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Makers' Marks: The 15th Annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition Platinum Award Winners
By Rich Cook
Apr 19, 2023
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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.  This event is unique in that the products involved were tasted by creators of wine across a swath of time, from young up-and-comers like Mollie Haycock and Sierra Zeiter to long time winemakers like Jon McPherson and his brother Kim, as well as our 2022 Winemaker of the Year Nicole Hitchcock.  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 personal scores and impressions of the 51 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, rosés and sparklers:

Bella Luna, Templeton Gap District (Paso Robles, California) Red Wine “Estate Riserva” Carly’s Vineyard 2019 ($58):  I went absolutely gaga over the 2018 version of this wine, and I’m glad to see this new vintage cross my desk.  This iteration features 70% Sangiovese and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it quite different in character than its predecessor, but the quality level is unchanged.  I don’t know if the winery still has both vintages available, but it’s worth checking, as the pair would make a perfect display of what a great winemaker can do with what a site offers them year over year.  The mix of red fruit, herb and spice notes here is lively and satisfying – when pairing, go Italian and go big!  Absolutely riveting wine.  98

Cala de Poeti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC (Italy) Montepulciano 2021 ($17):  Part of the fun of wine competitions is the revealing of bargain wines that really deliver the goods, like this gently oaked, fruit-driven Montepulciano.  Its juicy entry, brambly fruit, and bright finish will keep a wide mix of red wine drinkers well satisfied and asking for more.  This is a great region to look to for value, and that fact is clearly exemplified here.  93

Carruth Cellars, Chalk Hill (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Franc Windsor Oaks Vineyard 2019 ($40):  San Diego area winery Carruth Cellars’ winemaker Adam Carruth always does a great job with sourcing fruit – which is a more difficult proposition in California than you might imagine.  Seas of fruit are available, but finding strong lots that you can make a deal on, especially from a single vineyard, can be daunting.  This Cabernet Franc delivers rich, ripe fruit, gentle oak spice and soft herbal character. The oak is still integrating, so give this time in the cellar.  94

Dandelion Vineyards, Eden Valley (Barossa, Australia) Shiraz “Red Queen of the Eden Valley” 2021 ($250):  This wine is often in my top twenty of the year, and my first taste of the 2021 vintage says it’s a likely candidate to make that list once again.  It takes Shiraz and elevates it to real elegance, showing floral aromas backed by black and blue fruit notes and just a hint of the regional signature menthol.  The fruit unfolds on the palate with complementary pepper, menthol and savory spice tones and finishes with impressive persistency.  This is still coming together, and so will reward long term aging if you’re of a mind to wait.  95

Eberle, Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County, California) Syrah Steinbeck Vineyard 2021 ($38):  Gary Eberle’s relationship with Howard Steinbeck goes all the way back to the very beginnings of wine in Paso Robles in the early 70’s, and they continue to squeeze magic out of the Syrah from this site.  Now shepherded to bottling by Chris Eberle, it’s been a gem in the world of California Syrah for decades.  This wine’s acidic energy is pulsing with life, and a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels make for a deeply complex spice profile.  That said, it’s completely complementary to the black and blue fruit.  This might just be the best ever offering of this bottling, and that’s saying something!  96

Grape Creek Vineyards Red Wine “Serendipity” 2020 ($50):  The label says “We didn’t plan for this wine, it just happened” – hence the name.  I’ve had opportunity to sit in on a few blending trials and have witnessed this phenomenon, so it does happen.  This is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, with assistance from Syrah and Merlot, and it makes for a compelling dark side expression with good structure and weight carrying black and blue fruit with subtle oak spice and a little dried herb.  It’s for sale in Texas only, so go straight to the source.  94

J. Lohr, Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Signature” 2019 ($100):  The seventh J. Lohr “Signature” has remained at the same price since its inception, and the quality has also remained in the same zone.  Jerry Lohr would say that this is exactly how it should be, and I know he’s proud to be able to have this flagship bottle make a bold statement year in and year out.  This recent release brings all the best of the appellation to bear, and it remains one of the better values at this price just about anywhere.  Continuing applause!  96

Jeff Runquist, Amador County (California) Barbera Reserve 2020 ($48):  Balance master Jeff Runquist has a way with Barbera.  Though the ripeness levels vary from year to year, his team always manages to find the point where the variety’s rich fruit and racy acidity find tension that awakens the palate.  Deep black cherry compote and spice aromas translate well on the bright palate, and a little citric kiss on the finish freshens and keeps the flavor pumping.  95

Jeff Runquist, Amador County (California) Barbera 2021 ($28):  This wine represents a different take on the grape than its counterparts in the Runquist lineup – one that really lets the fresh, tart fruit expression possible.  This could easily slide into a tasting of examples from Alba with only its bright spice components tipping it off as an outlier.  The red and blue fruit really sings here!  94

Jeff Runquist, Amador County (California) Zinfandel Cooper Ranch 2021 ($30):  Pepper and clove aromas start the countdown to launch, and at palate liftoff the zesty bold brambly fruit comes to life.  Cooper Vineyard can pull this off – it maintains Zinfandel’s charming pepper character even at high ripeness levels.  That pepper blasts through the finish without covering the fruit, and lemon zest notes keep things bright and mouthwatering.  Nicely stylized Zin!  95

Jolo Vineyards (North Carolina) Red Wine “Jolotage Reserve” NV ($55):  This wine might be a little tricky to locate were it not for the wonders of the internet, and I highly recommend that you avail yourself of the technology and place an order for a bottle of this, especially if you have yet to get this state on your wine radar.  Think fruit forward-Bordeaux here and you’ll have the gist of things.  Bravo!  94

Ledson, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard 2019 ($120):  Wines like this seem to beg for adjectives outside the regular descriptors in order to really convey what’s going on in the glass.  I’m going with “confident yet restrained swagger” for this offering. It is complete, and it knows it, but it doesn’t need to shout at you to let you know that.  It rides the line between old and new school expressions, offering something for everyone.  Serve this with your finest meals or the best cheese you can buy.  97

Ledson, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Red Wine “Ti Amo” Estate Vineyard 2019 ($110):  “I love you” is the English translation of this American blend of French varieties, and I can clearly picture the words being spoken to this wine in just about any language a taster might speak.  There’s plenty to love here, with Cabernet Sauvignon supported by a little Merlot and a dash of Cabernet Franc in a richly extracted, inky expression that’s long on oak spice and depth of fruit.  Steve Ledson knows how to put a team together, and this wine is a testament to that team.  95

Lorimar (California) Malbec 2019 ($62):  There was a time when “California” was the only designation that a wine from the Golden State could legally carry.  Of course, times have changed, and AVA’s and sub-AVA’s abound, but I still occasionally see a worthy bottle that keeps it simple.  It could be sourced from different areas and blended at this Temecula winery, or it could be estate grown with the winery opting to use a more macro designation.  Whatever the case here, this is delightful Malbec with clear support from Petit Verdot.  Fire up the grill.  94

Padrino Viengracia (Spain) Tempranillo 2021 ($43):  This Tempranillo doesn’t give any clues as to the specific origin within Spain, which is unusual for a wine that’s this good.  This shows the elegant side of what the grape can do, leading with soft violet aromas and following through with layered cherry, blueberry and pepper.  The rounded texture makes this ready to enjoy now, and a little acid pop in the finish will keep you coming back for more.  Nice!  94

Rodney Strong, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($30):  This venerable label has always been Cabernet Sauvignon focused, with several different bottlings available each vintage.  This vintage of the Alexander Valley is showing a little bit tight at present thanks to its oak load, but the red and black Alexander Valley character is starting to show through.  This is an excellent candidate for cellaring, and you can enjoy near term with a long decanting.  93

Sea Bird, Oakville (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Poseidon” Foxtrot Vineyard 2020 ($125):  This wine is a real – and welcome – departure from the new school styles that come from, well, let’s say, plenty of Napa producers.  This could easily fool fans of Bordeaux with its notes of earth, herb and saddle leather.  I’ve been impressed by other offerings I’ve tasted from Sea Bird, and this certainly sits near the top.  Additionally, this will be one of the rare 2020 Napa Valley reds thanks to the fires that year.  95

Sister’s Run, Santa Vicenta (Mendoza, Argentina) Malbec 2021 ($23):  Australia’s Sister’s Run reaches across the southern Pacific Ocean to source Malbec from where some would say it performs best, and it’s a fine example of Malbec’s ability to provide both rich fruit and savory character that folds into that fruit, leaving layers of aroma and flavor that entice.  The locals on both continents would pair this with a mixed meat platter, and you’d do well to follow suit.  94

Starfield Vineyards, El Dorado (California) Tempranillo 2020 ($40):  I don’t often run across Tempranillo in what I’d call a rustic style, but this one fits the bill and then some, thanks to its tannin structure.  You’ll want a fatty slab of meet to tame this beast – it’s that fat that will let the fruit side of the wine out of its cage so you can get full enjoyment out of it.  There are worse things you could do.  95

Starfield Vineyards, El Dorado (California) Red Wine “Bronson Bros.” 2020 ($40):  Here’s a bold GSM blend that gets a little boost from small percentages of Petite Sirah and Cinsault.  It shows its Sierra Foothills provenance with firm tannins that prop up flavors of blackberry, black cherry and tobacco.  It’ll benefit from pairing with angus burgers or something on the gamey side.  93

Suburban Fracas, Lodi (San Joaquin County, California) Tannat 2020 ($23):  Tannin structure is the name of the game here - a game that includes a mix of black and red fruit with peppery accents.  It’s perfect for a well marbled rib eye steak, and it’s priced in a way that you can upgrade the beef quality for a great Sunday afternoon grilling experience.  92

V. Sattui Winery, Napa Valley (California) Petite Sirah 2019 ($47):  Fans of the variety will love this wine, and it’ll win over plenty of folks who may not have the grape on their wine radar.  It’s got the boldness that the fans will appreciate, but it’s well managed with supple tannic texture and moderate oak spice that make for an approachable style.  The black and blue fruit shines through clearly.  Drink now, or age ten years for starters.  94

V. Sattui Winery, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) Zinfandel Ramazzotti Vineyard “Old Vine 2020 ($48):  I know some folks who say that Zinfandel is at best a gateway wine – one that gets people started on a wine journey, but one that gets left at a station somewhere along the route to more “noble” varieties.  Although there are some examples that might fit that bill, the same could be said of just about any variety made in a crowd-pleasing style.  This is not one of those wines.  It’s quite serious, showing dry style, firm structure, layered varietal aromas and flavors, bright acidity and a long finish.  It’s still integrating, so cellar for two to ten years, or decant well if you go in early. Yes, Zinfandel can be a final destination!  94

Wakefield/Taylors, Clare Valley/McLaren Vale (Australia) Shiraz “Jaraman” 2021 ($32):  Here’s a bold Shiraz that awaits your best lamb preparation – it’ll work from rack to shank to lollipops, its well folded menthol and mint notes complementing lively black fruit and bright brown spice in a plush yet structured package – the finish is already fully integrated, but there’s some upside to aging this for a few years as well.  I can’t say enough good things about this producer.  95

Wakefield/Taylors, Limestone Coast/Clare Valley (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($22):  This producer continues to impress regardless of price point.  Here’s a great, regionally expressive Cabernet Sauvignon for a very reasonable price yet again.  You’ll love it for its mix of back fruit, easy menthol and meat characteristics – it’s got what you want when serving lamb or red game meats.  93

Wallis Family Estate, Diamond Mountain District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($125):  One of my two favorite sub-AVA’s of Napa Valley brings us this Cabernet Sauvignon, one made beautiful through the struggle of growing in the region.  There’s a red fruit stamp that often originates from the area, and it’s well displayed here through careful oak selection that serves to accentuate the fruit without burying it.  Well done!  Made by Thomas Rivers Brown.  96


Black Girl Magic (California) Riesling 2021 ($20):  Yes, it’s well documented that I love Riesling in its many forms, and this wine makes my list in the medium sweet zone with pulsating acidity that makes the sugar seem appropriate and allows pure Riesling flavors to shine.  Magic?  Winemaker Amy Butler would tell you it’s not magic – just attention to detail and a solid fruit source that gets the job done.  Amy gets the job done with a flourish!  92

Cala de Poeti, Toscana IGT (Italy) Vermentino 2021 ($17):  Vermentino is typically all about the lemon, and if you’re a fan of the yellow fruit you’ll find a friend in this wine, which brings the lemon in full force in both aromatic and flavor profiles, with notes of melon and apple singing backup.  It’s summer refreshment at a very attractive price.  92

California Roots (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($5):  This brand is attacking the notion that you can’t have a good quality wine from California for under ten bucks.  At half that rate this delivers lively refreshment with a mix of citrus, herb, spice and wet stone with a little pith in the finish.  Big summer party?  Look to the Roots.  90

Cannonball (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($17): 
I can’t help it – whenever I see the kid in the tuck position above the water on this label, I have to yell out the brand name.  Fun, yes?  The good news is that’s there’s fun inside the bottle as well, and it’s sure to make a splash at your summer parties with fresh citrus fruit balanced with a light grassy note.  Dive in!  92

Clos du Bois (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($15):  It’s always desirable to have a solid, inexpensive wine that delivers the taste of its grape and is widely available – I’ve seen this wine in mini-marts that are between two distant points.  This is varietally correct Chardonnay, with a little oak spice and sweet fruit character.  It’ll take the sting off the road trip!  90

Dandelion Vineyards, Barossa (Australia) Roussanne “Honeypot of the Barossa” 2022 ($28):  This wine could win the Academy Award for “Blending Grape Worthy of Wider Recognition as Itself,” as it is clean and crisp, and it’s considerably less oily than other examples that I’ve tasted.  I suspect Winemaker Elena Brooks opted for an early picking date to preserve freshness and acidity and keep things on the bright side.  We all have faceted personalities – apparently grapes do as well.  94

Davis Bynum Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay River West Vineyard 2021 ($25):  Edgy butterscotch aromas are quite attractive here, and sweet apple fruit with tropical undertones and a touch of that butterscotch run through the palate and finish fresh with the butterscotch making a retro-nasal appearance.  This is a fine solo glass for those who appreciate this style – very well executed.  94

Descardo Winery (Texas) Blanc Du Bois “Spindletop” 2022 ($25):  Blanc du Bois is a relatively new hybrid grape that was developed to be resistant to the deadly (to vines) Pierce’s Disease.  This example is dry, showing a hint of latex balloon over what I can only describe as play-doh aromas.  That may sound odd, but it’s not at all off putting, it’s just outside the norm of what goes in my glass.  On the palate, it shows lively acidity, and mixed citrus and melon.  It’s more than a curiosity – it’s a nice drink.  90

Eberle, Paso Robles (California) White Wine Cotes-Du-Robles Blanc 2022 ($30):  Winemaker Chris Eberle leans into the Viognier for this blend in 2022, and the result is a wine that is boldly elegant for its fresh honeysuckle aromatics, rich texture, and balance of peach, soft herbs and pomelo flavors.  If you need a fine white wine that will cover a lot of menu bases, this will do the trick.  Contains 55% Viognier, 31% Grenache Blanc and 14% Roussanne.  94

Franciscan (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($13):  Here’s a crisp Chardonnay with lower alcohol for a California designation (a trend of late, and a good one) that keeps things on the tropical side, with pear and mango aromas and flavors, and a lemon creme note up in the finish.  Priced for porch pounding, it’ll get its fair share of use this summer.  90

Jeff Runquist, Clarksburg (Yolo County, California) Chenin Blanc Salman Vineyard 2022 ($22):  The recent Chenin Blanc resurgence in California didn’t live up to the hype in quantity, but I continue to see new producers getting into the game.  Leave it to Jeff Runquist to jump in with a fine vineyard source and make something tasty.  The pear aromas and flavors are out front, and layers of flint rock and citrus join in to make a compelling refresher that tips its cap to the Loire.  Nicely executed!  94

Navarro Vineyards, Mendocino County (California) Chardonnay 2021 ($25):  This is Navarro’s bright and breezy Chardonnay, made for fans of oaky character that runs up to the line but doesn’t go over the top.  Baked apple and wood spice are firing on all cylinders, but bracing acidity keeps things well knit together.  I’m leaning toward saucy seafood as a pairing for this.  92

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Pinot Blanc 2022 ($20):  Here’s another variety that should be more widely planted in California – in select spots, of course.  This comes from Anderson Valley, home of an annual Alsatian Festival, so it seems a natural, but I believe Navarro is the only winery there that is producing a varietally designated bottling.  In the hands of Navarro’s winemaking team, it’s a can’t miss proposition.  I’m guessing a tip or to has been picked up from the Alsace winemakers that visit each year, as this is spot on.  A true delight!  94

Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California) Sauvignon Blanc “Cuvée 128” 2022 ($25):  If you are seeking a citrus- and grass-bomb style Sauvignon Blanc, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a crisp yet elegant glass that features melon, soft lemon, stony mineral notes and a touch of fresh lime zest in the finish, look no further.  This is the style that California does the most successfully, and Navarro nails it.  What else is new?  94

Presque Isle Wine Cellars, Lake Erie (New York) Grüner Veltliner 2022 ($17):  A ripe, fresh sliced nectarine vibe gets you salivating when you get a glass of this anywhere near your nose, to the point that you’ll then expect something sweet and syrupy.  The palate turns the tables in the same way that a fine Torrontes would, showing crisp, dry style that expresses the stone fruit with a side of stony minerality that makes for extreme refreshment.  A pleasant pithy note finishes things off.  Delicious wine!  94

Provenance Vineyards, Monterey County (California) Chardonnay “Deadeye” Lot 38 2021 ($20):  This wine brings Monterey freshness to bear with measured wood influence and bright fruit character that has finish push and a touch of sweetness that will make it useful when serving larger groups.  Look for a hot day for said group and get the party started.  93

Sassoferrato, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Vermentino 2022 ($29):  I haven’t seen a bottling of Vermentino from the northern reaches of California until this one, and it makes a good argument for why it should be planted there.  Tart lemon and herbs dance together well from start to finish in mouthwatering fashion – my summer sip list is getting longer.  91

South Coast Winery, Temecula Valley (Riverside County, California) Dry Gewurztraminer 2021 ($20):  Gewurztraminer has a history in SoCal, going back the Filsinger wines in late 1970’s Temecula.  South Coast carries that tradition on with their own estate fruit, hand-picked and whole cluster pressed to make this tasty version.  Lychee, tangerine and varietal spice tones are present, fresh and forward, expressing brightly on the nose and in the mouth.  Everything lingers and begs another sip – like every great wine should.  Beautiful!  94

V. Sattui Winery, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay Carsi Vineyard 2021 ($48):  Chardonnay offers so many choices to a winemaker – it’s like a wood sculpting block in a way, just waiting for someone to release its essence while applying their own personality and preference to the work.  This Carsi Vineyard expression seems to get at both – the core of the fruit’s vineyard profile is there, and it’s accentuated nicely by the winemaking choices.  The oak spice folds beautifully with the fruit, showing it off rather than masking it in any way.  A lovely, spice laden expression of the grape variety.  95

V. Sattui Winery, Mt. Veeder (Napa Valley, California) Dry Riesling “Dancing Egg” 2021 ($31):  This appellation isn’t exactly known for this variety, but maybe it should be.  I can hear you thinking, “Here he goes on one of his Riesling rants again,” and you’d be right, but I’ll keep it confined to just this particular example.  The aromatic profile threads the needle between apple, citrus, white flowers and stone fruit, adding just a dash of petrol that boosts the other elements.  For as dry as the wine is, it manages a rich midpalate texture that delivers on the promised nose elements, leaving a freshening citrus impression on the finish.  Note to California:  More dry Riesling please.  95

Weelderige Velde, Paarl (South Africa)  Chenin Blanc “Sur Lie” 2022 ($47):  There is some very serious Chenin Blanc in South Africa, where the grape can rise to heights well beyond California or even France’s Loire Valley.  Such is the case here, where sur lie aging and some French oak conspire to elevate things beyond the ordinary.  There’s some grip here, and it serves to prop up the melon, guava and apple fruit while extending the finish as well.  Age this for a while – you won’t be disappointed.  95


Carlos Creek Winery (American) Minnterra Rosé NV ($24):  Minnesota wine?  Yes, indeed!  This is a delicious, bright, just off-dry rosé that features watermelon, strawberry and cherry fruit with some zesty citrus and real finish push.  Sounds like a description of a great rosé from anywhere, right?  The differences on display here are the unique pink color and the blend of Chambourcin and Zinfandel.  This is definitely worth seeking out.  92

Coyote Canyon, Horse Heaven Hills (Washington) Rosé “Life is Rosé” 2022 ($21):  Here’s a Rosé of Barbera that more than maintains the variety’s acid profile, and though it’s quite dry it presents a bright, fruit driven profile that belies its low sugar content.  Imagine a zesty, dry cherry lemonade with a hint of bay leaf for depth.  If your “Life Is Rosé” you’ll want to add this to your playlist.  92


Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Carneros (California) Sparkling Wine Blanc de Blancs “Le Reve” 2015 ($125):  Aaaahhhhh…here’s a dream you won’t want to wake from.  When it comes to Cuvée de Prestige sparklers, it’s hard to beat the value represented by this bottling year in and year out.  It’s easily on a par with the best that Champagne has to offer at prices that can push well beyond this.  It’s got it all — apple, pear, a little oak spice, brioche, lemon creme dry style, persistence, and best of all — pure pleasure.  The dream come true is just that yet again.  97

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Brut Cuvée 2018 ($40):  You may already appreciate King Estate for putting Pinot Gris on the map in Oregon, and you’ll appreciate them even more for this fizzy mix of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.  I’ve had a few shots at tasting this bottling over the last year or so, and every time I try it, I like it even better.  It’s really shining at this stage, with aromas of brioche and pear translating to palate flavors with ease on a fine mousse. The flavors linger long and will keep you searching for the bottom of the bottle.  Let the search begin!  94                            

For complete results of the 2023 Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition judging, including Best of Category and other special awards, visit WinemakerChallenge.com  

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