As usual, the annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition — staged in San Diego over the Memorial Day weekend — spit out a fair number of surprises.
The judges are an eclectic group of renowned wine journalists — such as Jon Bonne, Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women"; and Stephen Brook of London, an editor at Decanter and a prolific author of award-winning wine books — who are just as apt to fall in love with a $25 wine as they are with a $100 wine.
That's exactly what happened when it came to the vote for wine of the year. The initial ballot resulted in a tie between the 2000 Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne ($139) and the 2006 Clayhouse Petite Sirah ($25) of Paso Robles. To the amazement of some, the Clayhouse Petite edged the Perrier-Jouet in the runoff — quite an outcome considering Champagnes had taken wine of the year in three of the previous five Critics Challenges.
The other huge surprise was delivered by La Cereza, a winery located in sunny southern California. La Cerza's 2008 Viognier ($25) was voted Best of Show white wine, and its 2006 Shiraz ($19) received a platinum award. Both wines are appellation Temecula.
Platinum is the highest accolade presented at the Critics Challenge. All gold-medal wines that are nominated for the Best of Show vote are automatically elevated to platinum. There were 86 platinum medals this year and 263 golds.
Other notable performances abounded. The Napa Valley winery V. Sattui racked up five platinums, three golds and eight silvers and was named Winery of the Year for the western United States. Missouri's St. James Winery (two platinum, four gold and 10 silver) captured the honor for the eastern United States.
Perrier-Jouet, with two Champagnes in the Best of Show sparkling wine vote, including the winner, was named winery of the year from Europe; Graffigna, of San Juan, Argentina, was tops in the Southern Hemisphere with one platinum, two golds and a silver.
Among the other wineries that caught my eye, Concannon stood out with eight golds and five silvers. The Livermore Valley, Calif., winery is well recognized for high quality at modest prices, and is a consistent winner on the wine competition circuit.
Two northern California sparkling wine producers — Gloria Ferrer (Sonoma's Carneros region) and Mumm Napa Valley — were impressive. Gloria Ferrer swept two platinum medals, six golds and one silver. Mumm, with far fewer entries, earned two platinums and one gold.
Mendocino's Navarro Vineyards was a strong contender for winery of the year in the western United States with two Best of Show wines — 2008 Rose ($16.50) and 2007 Late Harvest Riesling, Cluster Select ($59) — and five golds. The late harvest Riesling also took the Best of Show dessert category at the Monterey Wine Competition earlier in the year.
Monterey County's Ventana Vineyards also continued to roll, claiming three platinums and narrowly missing out on the Best of Show red wine award with its 2007 Rubystone ($18), a Rhone-style wine that recently won Best of Show red at the Riverside, Calif., wine competition. The Ventana Rubystone and Clayhouse Petite Sirah were tied after the first ballot of the Best of Show vote, but the Clayhouse took it in the next round.
I was pleased to see a few personal favorites emerge victorious, especially Smith-Madrone's 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District ($45) with a platinum. Smith-Madrone could easily fetch higher prices for its highly regarded mountain cabernet, but owner Stu and Charlie Smith are sticklers about keeping their prices affordable even though they live in the high-rent Napa Valley.
And as an avid follower of the rising tide of quality throughout Spain, I was hardly surprised when six Spanish wines — Paco & Lola 2008 Albarino, Rias Baixas ($22), Cameron Hughes 2007 Garnacha Lot 129, Campo de Borja ($20), Ysios 2004 Rioja Reserva ($30), Vaza 2004 Rioja Crianza ($15), Montecillo 2003 Rioja Reserva ($19) and Valdubon 2003 Ribera del Duero Crianza ($18) — showed up in the Best of Show vote.
In fact, international entries were well represented in the final round, including wines from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
Complete results of the 2009 Critics Challenge, and bios of the judges, can be found at www.criticschallenge.com. Excerpts of the judges' tasting notes will be added to the results page as soon as the editing process has been completed.
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.