Over the course of my 29-year career as a wine columnist, I've staged more than 70 wine competitions and judged countless others. Each of those events has brought new insights and occasional revelations.
The 16th annual Critics Challenge in San Diego June 8-9 delivered a revelation. Jeff Runquist, who took his first winemaking position at California's Montevina Winery in 1982, has emerged as a rock star this year, his 37th year on the job.
Early in his career, Runquist made the leap from Amador County to the Napa Valley, where he made wines briefly at the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery before a stint at J. Lohr in California's Central Coast. By 1995, the then-highly regarded Runquist struck out on his own and started Jeff Runquist Wines, crushing 10 tons of Amador zinfandel that was released in 1997.
In the years since, Runquist's wines have been synonymous with fruit purity and balance. They took their share of medals at major wine competitions but didn't make waves. Those days are over. The Jeff Runquist Wines portfolio became a tsunami this year, dominating at the Critics Challenge with 28 medals won for 31 wines entered including four platinum, 15 gold and 9 silver. Runquist wines also claimed five best-of-class awards.
The stunning performance earned Runquist the domestic winery of the year award. The import winery of the year award was a tie between Castello Banfi, the Italian powerhouse from the Tuscany region, and France's Moet & Chandon Champagne house. That's rarefied air and very elite company for a relatively small winery from California's Sierra Foothills.
It was virtually impossible to separate Banfi and Moet & Chandon in the final analysis. Castello Banfi entered nine wines and took four platinum and five gold. Moet & Chandon entered four Champagnes and earned three platinum and one gold.
And in a new category this year, E&J Gallo of Modesto, California, was named wine company of the year, edging The Wine Group of Livermore, California. Gallo entered 91 wines and earned 70 medals including four platinum and 34 gold. The Wine Group was just a step behind with 64 medals from 84 wines entered, including three platinum and 32 gold.
The new category was created to promote and acknowledge excellence in the area of wine companies that produce multiple brands. Complete results of the 2019 Critics Challenge, judged exclusively by professional wine journalists, can be found at CriticsChallenge.com.
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.
Banfi 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva, Italy ($18.99) — When Banfi, an important player in Tuscany's Montalcino district, moved into the neighboring Chianti Classico region some years back, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Banfi team emerged as a star in Chianti as well. The 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva is a riveting wine, showing a savory top note along with gorgeous cherry fruit and dusty tannins. It's built for the long haul but enjoyable now. Rating: 94.
Dark Horse 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($9.99) — This Gallo brand demonstrates the remarkable ability of the Gallo family to put a beautiful wine for the dinner table at a price most everyone can handle. The 2016 cab shows ripe blackberry and plum notes, a touch of spice and smooth tannins. Rating: 91.
Natura 2018 Carmenere, Chile ($9.99) — Just as malbec shines in Argentina, carmenere, the forgotten grape of Bordeaux, excels in Chile, especially in warmer zones. On top of that, the price for good carmenere from Chile is dirt-cheap. This beauty from Natura shows notes of red currant and cherry, a touch of oak spice and impressive balance. Rating: 94.
Ledson 2016 Mes Trois Amours, Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($48) — Winemaker/owner Steve Ledson has recovered a lost art with this wine, a red Rhone-style blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. It once seemed California vintners were about to embrace red Rhone blends, but the movement has stalled in recent years. This one is gorgeous. It delivers complex layers of red and black fruits with impressive depth and a long, spicy finish. Rating: 95.
Trefethen 2018 Dry Riesling, Oak Knoll District ($26) — It's a sad fact that most of this delicious Napa Valley riesling will be consumed too young, before it's had a chance to really show its stuff. Firmly structured and beautifully balanced, this vintage exhibits notes of fresh lime, wet stone and flinty minerality. It's absolutely gorgeous now, but it has the potential to improve over the next decade if properly cellared. My solution would be to buy a case and cellar half while drinking the other half. 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 www.creators.com.
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