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American Wine Awards 2002

As the results of our sixth annual American Wine Awards show, Washington State's winemakers are a growing force to be reckoned with—they captured an impressive seven awards this year, including Best New Winery. Our judges found great selections not only from Washington, but from all over California—17 top bottles—among the thousands and thousands of recently released American wines. They also singled out a fabulous new wine shop in Baltimore, an inspiring winemaker in Napa Valley and a top importer who's been a well-kept secret for years (until now).

Best Wines Under $20
2001 St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc
2000 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay
2001 Hogue Cellars Riesling
1998 Waterbrook Merlot
2000 Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir
1999 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel
2000 Renwood Sierra Series Syrah
1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon

Best Wines Over $20
2000 Rochioli Russian River Sauvignon Blanc
1999 Beringer Sbragia Limited-Release Chardonnay
2001 Eroica Riesling
1999 Swanson Merlot
1999 Shafer Relentless Syrah
1999 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir
1999 Robert Biale Monte Rosso Zinfandel
1998 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon
1998 Joseph Phelps Insignia

Winemaker Of The Year
Elias Fernandez, Shafer Vineyards

Most Promising New Winery
Cayuse Vineyards

Best New Wine Shop
Bin 604 Wine Sellers, Baltimore

Best Wine Importer
Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co.

Best Wines Under $20

Best Chardonnay
2000 Columbia Crest Grand Estates ($13) Washington State winemaker Doug Gore gives this widely available, highly affordable Chardonnay true star treatment—for example, sorting out more intensely flavored grapes to be fermented separately in individual oak barrels. What goes into the bottle is juicy and chock-full of flavor, exuding notes of apple, pear and caramel.

Best Riesling
2001 Hogue Cellars ($7) It wasn't easy for Mike Hogue to convince his parents and his brother Gary to plant six acres of Riesling on their family farm. Those first wines, bottled in 1983 in Mike's daughter's playhouse, fetched a total of $800, and a winery was born. Today, Hogue is one of Washington State's largest producers, but one thing that hasn't changed is its winning way with the Riesling grape; this peach-and-apricot-inflected wine with a fine lick of acidity is a real crowd pleaser.

Best Sauvignon Blanc
2001 St. Supéry ($15) St. Supéry in Napa is a French-owned winery that has the good sense to let its wines express themselves. Winemaker Michael Beaulac apparently did nothing more than translate some great fruit into this clean, citrusy wine.

Best Merlot
1998 Waterbrook ($15) From its inception in 1984, this small, handsome Washington State winery outside Walla Walla has worked to make its reds fleshy and accessible without sacrificing depth. Owner and winemaker Eric Rindal seized a perfect opportunity with the very ripe 1998 vintage, turning out a lush, fruity, seductive Merlot that's quite generous but still perfectly balanced.

Best Pinot Noir
2000 Saintsbury Garnet ($19) Back in 1981, winemakers Richard Ward and David Graves believed, based on little evidence, that California soil could produce great Pinot Noir. They situated their winery accordingly—in Sonoma's cool, foggy Carneros district, a place Pinot Noir turned out to love. Carneros is a byword for fine Pinot, and these two guys produce something rare: a lovely, light but juicy, Pinot-y Pinot at a fair price.

Best Zinfandel
1999 Ravenswood Vintners Blend ($15) Winemaker Joel "No Wimpy Wines" Peterson didn't back into Zinfandel. "From the start, it was Zin or nothing for us," he says. Today, this Sonoma winery makes up to 11 different Zinfandels in a given vintage, with the Vintners Blend as the foundation of the quality pyramid. Blended from various lots to epitomize the Ravenswood style, this ripe, rich wine is shot through with flavors of berries and spice.

Best Syrah
2000 Renwood Sierra Series ($13) Amador County, in the foothills of California's Sierra Mountains, may be off the beaten trail for wine lovers, but this terrain has a lot in common with Syrah's ancestral home in the Rhône Valley. What's more, wineries paying what Napa producers do for their land couldn't afford to put something this rich and silky in the bottle and charge such a low price.

Best Cabernet Sauvignon
1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle ($15) Ron Bunnell had just been appointed Ste. Michelle's head red-wine maker in the fall of 1999 and was lucky enough to preside over a fine, long, cool vintage in Washington State's Columbia Valley. This wine showcases the soft tannins typical of most Washington reds and packs in notes of chocolate, coffee and plum.

Best Wines Over $20

Best Sauvignon Blanc
2000 Rochioli Russian River ($22) The Rochioli family were Sonoma grape farmers long before they were winemakers and long before the Russian River Valley's cool climate made it a hot spot for aromatic, vibrant wines like this one. Subtle but full-bodied and lively, it has tastes of varietal grassiness mingled with citrus and tropical fruit.

Best Chardonnay
1999 Beringer Sbragia Limited-Release ($40) Winemaker Ed Sbragia is a big bear of a man with an artist's delicate touch. Best known for his superlative reds, he stakes a claim at the top of the California Chardonnay world with this offering. Layered butterscotch and lemon aromas billow out of the glass like a genie; in the mouth the wine is creamy and buttery—a Chardonnay of long-lasting pleasure.

Best Riesling
2001 Eroica Chateau Ste. Michelle-Dr. Loosen ($21)
The only repeat winner (new vintage) from last year's awards, Eroica is the result of a collaboration between Washington State winery Chateau Ste. Michelle and star German winemaker Ernst Loosen. The goal was a Riesling with Washington fruit and boldness and German verve. This crisp, delicate, flavor-packed wine hits the mark.

Best Merlot
1999 Swanson ($30) A stylish little gem of a winery in the heart of Napa Valley's red-wine land, Swanson devotes half its production to Merlot. The house style under winemaker Marco Cappelli is fruit-forward and accessible, as with this luscious, smooth-drinking Merlot marked by deep notes of cherries and plums.

Best Syrah
1999 Shafer Vineyards Relentless ($40) The Napa vineyard that produced this wine required well digging, erosion control, rock removal and a year of preparation. All along, winemaker Elias Fernandez knew he wanted to make Syrah there. The result, deeply hued and voluptuous, was named to honor his effort.

Best Pinot Noir
1999 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Méthode à L'Ancienne ($48) Merry Edwards has made a career out of converting skeptics, first as one of California's pioneering women winemakers in the '70s, and later in the '80s, when she demonstrated the importance of grape-clone selection—then almost unheard-of. One of her early converts, Ted Klopp, planted his Klopp Ranch vineyard to her specifications—producing this lushly textured, fruit-packed wine with a room-filling bouquet.

Best Zinfandel
1999 Robert Biale Monte Rosso ($40) Napa's Robert Biale Vineyards was founded in 1991, but everything else about this wine is true, old-time California wine country—including the Biales, who have been growing Zin since 1937. The grapes for this wine are from one of Sonoma's oldest, most famous vineyards—Monte Rosso—which produced this dense, chewy Zinfandel with intense notes of jam and spice.

Best Cabernet Sauvignon
1998 Quilceda Creek ($80) Quilceda Creek owner Alex Golitzin is the nephew of legendary California winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, but he and his son Paul went their own way when founding this tiny Washington State winery, which just happens to rank among this country's great red wine producers. Their 1998 Cabernet is another impressive wine—dense and powerful.

Best Bordeaux-Style Blend
1998 Joseph Phelps Insignia ($115) Insignia was one of Napa's first Bordeaux-style blends, created in 1974. Although 1998 was a notoriously tough vintage in Napa, winemaker Craig Williams triumphed with this rich, weighty, satisfying wine.

Winemaker of the Year

Elias Fernandez Shafer Vineyards, CA Elias Fernandez, the head winemaking talent behind such acclaimed Shafer Vineyards wines as Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay and Relentless Syrah, learned about the soils of Napa Valley the hard way. The son of migrant farm laborers who grew up when Napa agriculture was as focused on prunes and walnuts as wine grapes, Fernandez worked jobs in the fields and vineyards after school and on holidays to earn pocket money. After a year at the University of Nevada, Reno on a trumpet scholarship, he transferred to the University of California, Davis to study winemaking. He made the move partly he says, because "I realized I'd rather be a starving winemaker than a starving musician," and partly because his trips back to Napa made him realize that he wanted to build his life there. Hired by the Shafer family as assistant winemaker right out of Davis in 1984, Fernandez first applied a scientific meticulousness to winemaking and then gradually allowed his feel for the land to guide him as well. "It's not just science," he says, after 18 vintages at Shafer. "It's a feel you get from living and breathing the vineyards. I learned to let the vines speak to me instead of trying to dictate to them what I wanted."

Most Promising New Winery

Cayuse Walla Walla, WA It couldn't be much farther from the Champagne region where he grew up, or from Burgundy where he studied winemaking, but Walla Walla, Washington, looks pretty good to Christophe Baron. "To be here," says the founder and proprietor of Cayuse, "makes me feel like a '49er in the gold rush." Of course, what drew him in 1996 wasn't gold, it was rocks, or to be precise, cobblestones "the size of softballs." What might look like an ankle-turning nightmare to most people looked to a Frenchman acquainted with rocky Châteauneuf-du-Pape like the perfect place to grow great Syrah. Baron plunged in, naming his winery Cayuse after the old French-Canadian trappers' name for the local Indians—"people of the stones" (cailloux). Cayuse draws from five small vineyards, all owned by Baron, all farmed organically, and all producing low, almost commercially unfeasible yields. ("So I don't drive a brand new pickup," he shrugs.) Where others might get five tons to the acre, Baron prunes his vines back until he gets about 1½ to 2 tons of supercharged grapes. Cayuse will only make around 2,000 cases this year of Syrah, Viognier and a Bordeaux-style blend. But what does go into the bottle is intensely concentrated and a clear expression of its vineyard site. Those rocks, says Baron, "were the beginning of the journey, the beginning of the dream—because I've been living in a dream ever since." Did we mention that he is French?

Best New Wine Shop

Bin 604 Baltimore, MD "I have yet to turn away any wine salesman who walks in here," says Bin 604's co-owner, Jay Miller. "I taste every wine that's put in front of my face. Very few retailers want to do that kind of homework." Miller is used to marathon tastings; as wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s tasting coordinator for 13 years he figures he's tried over 65,000 wines. What makes Miller's commitment to universal tasting even more impressive is that Bin 604 buys very little wine. Opened last November in partnership with restaurateur Tony Foreman (Charleston and Petit Louis Bistro), the shop carries about 500 wines. Says Miller, "We limit it to the best of each type." The store also has wines open for tasting. "That's when you really see people getting excited," Miller says.

Best Wine Importer

Mannie Berk Rare Wine Co. Mannie Berk does not target casual wine drinkers. His credo: "We're for wine lovers who want hard-to-find wines at fair prices." His outfit, The Rare Wine Co., is both an importer and, via newsletter, a retailer. His is a word-of-mouth operation that does no advertising. If you're not one of the 6,000 recipients of his newsletter, you may never know what you've missed—not only wine but antique decanters, rare wine books and olive oils. Maybe you've never heard of, say, Tenuta di Trinoro from Tuscany or Clos Manyetes from Spain's Priorato. But if you see that Berk has imported it, you already know it's a wine from a first-rate winemaker. Since he started The Rare Wine Co. in 1989, Berk has introduced Americans to cult favorites such as Tua Rita from Tuscany. He's also one of the world's great scouts for famous older wines—Grange from Penfolds or Raveneau Chablis—and he is the man to go to for rare old Madeiras, a subject on which he has written scholarly monographs. "Some people see us as a classic collectors' source," Berk says, "but we're a little more oddball than that."

Published October 2002
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