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© 1998 JDM Enterprises
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Year's Best Wines

by Jerry D. Mead

For more than a decade, the editors of an annual book called California Wine Winners have provided me with an advance look, with the condition that I don't reveal so much of the highly anticipated contents that people won't buy the book when it's published.

On the other hand, if I don't reveal a few secrets what's the point of writing about it? So stand by for a few revelations and a few teasers.

California Wine Winners (CWW) is edited and published by the husband and wife team of Trudy Ahlstrom and J.T. Devine, who have been doing it since 1983. It is a computer analyzation of winning wines from nine of the nation's top wine competitions, including Orange County Fair, New World International, California State Fair, San Francisco International and five others.

At a glance, you can get your information in one of three different formats.

Going to visit a winery? Look up the name of the winery in question by alphabetical order and find a complete list of medals won for its various wine types.

Going shopping for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or White Zinfandel? CWW lists the top medal winners for each variety two different ways.

You can see which Chardonnay (or whatever wine type) won the most medals of any type. Under this system, a wine which won a bronze medal at all nine judgings would be ranked higher than one which won three golds.

Then there's the weighted ranking system. Each wine is given 1 point for bronze, 3 points for silver, 5 points for gold, or 7 points for an award of special distinction.

CWW sells for $8.95 and should be in book stores and some wine shops before Thanksgiving, or it can be ordered for immediate delivery via the mails for $11.45 (includes shipping) to: California Wine Winners, Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702 (800) 845-9463.

Based on points, the number one Cabernet in California sells for $20 or less and does not come from a famous Napa or Sonoma winery. Two other top ten Cabernets sell for $15 and one other sells for only $12.

If I told you that Kendall-Jackson 1996 "Santa Maria-Camelot Vineyard" Chardonnay at $20 tied for first place you probably wouldn't be surprised. But what if I told you that a little known wine (but with good availability) with a Monterey appellation that sells for $10 or less shares the title? That's one of the secrets revealed in the book.

Fetzer's $7 Gewurztraminer owns it class, both for points and total medal count. But check out the rest of this field, there are some really nice wines rounding out the rest of the top ten, many of them drier and most of them considerably pricier.

And Fetzer is once again a mile ahead on points for its $7 Riesling.

Merlot is a tough category for consumers looking for reasonable price. The top four wines on points are all difficult to impossible to find, two of which are "Reserve" wines selling for more than $30. Not until you get to fifth ranked Geyser Peak 1996 "Sonoma" do you find a moderate price at $15.

No race was closer than that for Petite Sirah honors, with a 3-way tie for first place with 18 medal points each for Guenoc 1995 ($15.50), Stag's Leap Winery 1994 "Napa" ($22) and Cilurzo 1997 "Temecula-Late Harvest" ($20). The value in the class, though, has to be the wine all by itself in second place with 17 points, Concannon 1995 "California" ($10).

I'm amused by the fact that St. Supery, a winery which implied it doesn't think much of wine competitions in a recent newsletter, entered enough of them to rank number one in three categories, Meritage Red at $40, Meritage White ($20) and Sauvignon Blanc ($10), a variety with which it has always done very well. The number two and three Sauvignon Blancs sell for $7 and $8 respectively, if you're looking for bargains.

In a future edition, we'll reveal the top ten wineries in overall medals (number one may come as a big surprise to some), winners from more categories, and teasers on yet some others.


Notice I said "great label." The new "Mystic Cliffs" wines are only o.k. at this point, but they promise to get better. And I'm not crazy about the name...sounds like another brand made up by someone in the marketing department, which it was.

The difference between this fantasy brand and some others is that there are real vineyards, 1500 acres of them, backing it up. Part of a larger project called Riverland Vineyards, the parent company also owns the largest winemaking facility in Monterey County.

Since the first wines were made by winemaker Ed Felice, a highly regarded winemaster from Australia, Peter Douglas, has been brought on board and his influence on the wine style will begin to show itself in subsequent vintages. Douglas was head winemaker at Wynn's Coonawarra Estate, a respected Aussie firm, and he has been given the budget to give Felice the tools to make ever better wines, which means more new cooperage and better grapes too.

Right now there are three varieties in the line, a Chardonnay with some noticeable sweetness, a very youthful tasting Merlot and the best of the lot, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Line-priced at $7.50, they all have the eye-catching label that emulates a rocky Monterey coastal cliff with a lone and very dramatic Monterey pine.


Mystic Cliffs 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.50 or less) Ripe plum and cassis aromas and flavors, with some complexing notes of black licorice in the background. A round, supple and a thoroughly satisfying red wine experience for this price category. Rating: 85/90

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Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value.

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