Winemaker Challenge: V. Sattui and Castello Banfi Shine

By Robert Whitley

January 31, 2017 6 min read

The eighth annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition is in the books, and the two biggest winners were the Napa Valley winery V. Sattui and Italy's Castello Banfi.

V. Sattui, a perennial star at this event, was named winery of the year, and Castello Banfi's brilliant Super Tuscan, Excelsus, took the honor of wine of the year.

V. Sattui's performance was nothing short of stunning. It entered 35 wines, 31 of which earned medals from the judging team of 19 professional winemakers. The haul included three platinum awards, 18 gold and 10 silver.

Sonoma County's Francis Ford Coppola Winery was a strong contender for winery of the year with 32 medals out of 40 entered, though there were no platinum medals and fewer gold.

V. Sattui is unique among California wineries in the sense that its wines are not distributed through normal wine marketing channels. They are available for purchase only at the winery or on its website.

Castello Banfi's Excelsus is an international blend of merlot (60 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (40 percent) grapes grown in the Tuscan district of Montalcino, a region most famous for Brunello di Montalcino made from sangiovese. Excelsus is considered one of Italy's most collectible red wines.

Complete results for the Winemaker Challenge are available on the challenge website.

This week's tasting notes are taken from my own personal tastings of the wines awarded platinum (full disclosure, I am the executive director of the Winemaker Challenge). The scores are my own, although they sometimes coincide with the numerical ratings awarded by the judges.

It should be noted that the winemakers evaluate each wine blind, meaning they have no knowledge of the producer. The blind tasting is common at most wine competitions, the goal being to eliminate any hint of bias in the evaluations.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Castello Banfi 2012 Excelsus, Toscana IGT, Italy ($91) — Banfi has been on a long roll, and it continues with this vintage of Excelsus. Merlot is dominant in this vintage (60 percent), and cabernet sauvignon takes a secondary role. At this early stage of its evolution, it's bold and powerful yet remarkably elegant and inviting. With impressive weight and length, this is a monumental wine for the ages with the potential to improve over the next 20 to 25 years. Rating: 97.

Dandelion Vineyards 2015 Riesling 'Wonderland of the Eden Valley,' Australia ($60) — Outside of France and Germany, the best place in the world to grow riesling is Australia. And one of the best terroirs in Australia is the Eden Valley. This vintage from Dandelion is a stunning wine that will likely improve in the bottle over the next 20 years and then hold its form for another 20. Dry and minerally with firm acids that will cloak the fruit potential for some time to come, this is a magnificent wine that rivals the best dry rieslings from the Alsace or Mosel regions. Rating: 97.

PasoPort Wine Company 2013 Touriga Nacional 'Per Caso,' Adelaida District ($49) — Touriga Nacional isn't widely planted in the United States, perhaps because it is closely identified with sweet Port wine. But dry table wines made from Touriga are growing in popularity in Portugal, a trend that would seem to be a natural for California's Mediterranean climate. If this beauty from the PasoPort Wine Company is any indication, more California vintners should be planting this grape. The Per Caso is a stunning red that offers layered aromas of blueberry, boysenberry and black currant, a subtle note of cedar and graphite, and surprisingly smooth, seductive tannins. Rating: 97.

Ron Rubin Vineyards & Winery 2014 Pinot Noir, Gunsalus Vineyard, Green Valley of Russian River Valley ($38) — Ron Rubin, a rising star in California wine, has delivered another stunning pinot noir with this 2014 from the Green Valley's Gunsalus Vineyard. Green Valley is cooler than many other parts of the Russian River Valley of California, allowing the winemaker to build structure. The Gunsalus is firmly structured and exquisitely balanced, showing a seductive cherry fruit aroma with a gentle touch of wood spice. Rating: 97.

V. Sattui 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Preston Vineyard, Napa Valley ($75) — V. Sattui has so many arrows in its quiver that you can hardly miss with any of its vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignons. This vintage from the Preston Vineyard is deep and brooding, its best years somewhere off in the distant future. Firmly structured and impressively layered, it's a rich Napa Valley cabernet with dark fruits that is destined for greatness. But it needs time to realize its full potential, so be patient! Rating: 97.

Black Stallion Estate Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($30) — Just when you think you might have been priced out of top-notch Napa Valley cabernet, Black Stallion comes along and demonstrates that good Napa cab at a value price is not an impossible dream. Black Stallion is the Napa redoubt of Delicato Family Vineyards, and its 2013 estate cab is a steal for the price. Showing abundant ripe fruit on the nose, the palate follows through with those same gorgeous aromas of blackberry and blueberry with a hint of wood spice and cedar. Rating: 95.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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