Vaughn Duffy Wines maker on how life has changed after 2023 North Coast Wine Challenge win

“Winning the challenge gave me the confidence to put myself out there and has helped us continue our journey,” said Matt Duffy of Vaughn Duffy Wines.|

It’s been a whirlwind year for winemaker Matt Duffy of Vaughn Duffy Wines in Kenwood, whose small-lot pinot noir stole the show at last year’s North Coast Wine Challenge.

After beating out nearly 1,200 wines to win the competition’s top honor of “Best of the Best,” his 2021 Pinot Noir from Bacigalupi Vineyards in the Russian River Valley flew off the tasting room shelves.

“I’d never had a wine sell that fast, so initially I let people buy as much as they wanted,” said Duffy. “Once we had enough money to pay our past-due bills, we started limiting purchases. We wanted to make sure we had enough wine left for ourselves!”

Sponsored by The Press Democrat, the North Coast Wine Challenge is open to wines produced in the North Coast American Viticulture Area, which includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin and Lake counties, as well as part of Solano County.

In addition to winning Best of the Best last year, Vaughn Duffy’s Bacigalupi pinot noir also earned Best of Show Red and Best of Sonoma County. As for the winery’s 2021 pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley and Petaluma Gap, they won double golds, too.

“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to wineries like us,” said Duffy last year.

On the map

Launched in 2011, Vaughn Duffy Wines is located along a rural stretch of Highway 12 in Kenwood. Producing just 1,500 cases of small-lot, vineyard designate wines per year, Duffy was “blown away” when his tiny brand took home the competition’s top prize.

It was a refreshing, encouraging turn of events for the winery, which has historically struggled to maintain foot traffic in its out-of-the-way location.

“After we won the award, there were customers lining up outside the tasting room to purchase wine — that was definitely not normal,” said Duffy. “We went from completely dead in March to doing a complete 180 in April. It was like turning on a spigot.”

Daryl Groom, chief judge at the North Coast Wine Challenge, said winning the competition can have “huge benefits.”

“The judges who vote for the top wines are renowned winemakers, local wine buyers and influential wine media who are eager to promote and support the winning wines,” said Groom. “The rewards start immediately after the winning wine is revealed. The winemaker gets huge exposure to buyers and consumers and basically becomes a rock star.”

With only 100 cases of Bacigalupi pinot noir produced, the wine sold out in a matter of weeks. But not without Duffy and his wife, Sara Vaughn, saving their own stash.

This month, that stash came in handy when Groom invited Duffy to pour his award-winning wine at Pigs & Pinot in Healdsburg, a grand annual event that raises money for culinary, wine and arts education.

“We were one of the featured wineries at the gala dinner, so Daryl had me get up and talk about our wines,” said Duffy. “Jeff Mangahas from Williams Selyem spoke right before me, and I spoke before Gary Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards. It was super trippy to be among these iconic pinot noir producers. They’re two of my favorites.”

One year later

While things have “kind of gone back to normal” according to Duffy, he’s still feeling the residual effects of the win. His wine club numbers are up, he’s pouring at new events and he has a whole new slew of wines for sale.

And yes, he made a 2022 and 2023 Bacigalupi Pinot Noir. Wine Enthusiast awarded the former 96 points.

“Wining the challenge gave me the confidence to put myself out there and has helped us continue our journey,” said Duffy. “We want to build on our success and see what we can achieve. Nothing happens quickly in the wine business — we have to be patient.”

Groom, who will again assume the role of chief judge at this year’s challenge, hopes to see other small wineries like Vaughn Duffy enter the competition moving forward.

“I absolutely encourage boutique brands to enter — I love it when they do,” said Groom. “Most small wineries sell the majority of their wines locally and our competition can give them huge exposure multiple times over.”

Duffy, who is currently awaiting the results of the year’s North Coast Wine Challenge, agrees.

“You have nothing to lose by entering the contest. I honestly regret we didn’t enter it sooner,” said Duffy. “For now, I just want to keep our wines out there. Regardless of what happens at this year’s competition, last year’s win will always be a feather in our cap.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or Follow Sarah on Instagram for story updates at @whiskymuse.

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