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At the Food & Wine Magazine American Wine Awards

Last night some of America’s best winemakers met at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley for a very exclusive event. They were there to receive awards for making what Food and Wine Magazine considered to be the best American wines of 2009. I was there to cover the event so that you can have a feel for what went on.

The format was that of a reception, not a dinner or awards “show.” Upon entry, people were given a flute of Taittinger’s 2005 Domaine Carneros Vintage Brut, the award-winning sparkler. Small tables with chairs were scattered outside under the stars but they largely went unused. The one hundred or so attendees preferred to stand, mingle and chat. Two bar areas offered tastes of twenty two different wines.

The Meadowood’s Christopher Kostow, winner of Food & Wine Magazines award for Best New Chef of 2009, prepared the passed hors d’ouevres. They ranged from tender beef filet sliders to cold-smoked toro on crisp toast strips to golden fritters. The gumball-sized fritters were made from fresh corn and cream in one instance and delicious chunks of crab with a buttery core in another. Towers the size of a small stack of nickels were assembled from discs of golden fried potatoes, capped with a disc of seared bone marrow and topped with a bit of salty savory garnish. Tiny little puffed pillows of cheese were delicately fried and so light they almost floated off of the presentation plates. If you have not had the opportunity to dine at Meadowood, I cannot recommend it more highly. In a valley of standout, world class restaurants led by The French Laundry, Meadowood easily ranks in the top 5 and offers a uniquely beautiful and secluded location.

The winning winemakers were distinguished from other attendees by silver tastevin that were hung around their necks on a white ribbon when they arrived at the party. This was both amusing and helpful as it called attention to them from the start, allowing people to congratulate them one-on-one all evening. Even in the age of celebrity food folk, winemakers’ faces tend to go unrecognized so the tastevin eliminated embarrassing “Hi, what do you do? Oh, you’re an award-winning winemaker...” conversations.

The awards ceremony itself was refreshingly brief and friendly. F&W Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin served as emcee with Wine Editor Ray Isle and Assistant Editor Megan Krigbaum also announcing some of the winners. Rather than try to replicate the formal and inevitably uncomfortable run-down-the-aisle-and-give-an-acceptance-speech format, the editors simply announced the winners one-by-one with each winner making their way to and remaining at the podium. When all the winners were present, the crowd was able to applaud the lot of them simultaneously.

Americans love “Best of” awards. Whether watching them on TV or reading about them in magazines, we can’t get enough. But it seems to me that making selections for these awards is an extremely difficult and thankless job that exposes you to endless criticism and second-guessing. How can anyone really determine a clear “best” among products that can’t be measured completely objectively. Wine in particular is a complete nightmare in this regard. Every person’s palate is unique, as are their experiences and preferences. The flavors of a single wine change depending upon the temperature at which it is served, the point in its maturity, the glass from which it is sipped, and even the ambient humidity. And the world’s most famous authorities can’t agree on how wines should be judged.

Robert Parker created a 100-points system that ranks wines based on a variety of criteria. Hugh Johnson believes that such a numerical ranking is inappropriate and misleading. Which is right? Then there are those who pretend not to have numerical systems but use corks, stars and other icons to denote quality. And that is just the scoring!

What are the criteria? How much oak is appropriate for which wine? Which is better, elegance or power? Do you crave luscious fruit or a complex melange of everything but fruit? How important is the impression of terroir that a wine delivers? For that matter, how do you define terroir? How do you decide which wines enter into the tasting? Just setting up the guidelines for such a competition could drive one mad.

Frankly, I think it’s virtually impossible to truly single out the “best” of any type or category of wine. However, I think that these lists are useful. They can effectively highlight wines that are among the very best for their class and style. Of course the process and results are subjective, but they give you a clear guide to the collective palate of the judges. In this case, the tastings were blind and thus uninfluenced by brand or packaging. There were thirty-three judges taken from among this country’s most celebrated sommeliers and experienced retailers. You taste the wines. Agree or disagree with the choices but the list is probably as good an indicator as any to how American wine experts think particular varietals should be expressed.

Below are the award winners and the wines that were poured. Tomorrow, I will give you my thoughts on them and some overall observations.

Most Promising New Winery: Anthill Farms Winery, Sonoma County

Importer of the Year: Vineyard Brands

Winemaker of the Year: Charles Smith - K Vintners & Charles Smith Wines

Best Wines $20 and under

Sauvignon Blanc: 2008 Hanna Winery Russian River

Pinot Gris/Grigio: 2008 Sineann Pinot Gris

Chardonnay: 2008 Luli

Pinot Noir: 2007 Siduri Sonoma County

Syrah: Copain Tous Ensemble

Merlot: 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells

Cabernet Sauvignon: 2006 Twenty Rows

Zinfandel: 2007 Foxglove

Best Wines over $20

Sparkling: 2005 Domaine Carneros Vintage Brut by Taittinger

Sauvignon Blanc: 2007 Spottswoode

Rhone-style White: 2007 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc

Chardonnay: 2006 Tandem Porter-bass Vineyard

2006 Peay Vineyards Scallop Shelf Estate

Syrah: 2007 Arnot-Roberts Alder Springs Vineyard

Merlot: 2006 Pride Mountain Vineyards

Cabernet Sauvignon: 2006 Hourglass Blueline Estate Vineyard

Zinfandel: 2007 Seghesio Family Vineyards Home Ranch

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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