Winemakers of the year

By nature, winemakers are a modest breed. They do most of their work in jeans and boots and almost always give credit for any critical acclaim to their vineyards.

Vineyards are indeed important, but behind every great vineyard is a winemaker deciding the precise moment to pick, the best yeast to optimize flavor and complexity, whether to barrel down or not, which type of barrels to use, older barrels or new, and so on until the wine is finally bottled. 

It's anything but a push-button job, especially when grape-growing conditions are less than ideal. 

Over the course of the past year, numerous winemakers stood out. Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey and Darice Spinelli of Nickel & Nickel produced wines -- Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons in each case -- that inspired the rare 100-point score in the "Wine Talk" ratings. 

Dan Goldfield at Dutton Goldfield released a string of exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay. He also had the uncanny ability to step outside his perceived comfort zone and produce a dry gewurztraminer that is probably the finest of the genre in the United States. 

The same can be said of Merry Edwards, the queen of California pinot noir. Edwards' pinot noir and chardonnay releases in 2017 consistently topped the class, and her sauvignon blanc, made in the style of Bordeaux blanc, was second to none. 

Then there is Luca Paschina, the brilliant winemaker at Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards, located in the Blue Ridge mountains two hours southwest of Washington, D.C. Paschina, a native of Italy's Piedmont region, has been winemaker at Barboursville since 1990. He is perhaps the most decorated winemaker in the history of Virginia wine, and 2017 was no different. Barboursville wines took 10 gold medals at the four annual wine challenges staged in San Diego. Paschina dazzled with a red Bordeaux-style blend "Octagon," a nebbiolo reserve that is consistently the finest nebbiolo made in America, a vermentino reserve, a cabernet franc reserve, a viognier, a sauvignon blanc and even a splendid cabernet sauvignon. 

Among a deluge of impressive performances in 2017, these winemakers stood out for me and are thus the 2017 "Wine Talk" winemakers of the year. 

Best Value 

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine. 

Luca Bosio 2016 Gavi DOCG, Piedmont, Italy ($18.99) -- The Cortese grape of the Gavi district produces a clean, refreshing white wine that too often is simple and unimpressive. Not so for this excellent vintage from Luca Bosio. It delivers a notable citrus character, for which Gavi is known, as well as a whisper of tropical fruit and crunchy green apple. Well-balanced and showing zesty acidity, this is an outstanding food wine that pairs well with steamed shellfish and Mediterranean appetizers. Rating: 90. 

Tasting Notes 

Spottswoode 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa County-Sonoma County ($36) -- From the outset, Spottswoode was a heavy hitter in the Napa Valley. Its estate cabernet sauvignon vineyard in St. Helena was coveted by other vintners, such as Duckhorn, and its sauvignon blanc vineyard was thought by neighbors to be sublime. When the Novak family decided more than 30 years ago that it was ready to make the transition to producers instead of growers, it hired the brilliant winemaker Tony Soter. The rest is history. Soter moved on long ago, but the Spottswoode wines are good as ever, if not better. The sauvignon blanc has undergone some changes, adding to the estate vineyard sources such as Stagecoach and Hyde vineyards. Winemaker Aron Weinkauf continues to use a combination of steel barrels (60 percent) and oak barrels (35 percent) during fermentation to increase lees contact for texture and complexity. Concrete curves are used for the remaining 5 percent. Spottswoode's innovative approach and attention to detail result in a sauvignon that is both unique and in some ways in a class by itself. The 2016 vintage is a beautiful wine that delivers a creamy texture along with classic sauvignon flavors of tangerine, white peach and lemon zest. Rating: 96. 

Tongue Dancer 2015 Chardonnay, Bacigalupi Vineyard ($50) -- Winemaker James MacPhail's first chardonnay for his new label (he's no longer connected with MacPhail Wines) is a home run. No surprise there. It's also no surprise he went to the historic Bacigalupi vineyard near Healdsburg, for he is deeply interested in the history of Sonoma County vineyards. Bacigalupi grapes made up a substantial portion of the blend for the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that triumphed at the now-infamous Paris tastings of 1976, when California wines shocked the world by winning blind tastings against French wines. This inaugural vintage of Tongue Dancer Bacigalupi is rich and creamy, showing notes of lemon oil, peach and fall spices. Layered and complex, it delivers impressive weight and depth without losing its freshness. Of course, there's just the right touch of toasty oak. More like this, please! Rating: 95. 

Tinto Figuero 2016 '4,' Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain ($21.99) -- The four signifies aging for four months in French and American oak, just enough time to add a touch of wood spice. This young tempranillo from Ribera del Duero exhibits good ripeness, palate weight and complexity, with bright-blue-fruit aromas and excellent balance. Serve it with grilled brats or chicken. Rating: 88. 

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