The annual Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition brings together many of the nation's most prominent wine journalists once a year to evaluate recently released wines. The judges are celebrated wine authorities, such as Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, authors of the "Wine for Dummies" series, and Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing and Sharing Wine." They sip and spit and make copious notes before rendering a verdict on each wine entry placed before them.
While I participate in the initial evaluations, I also have the opportunity as Director and Chief Judge of the Critics Challenge to taste and review the platinum wines after the other judges have had their say. Wines are awarded silver, gold or platinum awards, platinum being the highest accolade a judge can bestow. Sampling the platinum winners is a treat because every bottle I taste has already been vetted and approved by another judge.
In this week's column, I will share some of the highlights from my own experience with this year's platinum wines. One thing I will note about this group of 10 is that there seems to be a trend of exceptionally well-priced high-quality pinot noir.
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.
Yorkville Cellars 2013 "Richard the Lion-Heart," Rennie Organic Vineyard, Yorkville Highlands ($44) — This Bordeaux-style blend from Yorkville Cellars offers ripe black fruit aromas with a note of floral and oak spice. The tannins are supple and the palate smooth. A hint of licorice on the finish adds complexity. Rating: 96.
Anthony & Dominic 2012 Pinot Noir, Napa Valley ($20) — Add Anthony & Dominic to the growing list of wineries making above-average pinot noir at affordable prices. This one is earthy, showing notes of raspberry and strawberry, with hints of cola and forest floor and a note of fall spice. Rating: 94.
Castello Banfi 2012 Belnero, Toscana IGT, Italy ($29) — This dark beauty of Belnero has a profile of sweet ripe black fruits. Not sugary sweet, but sweet as in juicy and succulent. This wine is generally referenced as a super Tuscan, but it fits my personal definition, taking advantage of the excellent and diverse vineyards of Castello Banfi. Everything about the Belnero is seamless. With tremendous purity of dark fruits and the restrained presence of oak, this is a spicy Tuscan wine. It is supple and friendly for those who would choose to drink it now; it is rewarding for those who choose to wait a few years until secondary aromas slowly emerge. The bottom line is this: For its price, it is one of the greatest values in the world in red wine. Rating: 94.
J. Lohr 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Carol's Vineyard, St. Helena ($25) — J. Lohr typically does its best work with grapes from Monterey County, Calif. and the Paso Robles region of California. However, sauvignon blanc fans might make the case for J. Lohr's Napa Valley sauvignon, sourced from Carol's Vineyard in St. Helena, Napa Valley. It is an outstanding example of the Bordeaux-style sauvignons that are Napa's best expression of the grape variety. The 2014 Carol's exhibits notes of white peach and citrus, with hints of spice and excellent tension between fruit an acid. Rating: 94.
Rodney Strong 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Vineyards, Alexander Valley ($28) — Under the direction of winemaker Rick Sayre, Rodney Strong Vineyards has been among California's most consistent performers over the past 25 years, routinely cranking out award-winning wines while keeping prices affordable. This Alexander Valley cabernet is only one of many examples. It has everything a cab-lover looks for: richness and complexity without weight or too much oak, a supple mouthfeel that makes it enjoyable now (although it has tremendous potential to age), and above all, a seriously high yum factor. Kudos to Sayre and his winemaking team. Rating: 94.
V. Sattui 2013 Malbec, Napa Valley ($43) — The malbec style hasn't taken hold with American winemakers despite the popularity of the Argentinean malbec. So, it's a rare sight to come across a domestic malbec, and an even more rare sight to find one that is simply stunning, as this V. Sattui clearly is. It shows exceptional fruit purity with complex layers of blueberry and boysenberry, a touch of oak spice and firm but well-integrated tannins. Rating: 94.
McPherson Cellars 2015 Viognier, Texas ($13) — Winemaker Kim McPherson has a golden touch with the Rhone grape varieties at his Lubbock, Texas winery. He avoids the tendency in the New World to pick this northern Rhone grape variety too late and with high levels of sugar. The McPherson viognier is round and juicy on the palate, but also firmly structured and balanced. It shows notes of stone fruits, honeysuckle and spice. It won a platinum award at the 2016 Critics Challenge. Rating: 93
Frei Brothers 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve, Russian River Valley ($27) — The Frei Brothers 2013 reserve shows the depth and richness that is typical of Russian River pinots. It has impressive flavor intensity, but isn't heavy and doesn't lose the nuance of elegance that is essential to a top-notch pinot. This vintage offers layered red and black fruit complexity with silky tannins and a long seductive finish. Rating: 92.
Ron Rubin 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($25) — This vintage from Rubin is decidedly floral and spicy, while it delivers aromas of strawberry, dark fruits and spice on the palate. The use of oak is pleasantly restrained, and the finish lingers. It's done well and sells at a beautiful price. Rating: 92.
Francis Ford Coppola 2014 Pinot Noir, Director's Cut, Russian River Valley ($27) — Coppola's Director's Cut pinot from the excellent 2014 vintage is yet another in the recent string of outstanding California pinots released to sell under $30. This one's spicy, with bright red fruits, a hint of cola and a soft, smooth palate. Rating: 90.
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 www.creators.com.