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Honors: American Wine Awards 2001

The judges of FOOD & WINE's annual American Wine Awards found winners all over the country this year--from California, Oregon and Washington, all the way down to the state of Delaware. Our experts, who included F&W editors and contributing writers, former Wine Awards winners, and retailers and restaurateurs, were presented with the nearly impossible task of choosing from the enormous crop of current-vintage wines. Here are our judges' final answers in the categories Winemaker of the Year, Best Wine Importer, Best New Wine Shop, Most Promising New Winery and Best Bordeaux-style Blend, as well as the best wines priced above and below $15 a bottle.

Best Wines Over $15
2000 Voss Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
1999 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay
2000 Eroica Riesling
1997 Beringer Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch Merlot
1999 Mccrea Boushey Grande Côte Syrah
1999 Archery Summit Arcus Estate Pinot Noir
1998 Turley Hayne Vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandel
1997 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon

Best Wines $15 And Under
2000 Mason Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
1999 Meridian Vineyards Chardonnay
1999 Hogue Johannisberg Riesling
1999 Blackstone California Merlot
1999 Cline California Syrah
1999 Villa Mt. Eden Coastal Pinot Noir
1999 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma Zinfandel
1998 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon

Best Bordeaux-Style Blend
1997 Cain Five, Cain Vineyard & Winery

Winemaker Of The Year
Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat

Most Promising New Winery
Nickel & Nickel, Napa Valley

Best New Wine Shop
Moore Brothers

Best Wine Importer
Cape Classics

Best Wines Over $15
Best Sauvignon Blanc
2000 Voss Vineyards Napa Valley ($18) Winemaker Steve Fennell uses Voss's home vineyard near Rutherford as the primary source for this delicious wine. Its warm site and heavy clay-loam soil yield exotic tropical fruit notes, which combine nicely with the citrus and mineral character of the two other vineyard sources nearby.

Best Chardonnay
1999 Landmark Overlook ($25) You can love this wine for its buttery, toasty, Burgundian-style character, or for the fact that it's widely available and well-priced for a Chardonnay of such quality. Sourced from various vineyards, this white is given full old-world treatment (barrel fermentation, aging sur lie) by winemaker Eric Stern.

Best Riesling
2000 Eroica Chateau Ste. Michelle­Dr. Loosen ($20) This wine is the product of an international partnership between Washington giant Ste. Michelle and famed German winemaker Ernst Loosen, a man who knows Mosel Riesling in his bones. The 2000 vintage in Washington was uncannily Mosel-like, one of the coolest in 20 years. The result is this juicy wine whose floral aromas and classic flavors of peach and apricot are set off by a flinty mineral character.

Best Merlot
1997 Beringer Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch ($100) Winemaker Ed Sbragia has turned out a Merlot from this mountain vineyard for 10 vintages now, and the wine that emerges is as flamboyant as the site is austere. Rich, chewy and, above all, complex, it mingles notes of blueberry, crushed black cherry, licorice, toast, nutmeg and vanilla--not bad for fermented grape juice.

Best Syrah
1999 Mccrea Boushey Grande Côte Washington State ($45) Syrah is spreading like a firestorm through Washington's vineyards, a fact that doesn't surprise winemaker Doug McCrea in the least. His winery was the state's first devoted almost entirely to Rhône varieties. This powerful wine from the stellar 1999 vintage shows that superb Washington Syrah isn't just a promise--it's in the bottle.

Best Pinot Noir
1999 Archery Summit Arcus Estate Willamette Valley ($75) Oregon-based Archery Summit (sister winery to Napa's Pine Ridge) produces four single-vineyard Pinots, the subtlest of which is Arcus. While the 1999 crop from this vineyard was miserly (well under two tons an acre, yielding only 842 six-bottle cases), the result was this complex, nuanced wine--and another milestone in America's progress in producing world-class Pinot.

Best Zinfandel
1998 Turley Hayne Vineyard Napa Valley ($100) This tooth-purpling Zin weighs in at a massive 16.4 percent alcohol, yet carries its substantial load with grace and style. Winemaker Ehren Jordan emphasizes fruit over tannin, fermenting the grapes (from 80-plus-year-old vines) and aging them in French and American oak. The full-throttle result is bottled unfiltered and unfined.

Best Cabernet Sauvignon
1997 Shafer Hillside Select Napa Valley ($150) "Good year, bad year, whatever we produce here is a reflection of our vineyards," Doug Shafer says. The place in question is Shafer's hillside vineyards, under the shadow of the Stags Leap palisades in eastern Napa Valley. The vintage, in this case, was not just good, but arguably Napa's best of a great decade, and winemaker Elias Fernandez captured it all in this all-Cabernet wine--velvety and broodingly rich.

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Best Wines $15 And Under
Best Sauvignon Blanc
2000 Mason Cellars ($15) It is almost impossible for an affordable California Sauvignon Blanc with no promotion to become a widely praised wine writer's darling, but Randy Mason has managed just that-in just five vintages. His wine is not flabby and soft "junior Chardonnay" but crisply acidic with real varietal characteristics and a true food-loving nature.

Best Chardonnay
1999 Meridian Vineyards Santa Barbara ($10) Meridian specializes in bottling large quantities of affordable varietal wines. This Chardonnay is the winery's flagship: juicy, mildly creamy and absolutely packed with flavors of tropical fruit (pineapple, mango), yellow apple and a leavening of toasty oak. It's lip-smacking, full-bore New World flavor--at a hard-to-touch price.

Best Riesling
1999 Hogue Johannisberg ($7) Hogue's emphasis on "fruit forward" flavor is clear with this unoaked Riesling from the warm vineyards of eastern Washington. It's an off-dry but well-balanced wine, blossoming into an array of apricot, citrus and tropical scents. The grapes' freshness and flavor were preserved with cold fermentation and bottling directly from steel tanks.

Best Merlot
1999 Blackstone California ($10) In a world of "me-too" Merlots, Blackstone has taken a different tack. They've made a spicy, flavor-packed wine whose distinctiveness comes from a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel along with Merlot. Winemaker Dennis Hill looks to create an "integrated" wine from coastal grape sources around California.

Best Syrah
1999 Cline California ($10) A toothsome alternative to Cabernet and Merlot, this medium-rich red incorporates those Bordeaux-style wines' sturdy beef-worthiness, but ups the ante with a Rhône-like wild-berry, exotic spiciness. Winemaker Matt Cline puts the emphasis on the wine's suppleness and pure fruit qualities, pulling in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-­like array of other grapes and blending in small portions of Mourvèdre, Carignane, Grenache and Cinsaut.

Best Pinot Noir
1999 Villa Mt. Eden Coastal ($10) What is the toughest bottle of wine to find? A truly Pinot-like Pinot Noir under $20. But Villa Mt. Eden has done it by sourcing fruit from cool-climate vineyards in Monterey, Carneros and Santa Maria Valley--all places that coax the best from the Burgundian grape variety. The result is a medium-bodied wine with lively sweet- and tart-cherry notes and a bit of oak.

Best Zinfandel
1999 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma ($15) The Seghesios have a pretty good idea of what their Sonoma Zinfandel vineyards are capable of: They've been working some of them since 1895. This full-bodied, 14.5 percent alcohol Zin with its aroma of crushed raspberries is a blend of younger plantings (vines under 60 years old) from the five sites. Winemaker Ted Seghesio looks to the Alexander Valley portion of the blend for lush, black fruits, and to the Dry Creek portion for structure.

Best Cabernet Sauvignon
1998 Columbia Crest Grand Estates ($11) This is a remarkably stylish wine for the price, thanks partly to winemaker Doug Gore's team, partly to the Columbia Valley's superlative 1998 vintage and, last but not least, partly to Washington's vineyards, which, at their best, turn out wines like this: rich, aromatic and mouth-filling.

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Winemaker Of The Year
Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat
In 1982 Jim Clendenen had a few harvests' worth of winemaking experience, a head full of Frenchified ideas from a stay in Burgundy and barely enough money to buy a few tons of Pinot Noir grapes and to lease space in the boondocks of Santa Barbara County. Today, Clendenen, cofounder of Au Bon Climat, is one of California's most relentless experimenters and the maker of some of its most sought-after Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. He also fields two different Italian-homage lines under the Il Podere dell'Olivos label, a Bordeaux-style line called Vita Nova and one called Ici/La-Bas ("Here and There"). Through it all, Clendenen has stuck by the principles of natural, low-intervention winemaking learned from his Burgundian mentors. Not that he's stopped there. His new wine, Hildegard, is an attempt to re-create "the original ninth-century Corton-Charlemagne vineyard as planted by Charlemagne's wife." Admits Clendenen, "It is precisely the kind of thing I do that leaves people scratching their heads."

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Best Bordeaux Blend
1997 Cain Five, Cain Vineyard & Winery ($80)
Cain called this wine "Five" instead of "Cabernet Sauvignon" because it wanted the flexibility to adjust the percentages of grapes in the blend according to vintage conditions. And in 1997, winemaker Christopher Howell proved that he wouldn't let the name "Five"--referring to the five grape varieties permitted in a classic Bordeaux blend-lock in his options either. After vinifying 57 separate lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec and tasting them all, the Cain team decided that for the first year since its debut in 1985, this famous wine would contain no Merlot at all. The bold decision proved to be spot-on for the vintage, creating a powerful, color-saturated, deeply flavored wine that is one of the richest Cain Fives in memory, but which still carries its trademark finesse.

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Most Promising New Winery
Nickel & Nickel, Napa Valley
The debate rages: Are single-vineyard wines a marketing ploy, or has California really put in the years of trial-and-error experimentation needed to identify superior plots? A bold and perhaps definitive answer comes from Nickel & Nickel, a superpremium ($45 per bottle and up) operation founded in 1997 by the partners behind Napa Valley's esteemed Far Niente winery. Nickel & Nickel proprietor Gil Nickel is devoted to producing small bottlings from single-vineyard lots. So far this includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah. Dirk Hampson, director of winemaking, explains: "With Nickel & Nickel we are challenged to find grapes that make distinctive wines in their own right and then figure out what winemaking approach works best." Early successes have included an astonishing deep, spicy Merlot from Suscol Ranch, an explosively flavorful Cabernet Sauvignon from Stelling Vineyard and a rich, elegant Cabernet from Sullenger Vineyard, across from Robert Mondavi and north of Opus One. "With this project, we're starting to look at the vineyard world through different eyes," says Hampson. So are California-wine lovers.

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Best New Wine Shop
Moore Brothers, Wilmington, Delaware
"We may have the world's only wine store where just nine bottles say 'Chardonnay' and only four say 'Merlot,'" states Dave Moore, above, the store's cofounder, along with his brother Greg. Instead, he claims, "We're selling boatloads of Gaillac." The Wilmington store, opened in 1999, follows the maverick pattern set by Moore Brothers' Pennsauken, New Jersey, original: Its shelves are stocked with bottles from tiny, unheard-of, family-run wineries. As Dave puts it, "These are wines from guys who drive tractors, not Jaguars." The Moores, both alums of Philadelphia's iconic Le Bec-Fin restaurant, personally comb the back roads of Europe, and every wine they scout and buy is transported in refrigerated trucks and containers to their stores, which are themselves, Dave says, "notoriously cold." He adds, "We make fleece jackets available to our customers." (Other amenities: a children's play area and a small library with chairs for "disinterested spouses.") With no big-name wines for sale, the Moores have flaunted or simply ignored conventional wisdom. Says Dave, "We've been able to focus on things that bring us pleasure and at the same time form a culture of like-minded people."

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Best Wine Importer
Cape Classics
"When we started in 1993, I wasn't really even selling wine," says André Shearer, president of Cape Classics, which he started with his brother Gary. "I was selling the idea that it was politically OK to buy South African wine." The idea has gotten around, and so has Shearer, logging endless miles in his quest to convince Americans to try the astonishingly rich and diverse bottlings from South African vineyards. His portfolio ranges from a $6 Cape Indaba Chenin Blanc (the Shearers' own brand, whose profits help support disadvantaged students at Stellenbosch University's wine school) to star producers such as Thelema and Meerlust. More recently, André scored a big success at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida: Jiko, an African-themed restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, features a 65-wine, entirely South African list. It's all thanks to the ever-persuasive André, who has helped to open up a whole new continent of choices to American wine lovers.

- The judges for the wine awards were Craig T. Allen, Seth Allen, John Anderson, Paul Draper, Joshua Eisen, Mia Klein, Manfred Krankl, Dennis McCarthy, Ed McCarthy, Elin McCoy, Danny Meyer, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Richard Nalley, Steve Olson, Rajat Parr, Dan Philips, Jamal A. Rayyis, Ed Sbragia, Jay Schiering, Greg Steiner, Jodi Stern, Lettie Teague, John Frederick Walker, Hermann Wiemer, Joshua Wesson, David Wizenberg.

- Richard Nalley is a regular contributor to F&W. 

Published October 2001
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