Italy has its day in the sun

Banfi, one of the most important names in Italian wine, and Vecchia Romagna, the most renowned producers of Italian brandy, gave a distinctly Italian twist to the outcome of the annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge earlier this month.

Banfi, with a platinum award for its 2012 Brunello di Montalcino, 10 gold awards and three silver awards, was named winery of the year for its outstanding performance. And Vecchia Romagna captured spirit of the year with its extraordinary 35-year-old Trentacinque Brandy ($400).

The wine of the year award-winner was a stunning 2013 vintage Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from Clos Pegase ($55), which also won best of show for red wine. Best sparkling was the Gloria Ferrer 2005 Carneros Cuvee Brut ($75), which is one of the few California sparkling wines that is receives lengthy aging on the lees on a par with tetes de cuvee Champagne.

Best of show white wine went to a 2014 riesling from New York's Wagner Vineyards. This beautiful wine from the Caywood East Vineyard once again demonstrates the exceptional quality of riesling from New York's Finger Lakes region. At $18 retail, it also represents phenomenal value.

South Coast Winery, just 60 miles north of San Diego, rang the bell with its 2015 Tempranillo Rose ($16), which took best of show rose. The winery racked up two other platinum awards.

In what was truly an international affair, the best of show dessert wine award went to the New Zealand winery Giesen. Its 2013 "The Brothers" Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough was a stunner. And so is the price, at $35 per 375 ml per bottle.

For complete results, visit the San Diego Wine Challenge website.

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.

Morgan 2015 Cotes du Crow's, Monterey ($18) -- Morgan's interpretation of a classic Rhone Valley blend includes a bit of Tempranillo, but it's still essentially a Rhone-style blend with 52 percent grenache and 44 percent syrah. The red-fruit brightness of the grenache shine through, as does the backbone and structure of the syrah. This is a wine that shows a complex array of red and black fruits, wood spice and supple tannins. If ever there was a wine meant for a backyard barbecue, this is it. Rating: 88.

Rodney Strong 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($20) -- Rodney Strong's Sonoma County Cabernet is one of the most reliable in California in this price range. The 2014 exhibits red and black fruit aromas, a note of dried herbs, vanilla and spice in the background, supple tannins and good persistence of flavor on the palate and through the finish. Rating: 88.

Tasting Notes 

Poggio al Tesoro 2015 'Solosole' Vermentino, Bolgheri IGT, Tuscany, Italy ($23) -- Vermentino from Bolgheri may well be the best-kept secret in Tuscan wine. The 2015 Solosole from Poggio al Tesoro, situated on the Tuscan coast, is one of the finest. With a spicy floral nose, this inviting wine offers a complex array of aromas on the palate -- from peach to apricot to pear to a hint of orange peel -- along with exquisite balance. It's a gem and a steal at the price. Rating: 95.

Dutton Goldfield 2014 Pinot Noir, Devil's Gulch Vineyard, Marin County ($68) -- This is the vineyard that made Marin County famous for pinot noir. Dutton Goldfield has been making stellar pinot from Devil's Gulch for a number of years, and the 2014 is another good one. Showing notes of cherry and plum with back notes of wood spice and black tea, this is a pinot from one of California's most reliable producers ready to drink now. Rating: 94.

Baileyana 2014 Pinot Noir 'La Entrada,' Edna Valley ($35) -- Baileyana's La Entrada Pinot offers bright cherry and raspberry aromas with excellent weight and length on the palate and a bit of grip on the finish. The wine is well-balanced and shows hints of wood smoke and wood spice. This is a friendly, easy-to-approach pinot that you can enjoy now, though an additional year or so in the cellar certainly wouldn't hurt. Rating: 90.

Beringer 2014 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($25) -- Beringer isn't known historically for pinot noir, but this one's pretty good, and the price for the quality makes it an attractive proposition. It offers good weight on the palate, layered density, and aromas of cherry and wood spice. The wine also shows a leafy note with a savory aspect. In this price range, it's near the head of the class. Rating: 88.