The San Francisco International Wine Competition is the largest international wine competition in the United States. This year it took a staff of 80 to keep the wheels turning flawlessly, so the 49 professional wine judges could taste through a record 4,556 wines from over 1,300 producers from 26 countries and 29 states. The wines were evaluated by 15 panels over a three day period. Only 202 (4.4%) were awarded Double Gold medals, and it’s worth noting what that means. When a wine is given a Gold Medal, not all of the judges on a panel agree. When a wine is given a Double Gold Medal, there is no dissension. By its very nature, wine tasting is subjective. As wine professionals who have critically evaluated tens of thousands of wines, we may agree on the elements necessary to elevate one wine above another, but we also have individual preferences and sensitivities. So when a wine wins a Double Gold, it’s significant. 182 wineries won 202 Double Golds. Notably, Jackson-Triggs winery, with estates in both the Okanagan Valley and the Niagara Peninsula of Canada, garnered 5 Double Gold medals, and Temecula’s South Coast Winery won 3 Double Golds, including Best Sauvignon Blanc.
I was on Panel J, paired with long-time judges Ann Littlefield and James Tresize. We tasted 354 wines from Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Serbia, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, New York, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and California. The average price of the wines was $22.44. Of the 24 Double Golds we awarded, the most expensive was $45.00, the least expensive was $7.00, so price, obviously, bares little relation to quality.
Double Gold wines from each panel were entered into the Sweepstakes Round, and were tasted by all of the judges together. Of Panel J’s Double Golds that went on to the Sweepstakes Round, our 2011 Maryhill Winery, Columbia Valley Riesling ($10) won awards for Best Riesling and Best of Show White.
Best of Show Sparkling went to Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte 2004 Vintage Brut ($46). Best of Show Red went to the 2008 Kestrel Vintners Raptor Red, a Premium Bordeaux Blend from Yakima Valley, Washington ($60). Best of Show Dessert Wine was the 2007 Barboursville Vineyards, Reserve Passito Malvaxia, from Virginia ($30). For a complete list of wines that won awards, click here.
While I did not taste each of the 4,566 wines, I did taste all of the Double Golds presented in the Sweepstakes Round, as well as the 354 wines from our panel. My favorite dozen are as follows, presented in order of point score:
2009 Alamos, Mendoza, Argentina, Malbec Seleccion:
This wine epitomizes finesse, that nebulous characteristic of refinement, delicacy and subtlety, coupled with persistent intensity, that is so hard to describe and so unmistakable when encountered. This wine, which won the award for Best Malbec, is refined and perfectly balanced, with red plum and light earth tones (like a Barbera, but without the acid), as well as mineral undertones that linger for minutes on the finish. 95 points. $20
2011 Maryhill Winery Columbia Valley Riesling:
One of Panel J’s Double Gold offerings, this won the award for Best of Show White. Emphatic varietal definition of ripe green apples and lime, with subtler notes of sisal rope, complex minerality, bracing acidity, fine balance and great length. Words don’t do it justice. An absolute steal at $10.00. 94 points.
2011 Astrolabe, Promise, Marlborough, New Zealand, Pinot Gris:
A Pinot Gris with complex herbal notes reminiscent of Alsatian Pinot Gris, a penetrating aroma of citrus and herbs that follows to the palate with like intensity. Medium bodied, with crisp acidity that carries the finish. 94 points. $23.00
2008 Parallel, Napa Valley, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon:
I must honestly admit that I’m usually underwhelmed by Cabernets, but this one is extraordinary, if pricey. The other judges agreed, as we named it Best Cabernet Sauvignon of the competition. It shows a vibrant, expansive nose of cassis that follows through to the palate (typical black currant flavor with tobacco leaf overtones), great balance and structure, moderate tannin and good length. Very enjoyable now, but with the structure to age gracefully for another decade or more. 94 points. $125.00
2007 Barboursville, Reserve Passito, Virginia, Malvaxia:
A dessert wine that is modestly sweet, with caramel, honey and apricot flavors, fine balance, vibrant acidity, and a never-ending finish. 94 points. $30.00 (Best Dessert Wine).
2010 Giesen Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand, Pinot Noir:
I’m a sucker for floral Pinots and this one is redolent of violets and roses, with a cherry core, silky texture, light tannin and a mineral and fruit finish. 92+ points. $22.00
2010 Five Rivers, California, Chardonnay:
This was one of Panel J’s Double Golds, and it won the Best Chardonnay award in the Sweepstakes Round. It shows bright red apple fruit with a hint of dried herbs to give it complexity. Medium bodied, vibrant acidity, and excellent length. One of the best values of the tasting. 93 points. $11.00
2008 MacRostie, Wildcat Mountain Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, Pinot Noir:
MacRostie has been a steady force in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for two decades. This is a very generous Pinot with an expansive nose of violets and dark fruit (cherries and plums), with a silky texture, and complex forest floor flavors that carry the finish. 93 points. $19.00
2010 Don & Sons, Sonoma Coast, Pinot Noir:
When I learned the name of this wine I almost discounted my score for the appalling ego it took to give the wine his first name, as if anyone would know who it was. Unfortunately, I did. But I really can’t fault the wine. It’s vibrant and spicy with muted cherry fruit, an undercurrent of complex soil/mineral character, and an extremely long finish. I would like a little less alcohol, but it’s still a terrific wine. 93 points. $19.00
2004 Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut:
This champagne won the award for Best of Show Sparkling Wine. It has unusually bright tropical fruit overtones for a champagne, with an undercurrent of yeasty, bread dough. The bead is very tiny, the mousse tight and silky, the acidity crisp and the finish leesy. 92 points. $46.00
2011 Acacia, A, California, Pinot Noir:
Cherry pie aroma carries through to the dry palate with light soil notes, vibrant fruit on the mid-palate, mineral-chalky notes in the finish. 92 points. $15.00
2011 Francis Ford Coppola, Rosso & Bianco, California, Chardonnay:
Coppola won Double Golds for both his Director’s Cut, Sonoma County Chardonnay and the Rosso & Bianco, California Chardonnay. The Rosso & Bianco is the better deal, at just $11. It shows apple fruit with a hint of vanilla, silky texture on the mid-palate and crisp acidity on the finish. 90 points. $11.00
Other notable Double Golds:
2010 Cameron Hughes, Moscato d’Asti Lot 319, Italy: sweet and fizzy, with tropical fruit. The real deal (Best Moscato). $14.00
Gonzales Byass, Leonor, Palo Cortado Sherry, Jerez, Spain: Lovely sherry flor, expansive, dry, properly oxidized, lightly salty. It fits a niche somewhere between wine and brandy, fine as a digestive at room temp, or as an aperitif if chilled. $30 (Best Sherry)