This year marks the third annual F&W American Wine Awards, with which we pay tribute to a broad range of achievements: the people, the ideas and the designs that have not only influenced but also improved the American wine scene today. Armed with a list of nominees, we brought together a panel of F&W editors, contributing writers and former award winners to taste and to talk about what and whom they considered most noteworthy this year. The result is an eclectic assortment of the familiar and the obscure, some public faces and some private stories. And although the winners are all very different from one another, they have this in common: they've made 1999 an extraordinary year for wine.
ACHIEVEMENT WINERY OF THE YEAR
While lots of tiny wineries can turn out a good wine or two, few can match the staggering portfolio of this 114-year-old St. Helena winery. Beringer is a behemoth that acts like a boutique--a 2,500-acre operation that, unlike other large Napa wineries, strictly controls every stage of the winemaking process, from planting to bottling. Its reds and whites are amazingly, consistently good and often flat-out great. Its blends transcend the sum of their parts. Winemaker Ed Sbragia says that the secret to taming such a huge enterprise and turning out such well-made wines is his committed, tight-knit staff, many of whom have been working at Beringer for more than a decade; Sbragia himself has been there for more than two. Of all of Beringer's wines, Sbragia is most proud of the Bancroft Ranch Merlot and the Private Reserve Cabernet. "That's a real nice wine," he says of the latter. "Serve it to everyone from a novice to an expert and they'll all say, 'God, this is good.'" Although those two wines are on the pricey side ($50 for the Merlot, $75 for the Cab), Beringer also makes terrific value wines, including a great Sauvignon Blanc ($12) and Knight's Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25).
ACHIEVEMENT WINEMAKER OF THE YEAR
Helen Turley might have become a kosher winemaker had things turned out a little differently. After graduating from Cornell's agricultural school some 20 years ago, she had her first interview in the wine business in New York. "I talked to one Brooklyn company," she recalls, "but they laughed and said, 'Honey, there's no way we can make you kosher.'" So Turley moved to the Napa Valley, landing at Robert Mondavi's lab. By 1984 she had her first job as a winemaker. But Turley says things really took off when one day she simply opened the window. "It was in 1989--I decided to make two barrels with whatever wild yeast blew in," she says. "The difference between those barrels and the wine made with commercial yeast was astounding." A few years later, wine scholar Robert M. Parker, Jr., proclaimed her "a goddess--America's most significant wine consultant-winemaker." Thanks to what Turley calls a deceptively simple formula that relies heavily on natural yeast and ultraripe grapes, she now delivers the goods to world-class California wineries like Bryant Family and Pahlmeyer. She also runs her own nine-acre boutique winery, Marcassin, which produces truly extraordinary Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. By dividing her time between her own hands-on operation and her consulting work, Turley thinks she has the best of both worlds: "I get to control everything I do, but without consulting I would never even have worked with Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot."