The Big Winners

By Robert Whitley

June 5, 2018 6 min read

The 15th annual Critics Challenge Wine Competition, judged exclusively by prominent wine journalists and staged in San Diego, California, in May, boiled down to one knotty problem: too many very, very good wines. As problems go, this is a good one to have, but it made deciding the recipients of director's awards something of a challenge.

Consideration for wine of the year was most contentious, with six to eight solid contenders. After considerable deliberation, competition Director Rich Cook announced this week that the Judd's Hill 2015 cabernet sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley ($80) emerged as domestic wine of the year and the 2013 Castello Banfi brunello di Montalcino, Italy ($80) was selected for foreign wine of the year.

Both wines are red, and both impressed the judges and the competition directors, including yours truly, with their remarkable structure and complexity. On a personal note, the Banfi brunello is one of the finest I have tasted from Banfi in more than a quarter-century as a wine journalist.

Winery of the year was a bit less agonizing. Cook announced that the Champagne house Moet & Chandon, winning five platinum awards for its five wines entered as well as best of show sparkling wine for its 2009 Grand Vintage Brut Rose ($70), had been tabbed as foreign winery of the year. The Napa Valley winery V. Sattui, also with five platinum awards and a slew of others, was chosen as domestic winery of the year.

All of the results, including the director's awards for best of class and best of category, can be found at on the challenge website. It should be noted that not all of the big winners were uber-expensive. The wines chosen for this week's tasting notes all won a platinum award at the 2018 Critics Challenge and retail for $23 or less.

Best Value

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.

Locations E5 Red Wine, Spain ($20) — If there were such a thing as a miracle worker in the wine biz, winemaker Dave Phinney would fit the description. He continues to amaze with nonvintage red blends that dazzle. The E5 is sourced from Spain, from multi-vintages, of course, and it exhibits remarkable complexity and drinkability. It's a blend of grenache, tempranillo, monastrell and carignan, and it is unequivocally mouthwatering and delicious, with a core of ripe black fruit and supple tannins. The price is beautiful, too. Rating: 93.

Robert Hall 2015 Syrah, Paso Robles ($20) — This smoky, savory syrah from Paso Robles is perfect for the summer barbecue. Showing notes of ripe blueberry and blackberry, it's lush and full-bodied with smooth tannins and a smoked meat nuance that will complement frilled steaks and chops. And the price makes it an amazing value, too. Rating: 93.

Imagery Estate 2015 Pinot Noir, California ($17) — Delicious pinot noir for less than $20 a bottle would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. This beauty from Imagery is another in a growing trend as winemakers have learned to successfully navigate the perils of the sometimes-tricky pinot noir vine. What this vintage brings to the table is an uncommon elegance, beautiful balance and delicate aromas of cherry and strawberry with a subtle note of wood spice. It's easy to drink and easy on the wallet. Rating: 92.

Cuvee Joelle 2017 Rouge, Comte Tolosan IGP, France ($18) — This vast appellation is a catch-all for the wines of southwestern France that don't fit into smaller, more established appellations. Cuvee Joelle is a common red blend for the area, with 80 percent merlot and 20 percent malbec. This delightful red is fruity and supple, showing bright-red fruits and smooth tannins. It's meant for easy drinking in the near term. Rating: 91.

Tasting Notes

Feudo Ducale 2017 Aglianico, Beneventano IGT, Italy ($23) — Aglianico is the money grape of the Campania region of Italy, where long-lived red wines famous for their hard tannins are produced. It usually takes years for these wines to come around, but this very young Aglianico shows signs of early drinkability. The tannins are firm but not unmanageable, and they allow the pretty cherry notes to shine. A hint of sweet tobacco provides additional complexity of aroma. It's a steal at the price. Drink now, or hold on to it. Rating: 96.

B.R. Cohn 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Olive Hill Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($58) — The Olive Hill Vineyard has long been one of the Sonoma Valley's exceptional sites for cabernet sauvignon. Winemaker Helen Turley put this vineyard on the map more than three decades ago, and long after she left B.R. Cohn, it remains a local icon. This vintage is rich and lush, with complex aromas of red and black fruits, a generous dose of wood spice and supple tannins that make the wine accessible now, though previously vintages have aged well. 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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