Napa Dominates Winemaker Challenge

By Robert Whitley

January 30, 2018 6 min read

Three powerhouse Napa Valley wineries dominated the top awards over the weekend at the ninth annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition in San Diego. The Winemaker Challenge is one of only two U.S. wine competitions judged exclusively by professional winemakers.

V. Sattui was named winery of the year for the second consecutive year by Winemaker Challenge Director Rich Cook. Located in the heart of the Napa Valley between Yountville and Calistoga, the winery produced the wine of the year, a cabernet sauvignon from the historic Morisoli vineyard.

The V. Sattui 2014 cabernet sauvignon, Morisoli vineyard ($95) earned a score of 97 points on the 100-point scale. The V. Sattui 2016 Select Late Harvest riesling, Anderson Valley ($45) won best dessert wine with a score of 96 points.

Overall, V. Sattui took a stunning 40 medals for its 44 wines entered. The total included four platinum awards and 14 golds. V. Sattui is somewhat unique among high-profile Napa Valley wineries, for it eschews nationwide distribution and sells its wines only at the winery or online.

V. Sattui was joined in the winner's circle by two other stellar Napa Valley producers. The 2013 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Brut, Carneros ($45) took best sparkling wine, and the 2015 Cakebread Cellars reserve chardonnay, Carneros ($56) took best white. Both received a score of 95 points.

The only non-Napa Valley winery to crack the top echelon of best-of-show awards was the 2017 Hart Family Winery rose of sangiovese, Temecula Valley ($23) with a score of 94 points.

Although no foreign wines made the best-of-show list either, the foreign contingent was hardly skunked. The 2016 Heirloom Vineyards shiraz, Barossa, Australia ($40) was the highest-scoring foreign wine and the second-highest-scoring red overall, with a score of 96 points.

The Bolla 2010 Le Origini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Italy ($65) was nipping at the heels of the Aussie shiraz with a score of 95 points.

The 1,002 wines entered were most in the nine years of Winemaker Challenge. From that total, only 45 wines earned a platinum award with a score of 94 points or higher. The 18 winemaker judges evaluated the wines in panels of three. All the wines were tasted blind, meaning the name of the producer and the price of the wine were not revealed to the judges until after the results were declared official.

Complete results can be found on the Winemaker Challenge website.

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.

V. Sattui 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Morisoli Vineyard ($95) — The storied Morisoli Napa Valley cabernet vineyard is one of the biggest guns in the V. Sattui arsenal. And it never misfires, at least in my experience over the past quarter-century. This vintage is richly layered, textured and showing the depth and complexity for which Morisoli cabernets are famous. Aromas of blackberry and cassis dominate along with notes of oak vanillin, spice and graphite. Beautifully structured with firm tannins, it's a solid candidate for cellaring though rewarding to drink now. It won wine of the year at the 2018 Winemaker Challenge. Rating: 97.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2013 Brut, Carneros ($33) — Domaine Carneros sparkling wines are the epitome of elegance, floating across the palate softly but delivering a big kick in terms of complexity and nuance. This 2013 brut shows a touch of brioche with notes of citrus, pear and spice, a gentle mousse and impressive length on the finish. It won best sparkling at the Winemaker Challenge. 95 Robert Whitley Jan 30, 2018

Castello Banfi 2015 Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Tuscany, Italy ($27) — Banfi has been on a roll in recent vintages, producing exceptional wines at all price points. This rosso di Montalcino is a perfect example. Go ahead and call it a "baby Brunello" if you like, because it surely fits. This is a rosso for the ages, firmly structured and powerful enough to pass for a much more expensive brunello di Montalcino. It shows rich black-cherry fruit and spice, firm tannins and impressive length. And it's less than half the price of the brunello. It was a platinum award winner at the Winemaker Challenge. Rating: 94.

Coup de Rhone 2016 Cotes du Rhone Blanc AOC, France ($30) — White wines from France's Rhone Valley are consistently underrated and, consequently, undervalued. The 2016 Cotes du Rhone blend from Coup de Rhone makes that point emphatically. A blend of predominantly viognier with roussanne and marsanne playing a lesser role, this wine shows exceptional complexity on the nose along with a mix of honeysuckle and tropical fruits. On the palate it is soft and inviting, possessing uncommon richness without losing its structure and verve. It was a platinum award winner at the Winemaker Challenge. Rating: 94.

Horton Vineyards 2016 Rkatsiteli, Orange County, Virginia ($15) — This is primarily an East Coast grape variety popular in both New York and Virginia. Horton's expression of rkatsiteli is brilliant. It delivers a stony minerality that is invigorating, but at the same time, it shows succulent aromas of nectarine and Meyer lemon. This beautifully balanced wine exhibits crisp acidity that lifts the fruit and provides freshness and a clean finish. It was a platinum award winner at the 2018 Winemaker Challenge. Rating: 94.

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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