 2020, there are still wines available from the vintage, and sometimes they carry the more “macro” appellations.  All that means is that some searching for worthy fruit was necessary, and that in cases like this one, fruit from multiple sources made for a fine example.  This hits the mark for Pinot Noir, with strawberry, spice and food friendly acidity, and the price makes it worth seeking out.  91

Stoneriver Vineyards, Rogue Valley (Oregon) Charbono 2019 ($40)
Charbono’s rustic character is sometimes just the ticket for a particular old school California dish you might be working with, so it’s nice to know where you can find a good one.  It’s not just California that can deliver the goods – not far across the northern border you’ll find this fine offering – fine because it’s not overripe or over manipulated, it just a solid rustic red.  The pepper character will serve beef-based dishes well.  93

Tara Bella, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018 ($80)
There are still a few later release wines from the stellar 2018 making their trip across my desk, and this bottle vouches for the vintage with style – that style being lower alcohol, vibrant acidity, classic fruit, spice and herb aromas and flavors, great integration, and real length.  A favorite style for me, and one I’m quite sure you will appreciate at your dinner table.  Well done!  95

Viansa (California) Zinfandel 2022 ($15)
Zinfandel lovers will appreciate this middle-of-the-road style at an off ramp convenience store price when they head out for tailgating this fall – jammy fruit and peppery spice are ready to get into your grilling game and raise the fun level.  It’ll handle burgers and buffalo wings, or spicy chicken enchiladas with ease.  90

Vienza, Temecula Valley (California) Barbera Reserve 2019 ($79)
Vienza is part of a “multi-national” project in Temecula Valley called Europa Village, where three wineries are under one umbrella.  Vienza is the Italian camp as you may have surmised, and this Barbera represents the quality that the concept is striving to achieve.  Easily identifiable blind, it’s a ripe side example that maintains the brightness that Barbera is all about.  Nice to know this is right in my backyard – now let’s work on the pricing.  93

Wakefield, Clare Valley/Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Jaraman” 2021 ($34)
The back label calls this wine “a celebration of regional characteristics” and I wouldn’t have anything to add to that description except for the fact that editing requires more, so I’ll add these items: Structured backbone, bright entry, rich texture, black and blue fruit, soft pepper, lively menthol and a long, well integrated finish.  It’s great now and will self-enhance with age.  I always like the Jaraman bottlings, and this is another great one.  94

Wakefield, Clare Valley (Australia) Shiraz “The Pioneer” 2019 ($200)
One of two tribute bottlings from Wakefield (the other is “The Visionary” Cabernet) and one that the Pioneer would certainly be proud of.  This is Shiraz at its finest – there’s no doubt about its provenance, with all the classic tells in place, but with such seamless integration that the dance of aromatic character and palate exposition rivet your attention and relax you to reverie at the same time.  It’s the elevation of science to art that aficionados seek relentlessly, and every so often get to touch.  This wine shows just such an elevation.  98


Bottega, Venezia DOC (Italy) “Il Vino Dei Poeti  White Gold NV ($33)
While not technically a Prosecco, this comes off like a really good one, with none of the beer-y character that plagues so many of the lesser offerings.  It is light and crisp, with fresh lemon zest and stone fruit aromas and flavors riding an easy mousse through a cleansing finish.  A great aperitif.  94

La Marca, Prosecco DOC (Italy) Prosecco Rosé 2021 ($20)
I’ve been a fan of this category since it hit the market place a few years ago – it seems to have a much wider application than its non-pink stablemate.  The bonus with this one is availability – La Marca enjoys wide (!) distribution and is often available at a discount.  That plus delicious equals a buy in bulk recommendation.  93

Bottega (Italy) Moscato Spumante “Petalo” NV ($22)
This bottle has so many words on it that they won’t fit in our regular places, so I’ll list them here – “Il Vino dell’Amore,” “Moscato Dolce,” “Vino Spumante di Qualita del Tipo Aromatico” – all of which point to this: it’s a fragrant, sweet but not too sweet, lightly fizzy glass of joy.  I think you know what to do next.  93


Diora, Monterey (California) Rosé of Pinot Noir “La Belle Fete” 2022 ($20)
Winemaker James Ewart has been dialing this bottle in over the last couple of vintages, and this one is a big hit.  Aromas of fresh strawberry and watermelon get peachy accents, and all the fruit shows up as flavors, riding a wave of bright acidity that keeps everything lively through the long finish.  This is a great solo sipper, or you can pair it with green salads or fried chicken.  93

Eberle Winery, Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County, California) Côtes du Rôbles Rosé 2022 ($30)
I can’t say enough about Chris Eberle’s ability to make delicious wine.  He’s on a serious roll of late, and this fresh new rosé is yet another example.  It’s Grenache-driven, with a little Syrah and a little Viognier in the mix and it succeeds at dry Rose’s number one job, which is delicious refreshment.  The midpalate texture is a bonus here – making you want to hold the wine for a few seconds before enjoying the crisp finish.  Once again, well done!  94

Falkner Winery, Central Coast (California) Rosé 2022 ($45)
If you like a taut, citrus-driven Rosé, this will satisfy. Faint strawberry aromas take the lead, with soft Meyer lemon adding interest.  The lemon bursts forth on the palate, and the strawberry adds interest – flipping the script as it were – and adding a little white pepper and bay leaf.  It’s quite dry, which I appreciate, and it’s very long.  A perfect Rosé for more serious applications of the type.  94

Le Bosq (France) Rosé 2022 ($12)
Here’s a budget-friendly wine that shows nice layering of fruit and herb flavors, focusing on strawberry and citrus with notes of bay leaf and flowers.  Chill it up and wait for the sun to come out, or let the rain fall and let it take you to the sunny spot in your imagination.  93

Line 39 (California) Rosé 2022 ($11)
This is a Rosé for fans of Gin and Tonic – there’s a bitter herb character on the palate that fall in the G&T zone and it adds to the refreshing vibe in a way that would have you guessing what you might be drinking if you had it in a black glass.  No matter how many wines I taste, there are always pleasant surprises lurking.  92


8 Chains North, Middleburg (Virginia) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($28)
Sauvignon Blanc is a lot like Pinot Noir in that it can really show a sense of place that’s very specific if the winemaking is done with minimal intervention.  Virginia is yet another interesting region heard from here, this bottle bringing mellow citrus aromas that gain sharpness on the palate, with stony mineral notes and a zesty finish.  Well played!  92

Barefoot (California) Moscato NV ($7)
A miracle of large production, this wine is exactly what it’s trying to be without trying to be trendy – it was here before Drake started singing about Moscato, and it’ll be around long after anyone remembers who Drake was.  Why?  Because it’s exactly what it’s trying to be – sweet and zesty, clean and bright.  With popcorn or as a dessert sip on its own, you win either way.  92

Bischofliche Weinguter Trier, Mosel (Germany) Riesling “DOM” 2021 ($23)
Yum!  This wine calls itself sweet, and technically it meets the criteria, but a taste will have you thinking it’s not far past off dry thanks to the acid balancing the sugar and making everything pop pleasantly.  Stone fruit, wet stone minerality and zesty citrus are a true pleasure here – try it with fresh fruit or mild cheeses – you won’t be sorry either way.  94

Bochorno (Spain) Viura 2022 ($14)
I learned today that Bochorno is a slang term for “hot flash.”  I don’t know whether this wine intends to manage one or bring one on, but it does manage to deliver flash.  Viura is a finicky grape to grow, but it was worth the trouble here, the result being a glass of spiced apple and stone fruit that’s dry and refreshing, lingering long into the distance – cute label aside.  93

Cerebella, Columbia Valley (Washington) Pinot Gris 2022 ($22)
You may think of Pinot Gris as more associated with Oregon, but remember that the Columbia Valley is just across the border to the north, so the variety likely has some appropriate microclimates in which to thrive.  That’s the case with this Cerebella – it’s a delicate style that you’ll want to allow to warm in the glass a bit before serving to get all the nuance.  93

Chloe, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($17)
This is a more lemon than grapefruit-driven example that’s a bit of an outlier from the region, but that’s not to say that it isn’t delicious.  The lemon note is bright, zesty and runs the gamut from start to finish, and leaves a long-lasting impression.  Sometimes a simple, single-layered wine fits the bill when pairing – whether you like a complement or a contrast, this has possibilities.  91

D&L Carinalli, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Estate 2021 ($25)
This is a very well-made wine – one that’s got richness and weight, yet it is elegantly subdued, with no jagged edges or overtly oaky character.  Think mellow with a bright acid pop in the finish that keeps the fully integrated flavors coming.  I’d serve this with a saucy halibut steak, and I’d enjoy every bite and every sip.  Nicely done!  94
D & L Carinalli, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Estate 2022 ($25)
Here’s a refined Chardonnay with nothing shouting for your attention on the nose or in the mouth – it prefers instead to let you take a moment to dig through the layered subtlety where seemingly something for everyone awaits.  There’s real purity of fruit, with apple and pear enhanced by light spice and toast notes.  Lovely!  94

Diora, Monterey (California) Chardonnay “La Splendeur du Soleil” 2021 ($20)
Winemaker James Ewart takes full advantage of a great vintage on the Central Coast, going for the full spice treatment and pulling it off thanks to riveting acidity that keeps the spice in line with the baked apple and pear fruit.  It’s a steal at twenty bucks, and you’ll likely find it for a little less than that.  Go get ‘em!  94

Fallbrook Winery, South Coast (California) Greco di Tufo Monserate Vineyard 2022 ($35)
This Italian native looks to have found a home just around the corner from my own home in north San Diego County according to this fine bottling.  It’s a white wine with jazzy fruit aromas and a grippy – yes, grippy – palate that cries out for food.  Pineapple and mango flavors have real staying power thanks to the structure.  I hope they made a lot of this stuff – wine aficionados will be in search of it soon!  92

JOLO Vineyards (North Carolina) White Wine Blend “Golden Hallows” 2022 ($28)
This producer keeps turning out the hits – whether white or red, you’ll find consistent quality.  This dry white is a blend of Vidal and Traminette that sizzles with acidity and freshness.  Tart citrus and stone fruit notes carry the day and finish brightly, keeping the fresh vibe rolling.  I always love a treat from an unexpected locale.  94

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2021 ($22)
An attractive, ripe pear aroma draws you in here, fooling you into expecting a sweet palate, but the tables are turned in this very dry, gently oaked presentation that features golden apple, pear, mild spice and a crisp finish that keeps it all coming.  Nice price, nice wine.  92

La Vieille Ferme (France) White Wine 2022 ($12)
This is a longstanding great value in French white wine that’s available widely domestically – just look for the chickens – and grab a summery taste of southern France.  Great acidity, dry stone fruit and apple.  It is vinous sunshine in a glass that really doesn’t need any help from me.  Jump in!  93

Line 39 (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($11)
A spicy side-styled Chardonnay for fans of lots of oak influence and a little sweetness.  It’s not necessarily my personal cup of tea, but it hits the style markers on the nose, delivering butterscotch and apple pie aromas and flavors that last.  While the style is something I’m seeing less of, there are still plenty of fans out there that are seeking exactly what this offers.  If your one of those, rejoice in the fact that it won’t break the bank.  90

Miramonte (California) White Wine “Opulente Blanc” 2021 ($36)
Here’s a blend you don’t see every day – It’s a little Argentina, a little Portugal and a little Cava without the fizz.  The result is oodles of white flowers and fresh ripe peach on the nose followed by a dry palate of stony mineral, lemon and stone fruit with a dash of white pepper and herb elevating everything beautifully.  Here’s to experimentation!  94

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Pinot Gris 2022 ($25)
Wow!  This is always a great bottle, but this might be one of the best ever when it comes to Pinot Gris from Navarro.  Just a faint hint of residual sugar serves to brighten everything in a way that amplifies.  This is like drinking a beautiful flower arrangement with some stone fruit, apple and citrus mixed in – if you open one in a group of four people I would estimate it will be empty in about three minutes.  Just another boffo wine from Navarro.  96

New Clairvaux (California) White Table Wine “Vina Ranch” NV ($18)
This multi-vintage wine is made by Aimee Sunseri at a Trappist monastery west of Chico in northern California.  A Rhône-styled blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, it shows rich orchard fruit over lively acidity, finishing with bright nectarine flavors lingering long.  From fish to chicken it’s a nicely priced pairing find.  93

Pajarito, Valle Central (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($13)
Chile is putting out some serious Sauvignon Blancs at serious value prices of late – many of the Valle Central and Coastal Region winemakers have embraced a regional green character while taming it back just a little to draw things into balance.  This is very attractive and refreshing, with stony mineral, soft chili pepper and citrus flavors that keep coming on in the finish.  Nice!  92

Prevailing Winds, W.O. Stellenbosch (South Africa) Chenin Blanc 2022 ($15)
A mix of apple and nectarine greets you at the rim and follows through on the palate over signature Stellenbosch stony mineral notes.  A plush midpalate crisps up in the zesty finish, making this a fine foil for fresh seafood preps with rich sauces.  Factor in the nice price and upgrade the fish!  92

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

Sacred Hill, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($19)
Yep – this is NZSB – perhaps the most easily identifiable wine and style in the world of our preferred beverage.  It’s all here – bright citrus, bright lemongrass, a little stone – in typical bold, zesty fashion, with a flavor burst in the finish that refreshes and cleanses.  When the mercury rises, look here for relief.  94

Schloss Vollrads, Rheingau (Germany) Riesling Kabinett 2021 ($34)
This medium sweet example of Riesling offers the temperance of racy acidity to tame the residual sugar content and to make this a great, food-friendly wine.  I often say that Riesling goes with everything, and I think this is one that will work in virtually any pairing situation.  95

Stemilt Creek, Columbia Valley (Washington) White Wine “Sweet Adelaide” 2022 ($20)
This medium-sweet Riesling show a lot of pleasant nutmeg character, and it’s a nice contrast to the Riesling fruit.  Pairing dessert wine with dessert can be tricky as sweet with sweet often results in taking both the food and the wine down a notch, but I would give this a spin with a slice of pumpkin pie.  Leave the sweet potato pie alone.  92

Torbreck, Barossa Valley (Australia) Semillon “Woodcutter’s” 2022 ($24)
I’ll say it out loud – we need more Semillon!  Especially when it can be made like this one – crisp, full flavored, zesty and thirst quenching.  You may know of the Shiraz under the same branding, and this is of equal if not better quality.  Fresh Meyer lemon and herbs do a long dance that’ll have you on your feet calling for an encore.  Wonderful stuff!  94

Wakefield, Clare Valley (Australia) Chardonnay “St Andrews” 2022 ($40)
Often a very restrained offering, the 2022 releases the hounds, showing butterscotch, lively oak spice, apple and sweet citrus.  All that rides the expected regional acid profile which usually means crisp and bright, but this vintage is crisp and creamy.  It’s the style that makes everyone happy – what more do you want?  95

William Hill (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($13)
The back label on this bottle gives an indication of what to expect: vibrant citrus aromas, caramel apple flavors and a long silky finish – and I would agree with everything, though the finish has some wood tone brightness that I might not describe as silky, but it’s attractive nonetheless.  It’s a good, all-purpose offering for fans of oak toast and spice that doesn’t go over the top, and you will be able to find it pretty easily.  92

Winemakers Selection, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2022 ($10)
You’ll find this wine for around seven bucks with some effort, and you’ll be getting a lot more bang for your money than you might expect on that tier.  This has a mellow entry, a vibrant midpalate and a medium long finish that pops and subsides rather quickly, leaving you clean and ready for more.  It’s always good to have some tasty options that let you spend more on the rest of the party favors.  92

Zilzie, Victoria (Australia) Sauvignon Blanc 2023 ($15)
Australian Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t get the big press that neighboring New Zealand examples get, but maybe it should if this is a representative sample.  It’s fresh and bright without the more angular character of its Kiwi counterparts, instead presenting a more integrated package of citrus, stony mineral and taut acidity.  It’s nice to have options.  93

Zilzie (Australia) Sauvignon Blanc “Selection 23” 2023 ($13)
If you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc character but wish that it was dialed back several ticks, you’ll appreciate this offering from Zilzie.  It’s got the grapefruit, grass and gooseberry going on, but I’d say it’s on five rather than eleven on the amplification scale.  Drink while watching and making fun of “Spinal Tap” and enjoy the more subtle side of “Sauvy.”  91


JOLO Vineyards Sweet Vermouth NV ($27)
This heady vermouth is built for Autumnal cocktails.  It’s very rich and leans into clove and nutmeg aromas and flavors that park in the front row as they should, but they don’t take up any extra space so you can slide your favorite Rye in effortlessly for a deeply fruited and spiced Manhattan.  My wife is gonna love this stuff.  94

New Clairvaux (California) Dessert Wine “Vino Dolce” NV ($25/375ml)
Effectively a Port-styled blend of Petite Sirah and Sirah, this is a wine type made at this monastery site for over 100 years.  It features dried berry fruit joined by notes of chocolate and Mexican mole in a warming wine that’ll have you wishing for a crackling fire and a philosophy book – if you’re a nerd like me.  But any book will do, especially if there’s some strong cheese along for the session.  94

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For complete results of the 2023 Sommelier Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit SommelierChallenge.com