Our 2019 Winery of the Year

By Robert Whitley

December 31, 2019 5 min read

Over the course of the past year, I have tasted thousands of wines, judged multiple wine competitions and traveled thousands of miles to evaluate wines from Bordeaux to the Napa Valley. The wineries that sparkled are too numerous to mention.

Still, there was one that rose up and smacked me between the eyes in 2019. If you guessed it must be a winery from the famed Napa Valley, you would be wrong. France or Italy, maybe? Nope.

Oh, the usual suspects had their moments. Moet & Chandon had a great year. Castello Banfi rocked. V. Sattui was a juggernaut on the wine competition circuit — again. Duckhorn, Merry Edwards and Dutton-Goldfield all had monster performances.

Then Jeff Runquist Wines happened. First it was a remarkable run at the 37th annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge in April. Runquist, located in Amador County in California's Sierra Foothills, racked up 22 medals including two platinum and eight gold. Imagery Estates barely nosed out Runquist for winery of the year honors at that venerable competition, one of the oldest in the United States.

The Runquist performance was truly impressive, but little did I know, the winery was just getting warmed up. A couple of months later, at the annual Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition (all of the judges being accomplished and highly regarded wine journalists) in San Diego, Runquist entered 29 wines and medaled with 28 of them. That total included four platinum and 15 gold awards. In other words, 19 of the 29 wines entered earned gold or better.

This time, the wine of the year award for the Critics competition was a slam-dunk. No one else was even close, which is saying something when V. Sattui and Castello Banfi are in the house. What was most impressive about the performance was the high level of quality across the board, and how the wines were received by multiple panels of judges with stylistic preferences.

What's more, the wines of Jeff Runquist (he is founder, owner and winemaker) are produced primarily from locally grown grapes in and around Amador County. There is a long and storied history of viticulture in Amador County, with some of California's oldest vineyards, but generally speaking, the coastal wine regions of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Central Coast have overshadowed Amador in recent years.

If nothing else, Jeff Runquist has demonstrated beyond any doubt that this need not be the case. It wasn't an easy pick, but Jeff Runquist Wines is my choice as "Wine Talk" winery of the year for 2019!

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.

Cakebread Cellars 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($85) — For more than 40 years, Cakebread has been one of the flagship cabernet sauvignons of the Napa Valley, and the 2016 vintage is the exclamation point at the end of that statement. Rich and layered with a robust, juicy palate of cassis and blackberry, a hint of graphite and a dollop of oak vanillin, this is a vintage that will long be remembered. Drink now, or cellar it until 2026 at the very least. Rating: 97.

Fattoria Selvapiana 2014 "Villa Petrognano" Pomino Rosso DOC, Italy ($21) — The brilliant Italian winemaker Franco Bernabei is an influential consultant on this "super Tuscan" project, and it shows. The integration of the international grape varieties cabernet sauvignon (20%) and merlot (20%) with the indigenous sangiovese (60%) is seamless, providing structure, complexity and a touch of heft. The nose of dried cherries is classic for this region, but you will also notice hints of blackberry and plum along with a whiff of oak spice. It's beautifully balanced and clearly built for the long haul, all at a modest price. Rating: 91.

FEL 2017 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($38) — This Mendocino County property is owned by the Cliff Lede family, famous for its splendid Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. As it turns out, Lede also has a deft hand with pinot noir. The 2017 FEL from Anderson Valley is a seductive example, showing aromas of dark cherry and spice on the nose; a rich, juicy palate; and excellent persistence through the finish. Rating: 90.

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. Email Robert at [email protected]

Photo credit: JillWellington at Pixabay

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