Harold Osborne alongside the machine he uses to fill bottles of his sparkling wine at his winer La Fuente in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Mike Dunne
Harold Osborne alongside the machine he uses to fill bottles of his sparkling wine at his winer La Fuente in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Mike Dunne

Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Dunne on Wine

In today’s Gold Rush, Jeff Runquist Wines keeps hitting pay dirt

By Mike Dunne

Special to The Bee

July 17, 2017 12:44 PM

For Amador County vintners Jeff and Margie Runquist, 2012 was a very good year. On the wine-competition circuit, wines from their Shenandoah Valley winery, Jeff Runquist Wines, won 28 gold medals and 80 silver medals.

But as impressive as that showing was, 2017 is shaping up to be an even more spectacular year. After 13 competitions, their wines have accumulated 54 gold or double-gold medals and 68 silver medals.

What’s more, 33 wines have received special awards, such as best of class or best of show. At Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition this spring, three of the 14 wines up for best-of-show red wine in the final round were from Jeff Runquist Wines. None won, but Jeff Runquist Wines turned in such a strong overall performance – 24 of the 27 wines it entered won a medal – that Runquist was awarded the competition’s Winery of the Year trophy.

That’s been the pattern for Jeff Runquist Wines, regardless of the size of the competition. At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January, the nation’s largest judging with 7,000 entries, 11 of the 17 wines the couple entered won a gold or silver medal.

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At the Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition this spring, one of the smaller judgings with about 300 entries, six of the 12 wines they entered won gold or silver. In addition, at the Calaveras competition the opulent and stimulating Jeff Runquist Wines 2015 Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($29) was elected best-of-show red wine, while the 2015 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel ($25) won the competition’s “Zinfandel Shootout” to decide the best take on the varietal.

Several reasons account for Runquist’s successful mining of gold and silver. For one, he makes a lot of wines, about 35 for any given vintage. He enters a lot of competitions, believing that medals and other awards help introduce his wines to new customers; that strategy looks to be working as he presides over one of the busier tasting rooms and larger wine clubs – nearly 4,000 members – in the Sierra foothills.

And then there’s the Runquist style of winemaking. He makes showy wines – lush with fruit faithful to the variety of grape named on the label, framed generously with carefully calibrated oak, almost invariably adroitly balanced, and vital with acidity. They pop out in a comparative blind tasting, seducing judges with their lavishness and liveliness.

None of his wines has turned in a more consistent performance on the competition circuit this year than the concentrated but lithe Jeff Runquist Wines 2015 Amador County Barbera ($25), which has won a gold or double-gold medal in eight competitions. (A double-gold medal is awarded when all judges of a panel concur that a wine deserves a gold medal.) That kind of consistency from competition to competition, before a wide range of judges, is rare.

A common challenge for consumers is to get their hands on a Runquist wine before it sells out. He prides himself on finding choice but small vineyards from throughout California, the consequence of which is that many of his vineyard-designated wines are made in lots of perhaps only 100 or 200 cases. Thus, another Runquist wine showing well in competitions this year, the 2015 Logan’s Rock Wall Dolcetto ($28), which has won five gold medals and two silvers in eight competitions, is sold out at the winery.

And he made only 54 cases of the Runquist 2015 Paso Robles Three Way Vineyard Mataro ($29), which earlier this month was named best-of-show red wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, which drew 4,200 wines from 31 countries; the mataro isn’t to be released until September.

However, impressive recent Runquist wines that remain available at this writing include the juicy, spicy and elegant 2015 “Z” Massoni Ranch Zinfandel ($25); the unusually fresh and accessible 2014 Lodi Silvaspoons Vineyard Tannat ($26); the lush and lingering 2015 Stanislaus County Damir Ranch Petit Verdot ($26); and the sweetly fruity and complex 2015 Lodi Alta Mesa Touriga ($26), which in the first round of Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition tied with the wine that eventually was elected the best red wine, the lissome Lawer Estates 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($65).

Incidentally, up to this time Runquist has built his following solely with red wine, but now he’s released his first white wine under his own brand, a 2016 viognier from River Junction in San Joaquin County that seizes the variety’s honeysuckle, peach and spice character with freshness, balance and an unusually long finish ($23). It’s won a gold medal and a silver medal and was declared best of class at this year’s Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino.

New timing, tweaked format for Barbera Festival

If you think you missed this year’s Barbera Festival, you didn’t. During the first six years of its run, the Amador County gathering was held in the late spring. But even then the weather can be hot in the foothills. What’s more, the timing was close to another popular wine festival in the same neighborhood, Amador Four Fires.

As a consequence, organizers have moved the seventh annual Barbera Festival to the fall – Sept. 16. It again will be at Terra d’Oro Winery in Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Plymouth.

For the most part, the format will be the same, with some 70 wineries pouring wines made from the black Italian grape barbera, which over the past decade has emerged as a popular challenger to zinfandel as the grape and the wine most closely identified with the Mother Lode.

In a switch from the past, however, vintners pouring barbera also will be permitted to pour wines made from other Italian grape varieties, such as vermentino, sangiovese and nebbiolo.

Tickets and additional information about the festival, a benefit for Amador Community Foundation, are available at www.barberafestival.com.

Here’s your chance for a winery in Mexico

Last year in this space I wrote of seasoned California winemaker Harold Osborne and his new winery, La Fuente, in one of the world’s more challenging wine settings, Todos Santos, the surfing settlement along the Pacific Ocean at the southern reaches of Mexico’s torrid Baja peninsula.

Aside from growing grapes and making wine, Osborne has had other challenges this year. For one, his Mexican work permit expired, and he couldn’t legally run the winery without it, so this spring he shut down the winery as he began to work on a new permit.

Then he celebrated his 68th birthday, which raised a question: “Do I really want to own a business in Mexico when I’m 70 years old? The answer was no,” said Osborne during a recent phone interview. “I’ve been doing this for five years, and it doesn’t get any easier doing business down here.”

Thus, with that candid warning he’s ready to sell La Fuente, which includes equipment, inventory, tasting room and a small vineyard out front, all close to the cultural heart of Todos Santos. He’d seriously entertain an offer of $725,000.

Despite the heat, humidity and hurricanes to which the region is susceptible, Osborne still is confident that grape growing and winemaking have potential in the area. He’s willing to stick around to help new owners, and he is eager to continue to assist ranchers in the vicinity who are diversifying their spreads with experimental vineyards. “I’m still committed,” Osborne says.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.