One of the reasons I judge wine competitions is the opportunity to taste a lot of wines I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. That’s particularly true in competitions that attract entries from across the country and around the world, like the Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition in San Diego.
Wine is now produced in all 50 states, and my fellow judge – Jeff Siegel, a writer from Dallas – and I judged a number of examples, some of them excellent, from places like Missouri and Wisconsin. Such wines are often produced from grapes unfamiliar to most wine drinkers, native and hybrid varieties such as norton, vignoles, seyval blanc and traminette. A lot of the hybrids are developed to be cold-hardy and/or disease-resistant, so the grapes can be grown in climates that are less friendly than, say, the Mediterranean climate of California.
It’s easy to have a California-centric view of the U.S. wine industry, but these wines are a great reminder that there are serious-minded vintners all over the country.
A standout winery was St. James Winery, which is southwest of St. Louis, Mo. We gave high scores to several of the wines, most of which were relatively inexpensive. For example, there was the non-vintage St. James Cynthiana ($11), which displays ripe, lively berry, some floral notes and medium tannins. It’s easy to drink but has some grip. Cynthiana is another name for the norton grape; the winery has a more serious, expensive norton in its Winemaker Series, the 2017 Norton 42 ($50). It’s savory and interesting, with bright cherry, white pepper and firm but approachable tannins.
The winery had some great whites, too. The 2016 St. James Vignoles ($15) is pretty and floral, with stone fruit and a hint of sweetness. The 2016 The Folly ($25), a blend of mostly valvin muscat and vignoles, with a bit of aromella and traminette, is also quite floral, with fresh white fruit and some musky notes. The non-vintage Friendship School White (a steal at $9) is another blend and is classified as medium-dry. It’s on the sweet side, with pretty white fruit, candied lime and a slight floral note. All the above wines are from the Ozark Highlands American Viticultural Area.
I also enjoyed two white wines from Wisconsin. The 2017 Wollersheim Prairie Fumé ($9.50) is 100 percent seyval blanc and carries an “American” appellation. The wine is very fresh and a little floral, with candied lime and nice tension. Delicious and affordable. There was also the 2016 Villa Bellezza Zitella White Wine ($18), a blend of prairie star and la crescent. (Yes, those are grape varieties.) The wine, from the Upper Mississippi River Valley appellation, was classified as medium-sweet and had sweet-tart flavors of tangerine, candied citrus, some floral notes and a lingering finish.
Judging any competition can be a little grueling, though. You might think that wineries enter only the best of the best. In a lot of cases, you would be wrong. There’s plenty of mediocre or even unpleasant wine to slog through. And you’re typically tasting more than 100 wines in a day.
At the Critics Challenge, two categories that were particularly good for our panel were pinot noir and dry rosé. I’ll tell you in a later post about some of the better rosés, but what follows are some of the highlights among the pinot noirs.
From California, we rewarded the 2015 Buena Vista Carneros Pinot Noir ($25), which displays bright red fruit, a forest floor note and a hint of oak spice, and the 2016 Mossback Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($25), which is more structured, with dark fruit and a hint of forest floor. Carneros and Russian River are well-known for pinot; Lake County, not so much. But that was the origin of the 2016 Writer’s Block Pinot Noir ($18), which had a fairly light color along with red berry fruit, judicious use of oak and firm structure.
There was also a very good pinot from Oregon, the 2016 King Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($29), which offers dark fruit and cola flavors, with some spicy notes.
A pair of J. Lohr wines that we judged went on to be named co-winners of best Bordeaux-style blend. The 2014 J. Lohr Cuvée PAU ($50), dominated by cabernet sauvignon, is dark and dense, with lively black fruit, roasted coffee, nice freshness and refined tannins, while the 2014 Cuvée POM ($50), dominated by merlot, has edgier tannins and could use some time in the bottle. Both wines are made from Paso Robles grapes.