Lessons from the Critics Challenge

When the wine competitions where I’ve been a judge release their results, there are always some surprises. (All wines are judged blind.) This year’s Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition in San Diego was no exception.

At the Critics Challenge, platinum is the top medal. Wines are evaluated by panels of two. Unlike many competitions, where judges have to reach a consensus, the higher of the two scores prevails at the Critics Challenge. Ultimately, I awarded a lot of gold medals, but only four platinums.

Two of those turned out to be wines I wasn’t familiar with. The 2010 Sodaro Estate Blend ($100) is from Coombsville, in the southern end of the Napa Valley. The blend of red Bordeaux grape varieties is dominated by petit verdot. The wine combines ripe opulence with a refreshing savory character and finishes with fine tannins.

Another was the 2016 Westwood Estate Roussanne Viognier Chardonnay ($36) from Sonoma County. It offers flavors of bright apple, white stone fruit and lemongrass, married with some nice weight and richness.

Consumers who pooh-pooh wines from big companies might find my other two platinum wines surprising. One was the 2016 J Pinot Gris ($18), a wine with a California appellation that is an exemplary version of the grape variety. It’s fresh and floral, with citrus and white peach flavors and a persistent finish. J Vineyards has been owned by E&J Gallo since 2015. The other was the 2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Merlot ($24), made from Sonoma County grapes. The wine is quite refined and complex, with lively black cherry, a hint of earthiness, firm structure and good balance. The lesson? Don’t be so quick to dismiss the big guys. They can produce some excellent, affordably priced bottles.

A couple more random lessons from the competition:

We tasted nine rosés, made with a variety of grapes, including some unusual blends. The takeaway here is that some blends make sense, while others don’t. The best wine of the bunch was a traditional southern French blend of mostly syrah and grenache: the 2016 Unparalleled Rosé Cuvée ($20), a Provençal wine from Banfi (incidentally, another big guy). The wine is fresh, crisp and lively, with ample juicy strawberry fruit.

And there’s good wine being made all over the country. Case in point: the non-vintage Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard The Blessed Blend ($20), a blend of vidal blanc and chardonnay from Rhode Island, of all places, which took home a gold medal. The wine is off-dry, with grapefruit, lime and apple and plenty of brisk acidity to balance the sweetness. Quite delicious.

I went straight from the Critics Challenge to the Sunset International Wine Competition in Oakland. I’ll have more when I get those results.

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