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American Wine Awards 1999

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.

Beringer Vineyards
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).

Helen Turley
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."

Vin Divino
ACHIEVEMENT IMPORTER OF THE YEAR
Founded in 1991, Chicago's Vin Divino has already become one of the country's finest wine importers, with a talent for finding great Italian and, more recently, Austrian wines. Credit co-founder Seth Allen and his sister Jodi Stem, though not their parents. "There was always a wine rack in our house," Allen recalls, "but nobody much knew what to do with it." Stern adds, "There was a box with a spigot in the fridge and something rose colored came out." In the early Eighties, Allen put aside thoughts of law school to pursue a growing fascination with Italian wine; a decade later, Americans caught up. Vin Divino's greatest victory, however, has been elevating Austria's wine profile. "I certainly wasn't looking to," Allen says. "I met this guy at a convention. He said, 'I'm an Austrian winemaker-want to taste my wine?' I said no." But Allen did anyway and found it "compelling." The Austrian wine industry, he says, "was very well developed internally. The mystery is why it took America so long to find out." Now Vin Divino works with some of Austria's best winemakers (Kracher, Hirtzberger, Pichler and Knoll) and has a refrigerated warehouse with space for 90,000 cases. That is just enough room for the occasional accident. "We once exploded a couple of very expensive containers from a well known estate in Tuscany," Allen says. "Someone had turned down the temperature to five below zero. Still, if we can survive that, we can do anything."

1997 Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel
ACHIEVEMENT RED WINE VALUE OF THE YEAR
While Rabbit Ridge proprietor and winemaker Erich Russell makes several irrefutably excellent Zinfandels that cost up to $35 a bottle, he also pours class and thrift into a single $15 package: the, 1997 Rabbit Ridge Sonoma County Zinfandel. Russell (who was nicknamed Rabbit because of his speed on the high school track team) is also, understandably, one of California's biggest Zinfandel proponents. And that means reminding hesitant customers that there's more to life than Cabernet. "People are becoming so sophisticated, especially about food," he says. "One of the huge problems with Cabs is that they're so darn tannic--they don't go very well with food. My Zin, even when it's young, isn't tannic. It's big and has tons of fruit." On what occasion does Russell suggest that you let his rabbit out of the hat? "Oh, God," he says, "It's so flexible. Throw it into Thanksgiving with beans, onions, dark meat, white meat, and you'll find it's really something to give thanks for."

1997 Estancia Pinnacles Chardonnay
ACHIEVEMENT WHITE WINE VALUE OF THE YEAR
In today's economy, a Chardonnay that retails for $10 faces an unlikely prejudice: can anything so inexpensive possibly be good? Franciscan Estates' Estancia Pinnacles Chardonnay defies the preconception that a modestly priced wine can't be great. "It's sad," says Agustin Francis Huneeus, Franciscan's vice president of sales and marketing and the son of former president Agustin Huneeus, the legendary Chilean vintner. "People are actually afraid to spend less. And the truth is, among most $7 to $20 Chardonnays, it's hard to tell the difference." Not so with Estancia. Made from grapes from Estancia's Pinnacles vineyard in Monterey County, a cool region known for its high-quality fruit, the wine has a distinctive apple-and-pear aroma and a radiant golden-straw color. "The singular difference between our wine and others in this price category is consistency," Huneeus says. "Pinnacles is our vineyard--we're not dealing with growers who have different incentives. We're not switching sources every year the way a lot of other Chardonnay producers do. That's a huge difference." And at 10 bucks a bottle, that's also quite a bargain.

1992 Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey
ACHIEVEMENT SPIRIT OF THE YEAR
Knappogue means "hill of the kiss" in Gaelic. "Why it was named that, no one knows," says Mark Andrews, whose father created this superb single-malt Irish whiskey in the early Fifties. "But we do know that the castle was built in 1467." Knappogue Castle is the quintessential whiskey. Although most people associate whiskey with the Scots, Andrews, who is American, points out that "Ireland has made fabulous whiskey for hundreds of years." Unfortunately, save for Knappogue (pronounced na-POG), few pot-stilled whiskeys are still produced in Ireland. "Most Irish whiskey is blended," he says. "Some of it can be quite wonderful. But to have it pure pot whiskey from the country where whiskey began, well, that's a special thing." Andrews speaks in reverent tones when describing Knappogue and comparing it with its Scottish competitors. "Scottish whiskey is peated to various degrees," he says. "That's quite good but very much an acquired taste. We have a clear malt flavor that's approachable and delicious." The proof is in the facial expressions of those who drink it. "People who taste Scottish whiskey have a strange puckering expression," he adds. "Knappogue simply brings a contented smile."

L'Ecosse Cabernet Franc
ACHIEVEMENT LABEL OF THE YEAR
"I can't even draw a straight line," says Bruce Scotland, founder of L'Ecosse winery in Oakville, California. Scotland, who specializes in French-style regional wines, didn't actually draw the label for his Cabernet Franc (credit goes to his colleague Michael Osborne), but he came up with the concept: a depiction of Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orlés;ans. "I'm quite fond of Joan of Arc," Scotland says. "So I found myself inspired by paintings I'd seen at the Louvre. I also borrowed loosely from the Book of Kells, which is rich with Celtic symbols." (The name of his winery reflects the same French-Celtic mix; L'Ecosse is French for Scotland.) The label's image--an armored, fiercely unrepentant Joan on a crimson background with gilded fleurs-de-lis--snakes dramatically around the entire bottle and tapers into a long, thin tail. Scotland calls his master piece Cuvée Homage de Jeanne D'Arc, and although he is proud of the design, he likes to point out that the wine inside the bottle isn't too shabby either. "I think this is the best Cabernet Franc made in the New World," he says.

Bill Hambrecht
ACHIEVEMENT INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR
Bill Hambrecht is an investment banker who happens to be a wine connoisseur. His San Francisco firm, W. R. Hambrecht & Co., helped pioneer the sale of initial public offerings on the Internet, and his on-line "open IPOs" are considered fairer than the usual Wall Street variety because they don't give insiders an edge. Innovative, sure, and some (like his partners Fidelity Ventures and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp) believe that open IPOs could be the wave of the future. But what do they have to do with wine? Well, the first company to take advantage of Hambrecht's approach to going public was Ravenswood Winery. (Chalone, Mondavi and Beringer were taken public years earlier by his former firm.) And Hambrecht's commitment to wine goes beyond being an underwriter. "I personally think the business is a very good place to invest," he says. "Over the past 20 years wine has shown major growth." Hambrecht should know: he's also a grape grower. "That's really the way I got into the business," he says. "I've had vineyards for almost 20 years." He hopes his small, as-yet-unnamed winery will one day sell 5,000 cases a year of his Bordeaux blend. So should investors rush to put their money into wine instead of Amazon.com? Hambrecht laughs. "Let me put it this way," he says. "Over a 20-year period, it'll be a very interesting comparison."

Grape Vine Market
ACHIEVEMENT RETAILER OF THE YEAR
George W. Bush isn't the only contender to come out of Austin. Following a Texas-size grand opening last May, it quickly became clear that Grape Vine Market was a player in wine retailing. Its 18,000 customer-friendly square feet offer an extraordinary array of wines, not to mention a fireplace, courtyard, in-house chef and dance floor (inherited from the previous tenant--there hasn't been any two-stepping yet). "This isn't your average mom-and-pop liquor store," boasts co-owner Greg Steiner. Steiner is especially proud to sell Montecalvi, made from a new Sangiovese clone, and Gagliole, a Tuscan Cabernet blend. Grape Vine also offers its own "university," a 14-week tutorial covering various wine regions. Grape Vine's owners couldn't have picked a better time or place: besides being the state capital, Austin is a high-tech boom town, the home, most notably, of Dell Computer. "We've got a growing base of well-educated, well-compensated clients," Steiner says, "and that means a lot of people interested in quality wines."

Drink: A Social History of America
ACHIEVEMENT BOOK OF THE YEAR
Andrew Barr, a British journalist and wine scholar, first began researching the turbulent social role of alcohol in the United States while writing Wine Snobbery, his arch, user-friendly guide to grapes. "The more I looked into it, the more I realized that people didn't really study drinking habits the way they did food habits," he says. "That was startling to me." Barr's newest book, Drink: A Social History of America (Carroll & Graf), is a witty, highly opinionated, surprisingly well-written sociological opus that covers everything from the Pilgrims to Prohibition. Among its many fascinating historical tidbits is an explanation of how wine saved the Pilgrims. "The Mayflower was a wine boat, and it was used to transport barrels from Bordeaux to England," Barr says. "That's why it was so hygienic. Because of this there was little disease, and almost everyone survived the journey." Barr also takes on America's often "extremist" relationship to alcohol and debunks the Yank perception that British beer is served warm. "It's not served warm--it's just not cold," he says. "There's a major difference!"

Andrew Essex is a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly.

Published October 1999
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