The SFIWC is the world’s second oldest wine and spirits competition having been founded in 1980, beaten only by the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) here in the UK which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2019. Managed now for three decades by America’s top wine and food critic Anthony Dias Blue, it remains a beacon both for producers entering their wines and for the invited judges keen to taste them.
I had attended two or three times in the early 1990s and when Andy Blue contacted me last summer to ask if I could come out to co-chair the 2019 event alongside himself and New Zealander Jim Harre, I jumped at the chance. At the Hotel Nikko over three days with 60 judges from around the world, 4.500 wines were tasted and tested, one third from outside the USA. I have always said that while the wines are there to be assessed by qualified tasters, a competition stands and sometimes falls on the quality of organization beforehand, service of wines during and dissemination of the results afterwards, and this was handled both impressively and charmingly by Maddee McDowell and her dedicated team of helpers, more than one having been there from the very start.
Judging, as it needs to be, is rigorous and all wines awarded Gold Medals by the various panels were submitted to Andy, Jim and me for acceptance, possible up-grading and in very few cases a downgrading. On the final morning all the top Golds, the best in each category, are tasted by the entire room in a form of sweepstake. I have the list of 94 wines in front of me, some names known to me, many more not at all. The purpose of a wine competition, which I feel is more of an ‘assessment’ than a ‘competition’ is to recognize and award quality. The SFIWC 2019 did this with remarkable success. Here are a few of the top examples:
Best Pinot Gris: Franz Keller 2018 Vom Löss, Baden, Germany
Best Pinot Blanc: Agropol Mikulov 2017 Rulandské bilé, Moravia, Czech Republic
Best Sémillon: College Cellars Estate 2018 Stan Clarke Vineyard, Walla Walla, USA
Best Rhône Varietal: McPherson Cellars 2018 Roussanne Reserve, Texas High Plains, USA
Best Chardonnay: Picchetti Winery 2018 Leslie’s Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains, USA
Best Varietal Rosé: Bird in Hand 2019 Pinot Noir, Italian Range, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Best Sparkling Rosé: J Vineyards & Winery Brut NV, Russian River Valley, USA
Best Pinot Noir: Fog Crest Vineyard 2018 Upper Block, Russian River Valley, USA
Best Tempranillo: Duchman Family Winery 2015 Salt Lick Vineyards, Texas, USA
Best Sangiovese: Naggiar Vineyards 2017, Sierra Foothills, USA
Best Merlot: Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate 2016, British Columbia, Canada
Best Petit Verdot: V Sattui Winery 2016, Napa Valley, USA
Best Cabernet Sauvignon: Priest Ranch 2016 Snake Oil, Napa Valley, USA
Best Bordeaux Blend: San Simeon 2015 Stormwatch Estate, Paso Robles, USA
Best Syrah/Shiraz: Arrington Vineyards 2017, Tennessee, USA
Best Zinfandel: Miro Cellars 2017, Hemar Vineyard Old Vines, Alexander Valley, USA
Looking through these and many others, to say the wine world is ever-changing is an understatement and the SFIWC proves this.
Wine writer and consultant Steven Spurrier, joined the wine trade in London in 1964 and later moved to Paris where he bought a wine shop in 1971, and then opened L’Académie du Vin, France’s first private wine school in 1973. Spurrier organized the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, which unexpectedly elevated the status of California wine and promoted the expansion of wine production in the New World.