The Contenders

By Robert Whitley

May 29, 2018 6 min read

Over the Memorial Day weekend, 18 prominent wine journalists gathered in San Diego, California, to evaluate more than 1,400 wines and spirits at the 15th annual Critics Challenge Wine Competition.

Among others, the lineup of judges included Linda Murphy, former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and co-author (with Jancis Robinson) of "American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States"; Rebecca Murphy, wine columnist for the Dallas Morning News; renowned wine blogger ("1WineDude") Joe Roberts; wine-book author and frequent "Today" show wine-expert guest Leslie Sbrocco; Wine Review Online editor Michael Franz; and Strasbourg, France-based writer Panos Kakaviatos, a contributor to Harpers Wine & Spirit and Decanter magazines.

The evaluations produced more than 100 platinum medals and a host of strong performances by individual wineries. Competition for the Director's Award for winery of the year was fierce. The final decision will be made later this week by Director Rich Cook and yours truly (I'm the executive director) following additional tastings that will also determine winners of the best of show, best of class and wine of the year awards.

The following are the most obvious contenders:

Banfi is the powerhouse Italian producer from Tuscany's Montalcino district. It took 10 medals, including two platinum and six gold. Its 2013 Brunello di Montalcino, which costs $80 and received 98 points, is a solid contender for wine of the year. On a personal note, I've been tasting the Banfi wines going on 25 years and this is close to the finest Brunello I have tasted from this property.

Barefoot Cellars and Barefoot Bubbly took three platinum awards, five gold and 12 silver between them. When your wines retail between $6 and $9, that kind of showing is very, very impressive. Given the volume (11 million cases annually), the consistency is remarkable.

Concannon Reserve gave a big shout-out to the oft-overlooked Livermore Valley, east of San Francisco, with three platinum awards, two gold and four silver. And Concannon Vineyard took home two silvers. That's probably not enough for Concannon to claim the big prize, but it's a sensational showing nevertheless.

Eberle Winery of Paso Robles, California, took eight medals, seven of them gold or better. This is a feather in the cap of winemaker Chris Eberle (no relation to owner Gary Eberle), who moved to Paso Robles from Australia two years ago to take the reins at this iconic Central Coast winery.

Frank Family Vineyards only entered five wines but won gold medals with each. This Napa Valley winery is very solid with cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

Korbel Vineyards has been making budget sparkling wine in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley for as long as I can remember. It has never been better. The flagship Korbel Natural earned a platinum award to go with five gold and one silver.

Moet & Chandon is one of the giants of the Champagne industry, and it played a giant at the Critics Challenge. It entered five wines and earned a platinum award for each. It's hard to do better than that.

Navarro Vineyards is a small family-run winery in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, but it's a big player in California wine. Navarro earned 13 medals, including one platinum and eight gold. The wines are stunning and the prices reasonable, a winning combination.

Rodney Strong, so underrated all these years, took 13 medals, including two platinum and six gold. This Sonoma County winery was among the earliest in California to embrace chardonnay, and its chardonnay is exceptional to this day.

St. James Winery of Missouri is probably the finest winery in the Midwest, working with hybrid grape varieties and producing stunning fruit wines. St. James turned in an impressive performance with two platinum awards, 10 gold and eight silver. It's a very strong contender.

V. Sattui is a perennial contender at major wine competitions, and it fired on all cylinders at the Critics Challenge. It bagged five platinum awards to tie Moet in that category and then added 11 gold and 11 silver. That's a stunning 27 medals for this Napa Valley winery. The wines are sold only at the winery or online.

Zonte's Footstep specializes in Australia's Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale, producing elegant wines from those two relatively cool climates. Zonte's was shut out in the platinum medal hunt but scored big with eight gold medals and four silvers for 12 medals overall.

A complete list of medal winners is now posted on the Critics Challenge website. Winners of the Director's Awards will be announced later this week.

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

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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