Sunset Wine Awards 2009

If you thought the Oscar race was competitive, check out the Western wine scene. Here’s your indispensable guide to the true stars

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Best Winery Tasting Room: J Vineyards & Winery, Healdsburg, CA

The vibe: Sleek, artful, and very much about good bubbles with food: On weekends, spring for the sit-down pairing ($60) in the Bubble Room, for inspired food like the “BLT” ―foie gras, applewood-smoked bacon, heirloom tomato, and mâche on toast points with the J Brut Rosé. Sips to try: J “Cuvée 20” Brut, J Pinot Gris, and J Robert Thomas Vineyard Pinot Noir. Extras: Stellar still wines along with the sparklers. $20 tasting fee (5-wine pour); 707/431-3646. Runners-up: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, WA; Robert Sinskey, Napa Valley; Press Club, San Francisco.

Winemaker of the Year: Jim Clendenen

Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat in California’s Santa Maria Valley, has kept Pinot Noir from tasting like Syrah. Yes, he’s rejected über-ripe fruit-bomb winemaking in favor of elegance. “We think the real quality in Pinot resides in its subtle, hedonistic side. Pinot should have alluring aromas; nuanced, complex flavors; a soft, creamy texture; and an exquisitely balanced finish.”

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