Family Wineries Shine In San Diego

By Robert Whitley

June 9, 2020 6 min read

The 38th annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge, the third-oldest wine and spirits competition in the United States, staged what amounted to a family affair over Memorial Day Weekend. The biggest winners, including winery of the year, V. Sattui, were three family wineries from California.

Sattui, of course, is a perennial overachiever from the Napa Valley and pretty much dominates every wine competition it enters. Jeff Runquist Wines hails from the less renowned Sierra Foothills, where winemaker Jeff Runquist is climbing toward legendary status with wines of impeccable purity and balance. Navarro Vineyards, founded by Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn in 1973, now has their two children, Aaron and Sarah, on the team; the wines are the pride of Mendocino County's Anderson Valley and have never been better.

The numbers tell the story. V. Sattui entered 27 wines in the 2020 San Diego challenge. All but one earned a medal. Two V. Sattui cabernet sauvignons, the 2016 Mount Veeder ($92) and the 2016 Vangone Vineyard ($140), tied for wine of the year with scores of 98 points each. Sattui also had three best-of-class winners: a blended red, a malbec and a syrah. Sattui racked up a stunning 10 platinum awards along with 12 gold medals and four silver.

Runquist entered 28 wines and medaled with 26 including three best-of-class awards for its barbera, a sangiovese and a tempranillo. Add to that 17 gold medals and six silver and it was quite the impressive performance.

Navarro scored a tie for best-of-show rose with both its rose of pinot noir and its regular rose, as well as best-of-class awards for its dry muscat and pinot gris. Overall, Navarro picked up seven platinum awards, eight gold and five silver to finish with 20 medals from 21 wines entered.

The family theme carried over into the race for wine company of the year, where Trinchero Family Wines (based in the Napa Valley) narrowly edged E. & J. Gallo (based in Modesto, California) for this year's honor. Trinchero entered 52 wines (covering multiple brands) and took 43 medals, including a platinum and 19 gold. E. & J. Gallo entered 71 wines over multiple brands and earned 56 medals including a platinum and 26 gold.

Wine company of the year is determined by the slugging percentage and is based on a formula that weighs platinum, gold and silver awards.

Complete results of the San Diego challenge, including all best-of-show and best-of-class awards, can be found at

Tasting Notes

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.

V. Sattui 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder ($92) — Situated on the west side of the Napa Valley, Mount Veeder catches the morning sun. Then it's often in the shadow of the afternoon sun. This creates a slightly cooler microclimate than that of the east side of the valley. Consequently, I find these wines, particularly cabernet sauvignon, slightly more firmly structured than those from across the valley floor. They are typically beautifully balanced, too, and tend to age exceptionally well. This is a Mount Veeder beauty from Sattui, and it was co-wine of the year at the 38th annual San Diego challenge. Rating: 98.

Jeff Runquist 2018 Tempranillo, Liberty Oaks Vineyard, Jahant District, Lodi ($27) — Fruit purity is the signature of most Jeff Runquist wines, and this tempranillo has it in spades. Showing bright aromas of blueberry and currant, it is beautifully structured with impressive weight, length and a gentle touch of wood spice. It makes one wonder why more vintners don't plant this noble Spanish grape variety. Rating: 95.

Jeff Runquist 2018 Sangiovese, Pioneer Hill Vineyard, Amador County ($27) — If you buy into the argument that most California sangiovese pales in comparison to the finest examples from Italy's Tuscan region, you obviously haven't tasted Runquist. The 2018 from Pioneer Hill Vineyard is richly layered, shows luscious notes of black cherry and wood spice, and has the potential to improve in the bottle over the next decade or so. Rating: 94.

New Clairvaux 2017 Petite Sirah, Poor Souls Block, Tehama ($25) — Darkly colored as you might expect from the petite sirah grape, this vintage from the Trappist monks shows off the modern expression of petite sirah with exquisite balance and supple tannins. It's a steal at this price. Rating: 94.

Ranchita Canyon 2016 Divin, Paso Robles ($34) — For the money, this is one of the finest examples of a red Bordeaux-style blend made in California. This seamless blend combines all five prominent Bordeaux red grapes: cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. Supple and easy to drink now, it has exceptional balance that will carry it nicely for a decade or more. This vintage exhibits complex layers of red and black fruits with a subtle note of wood spice. Rating: 94.

Rodney Strong 2018 Upshot, California ($28) — Rodney's Strong's Upshot white blend is as eclectic as eclectic can be, combining chardonnay, grenache blanc, gewurztraminer, pinot noir (you read that right), viognier and sauvignon blanc. But it works. Aromas of stone fruit, melon and spice with a hint of citrus waft from the glass. Each whiff is slightly different. The balance is exquisite. Brilliant! Rating: 94.

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 by Kym Ellis

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