Skip to main content
Feature

California Wines Are Racking Up Gold Awards

The state's wines are finally getting recognized in international competitions

Deborah Parker Wong By October 22, 2021
judges hard at work at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards in London
The judges hard at work at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards in London. Photo by Nic Crilly Hargrave.

California wineries have been racking up the medal count at prestigious international wine competitions. With more domestic wine being exported to the U.K. and the EU, our second and third export markets respectively, and California making up the lion’s share of those exports, it’s not a surprise that international wine competitions are seeing more and higher-quality entries. 

California’s wines have always been appreciated by Americans. But because it was so easy to sell to the local market, California hasn’t made much effort to connect with drinkers elsewhere.

Finally, California is going global. But what do wine experts elsewhere think of them?

London calling

Some of the most prestigious competitions in the world are based in London, the world’s center of fine wine. Of these, one of the most trusted is the Decanter World Wine Awards, an offshoot of Decanter magazine. Their medals bestow instant cachet, and a Gold, Platinum, or Best of Show award can open doors as far afield as Asia. Ronan Sayburn MS, chair of the U.S. panel at the 2021 DWWA, noted that not only were U.S. entries on the rise — this year they saw about 600 entries that were judged by two panels over three days — but so was quality. “They were very good overall this year,” he said. “We awarded a lot of Silver compared to the historical performance of U.S. entries. In general, we preferred the cooler climate regions and gravitated towards terroir wines with freshness and balance.” 

According to Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans, co-chair of the DWWA, the DWWA judges are assigned to panels based on their expertise and taste upward of 100 wines or more per day. They discuss the wine with one another and are told the country, region, color, grape, style, vintage, and price; they do not know the producer or brand name. After they have compared their notes on a wine, they reach a consensus on the medal the entry will receive. Awards are given in the form of Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, with wines in the below-£15 category awarded the Best Value Platinum medals. 

California winemaker Sharon Weeks, who makes Cattoo Syrah from Paso Robles exclusively for Naked Wines, was awarded a Platinum medal at the 2021 DWWA for her 2019 vintage. She says that other accolades pale in comparison to the Decanter award. “I can die happy.” 

Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon also did particularly well, with a 2017 Long Meadow Ranch Pinole Pinot Noir from their certified organic estate in Anderson Valley scoring 97 points and a Platinum medal. The wine was made by Stéphane Vivier, a Burgundian ex-pat who previously made the Hyde de Villaine wines and has his own label, Vivier

The crowning glory at DWWA is a Best in Show medal which is chosen from among the Platinum winners, which make up just 3.51% of the competition’s total medal count. California’s Central Coast clearly appealed to the judges and the 2018 Hahn Family Winery’s Lucienne Pinot Noir from their Smith Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands took the Best of Show medal for Pinot Noir. 

“These terroirs are not well known by U.K. consumers,” said Hahn Family winemaker Paul Clifton. “As a winemaker, a medal of this caliber from DWWA means more than a score from an individual. There’s far less subjectivity when you’re getting feedback based on a consensus.”

But the overseas judges are confirming what local critics already know: Vinous reviewer Josh Raynolds gave the wine a 93-point review and Wine Enthusiast awarded it 94 points; an indication that the wine was showing particularly well on the day that it was tasted by the Decanter jury. 

Ronan Sayburn, MS, (front) judging wines at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2021

Ronan Sayburn, MS, (front) judging wines at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2021. Photo by Nic Crilly Hargrave.

The second Best of Show wine was a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Trefethen Family Vineyards in the Oak Knoll AVA in Napa. This is Trefethen’s second year running as a Best of Show winner for Cabernet Sauvignon which lists for $68 and is a wine that clearly exceeds expectations of quality for its price.

It wasn’t that long ago that Californian wines were mostly sold on the domestic market, and so were largely unknown overseas. The competition medals aren’t just a sign of California’s quality, but a signal that the state is joining the global conversation.

It wasn’t that long ago that Californian wines were mostly sold on the domestic market, and so were largely unknown overseas. The competition medals aren’t just a sign of California’s quality, but a signal that the state is joining the global conversation.

Silence is golden

The Europeans have adopted a different style of competition, based on the system laid out by the International Organization of Vine and Wine. Servers will bring glasses of wine out, one by one, to serve to a panel of between five to seven judges. Where the English competitions stack their panels with noted experts on particular styles, OIV juries are wine professionals who have to judge anything that comes along. They sit in silence, filling out sheets that ask them about the wine’s characteristics. Eventually, they must award each wine a score out of 100. There is no discussion among the judges, who may not taste more than 50 wines per day. Of all wines entered, 30% will win a medal of some kind.

One of the biggest OIV competitions is the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, held in a different city each year; the 2021 competition was held in Luxembourg and had 10,000 wines entered by 46 producer countries. 

While Concours has fewer U.S. entries than Decanter, several Central Coast wines made by Dave Nagengast, Vice President of Winemaking for Scheid Family Wines, scored big this year. A 2019 Chardonnay from the Schied family’s original vineyard Ranch 32 in the Arroyo Seco AVA struck Gold, while the 2019 Odd Lot Red Blend and 2018 VDR Proprietary Red Blend struck Silver.

After being relatively isolated for a long time, California is finally reaching out to the world — and the world’s experts are responding with appreciation and medals.