Russian River Valley small-lot pinot noir steals the show at North Coast Wine Challenge
An unexpected phone call left Matt Duffy in a state of shock last week. When he awoke the next morning, he was even more stunned to discover it hadn’t been a dream.
“Our tasting room host had called to tell me our pinot noir had won the Best of the Best award at the North Coast Wine Challenge,” said Duffy, winemaker and co-owner of Vaughn Duffy Wines in Kenwood. “At the time, I didn’t quite understand we won the top prize. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to wineries like us.”
At the 11th annual contest last week, Vaughn Duffy Wines, 2021 Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyards, Russian River Valley beat out nearly 1,200 wines to win the Best of the Best award, the competition’s highest honor. The stellar pinot noir also garnered Best of Show Red and Best of Sonoma County awards.
This is the fourth time a pinot noir has won the competition. It now eclipses chardonnay, which has won a total of three times. A pinot noir hasn’t ranked this high since 2015. Judges scored Duffy’s winning wine at 99 points.
The wine had stiff competition. This year was a record setter for entries in the contest presented by The Press Democrat, with 1,190 wines submitted by 240 wineries. To compete, each wine must be made with grapes from the North Coast AVA (American Viticulture Area), which includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin and Lake counties, and parts of Solano County. Over two days last week at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 30 judges — winemakers, sommeliers, wine buyers, journalists and other industry professionals — narrowed hundreds of entries to 35 finalists, and then down to one.
“When I saw the list of judges, I was blown away they voted for our wine,” Duffy said. “I consider some of those people to be local legends, like winemakers Heidi Barrett and Nick Goldschmidt. I am so humbled.”
Launched in 2011, Vaughn Duffy Wines is what Matt Duffy and his wife, Sara Vaughn, call part of “a new-era of first-generation winemaking families.”
With a small tasting room that opened last year in Kenwood, the winery produces just 1,500 cases per year with a primary focus on small-lot, vineyard-designate wines of sauvignon blanc, rosé and pinot noir.
Pinot noir has always been a passion for Duffy, and chief judge Daryl Groom said it’s no surprise the Vaughn Duffy pinot noir took home the top award.
“Vaughn Duffy beat out 200 pinot noirs to qualify for the final round,” Groom said. “They’re pinot noir specialists, and I’ve always loved their wines. It’s really great to see how well they did.”
Journey to pinot noir
Duffy wasn’t born into wine. Instead, his early career was in journalism, as a sports writer for The Daily Californian at UC Berkeley.
But at age 24, he moved to the Sierra Foothills and took a job alongside winemaker Scott Klann at Twisted Oak Winery.
“I had this idea that I would show up the first day and we would barrel taste and talk about the philosophy of winemaking — a romantic sort of thing,” Duffy said. “But when I got there, Scott immediately told me to drive the forklift around for an hour and ‘try not to run into anything.’ He let me make some epic mistakes but asked me to come back the next day. That’s why we have a forklift on the Vaughn Duffy label. Scott really took me under his wing and showed me a path through the wine business.”
It wasn’t until Duffy interned with winemaker Adam Lee at Siduri winery, however, that he became a self-proclaimed “pinot-noir geek.” Duffy admired Lee’s wines, and the winemaker’s dogged approach to forging his own path in the industry resonated with him. Working with Lee, said Duffy, was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Lee, now an in-demand wine consultant and winemaker/owner of Clarice Wine Company in Windsor, said Duffy was the ideal intern.
“People intern at wineries for a hundred different reasons, but every now and then you come across someone you just know is going to be successful in the wine world,” Lee said. “Matt was one of those people. I am so thrilled to see his success.”
Over the next 11 years, Duffy managed production at Vinify Wine Services, a custom-crush facility in Santa Rosa. There, he made wine alongside notable winemakers like Russell Bevan and Ross Cobb. That’s when Duffy started piecing together aspects of the winemaking techniques around him to create his own style.
In 2009, Duffy decided it was time to make his own wine. A single ton of pinot noir from Suacci Vineyard in the Sebastopol Hills became the inaugural vintage for Vaughn Duffy. It’s one of the best wines he’s ever made, he said. And it encouraged him to keep going.