By Eric Barton
Consider all the celebrity chefs you know. There’s Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen and probably another dozen or more you could admit to knowing – whether you’d like to or not.
Now how about winemakers? Not the vineyard or the property owner but the actual person who crafted the blend that became your new favorite bottle.
Nothing? Nobody? Yeah, that’s likely the common answer.
The American Fine Wine Competition, a South Florida event that has grown into national recognition, is looking to change that. This year, the competition will award a Winemaker of the Year honor in the hopes of helping elevate winemakers to celebrity status.
There’s another big change for the contest too. In its eighth year, the lavish AFWC gala moves to a new venue, the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, where it expects to have a crowd that’ll top 400.
Like every year, attendees will get to taste all of the wines in the contest, which this year reached 750. That includes the ones that took top honors in the tasting competition held earlier this year (complete winner list, cityandshore.com). The winemakers themselves usually pour their own creations at the event, and among them this year will be the six up for Winemaker of the Year.
Being nominated for the award is something special for Rudy von Strasser, owner of the Napa Valley vineyard that carries his name. The winery sits on just 15 acres, but it produces single-vineyard, blends and reserve wines that have earned von Strasser wide acclaim.
“We’re a pretty tiny winery, so obviously we’re competing not only with California but the rest of the world,” von Strasser says. “So it’s pretty special for us to get these kind of accolades.”
You’ll know some of the winemakers from their bottles. If you like wine, you’ve likely had Dave Phillips’ 7 Deadly Zins, Freakshow or Rapture. Then there’s Bryan Kane, who, the first time he entered AFWC, submitted 30 different bottles of wine that he blended.
You might be wondering how a winemaker could produce 30 wines a year. That’s because many winemakers these days are freelancers, jumping between wineries and helping them figure out how to turn that year’s harvest into something award-winning. They might taste a too-fruity Merlot, for instance, and decide to blend in spicy Cabernet Franc, or mellow an overly green pepper-tasting Cabernet with Merlot.
Some years, the winemaker can successfully turn a busted harvest into a good batch, says Shari Gherman, co-founder of the AFWC. Consider the harvest of 1998, when inconsistent El Niño weather made wine experts wonder if anything good would be produced by any winery. But a few good winemakers took the grapes fried by too much sun in one region with others inundated by rains and created keepsakes.
It’s that ability to turn one mediocre batch of wine into a special bottle that convinced the AFWC to give out the Winemaker of the Year award. “We wanted to bring attention to the guys doing great stuff,” Gherman says. “Winemakers aren’t as famous as chefs but they’re often just as talented.”
Perhaps after this year’s American Fine Wine Competition, you’ll have a new favorite winemaker you know by name.
IF YOU GO
American Fine Wine Competition
Charity Wine Gala
The event, benefiting Deliver the Dream, begins with a sparkling wine reception and silent auction, followed by dinner and sampling of 750 wines served by 50 “Wine Angels.” 6:30 to 11 p.m. April 24 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood, 561-504-0206, americanfinewine