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Top Stories of 2012

Real Housewife wine, Bordeaux troubles, a mysterious death, a high-profile counterfeiting case and Amazon's return to wine sales. The year in wine was tumultuous, to say the least

Ben O'Donnell, Dana Nigro
Posted: December 28, 2012

In this topsy-turvy year, Skinnygirl wines and Moscato were up and classified-growth Bordeaux was down. An alleged counterfeiter headed to court, but police are still struggling to solve the case of a California vintner's possible murder or suicide. And a place where consumers could make their own wines went bust, then asked its clients to pay out more to get their wines out.

Stoking the fires, Wine Spectator bloggers and columnists took on lies and myths in the world of wine, the debate over the usefulness of tasting-note descriptors, the most memorable wines of the 2012, wine grammar, pronunciation and the impact of a certain Internet retail giant's new wine marketplace.

Wine lovers had plenty to enjoy: under-$20 alternatives to the world's greatest wines, top-quality restaurant lists, outstanding Napa Cabernets and California Pinot Noirs, and easy, inexpensive wine-pairing meals. Even more enticing was the report that a chemical in red wine might turn out to help keep you from getting fat!

Here are our most popular news and feature articles, tasting reports and blogs of 2012 (determined by page views). Take a look back with us at the best (and worst) of the vintage, and see what you may have missed along the way.

Top Free News and Features

1. Beam's Skinnygirl Enters Wine Market
Originally a Real Housewife of New York, Bethenny Frankel has built an empire on spin-off shows and health-and-wellness brands, including the Skinnygirl line of low-calorie, pre-mixed drinks—one of the fastest-growing brands in the alcohol-beverage industry. This year, under Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc. and with the assistance of winemaker Kurt Lorenzi, Skinnygirl entered the wine scene with three bottlings: a Syrah-based red, a Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio blend and a rosé, all from California grapes, each at $15 a pop, 100 calories per glass and 12 percent alcohol. The initial run was 200,000 cases, but judging from interest in this story and Skinnygirl's plans to launch a Moscato and three new cocktails this spring, there will be plenty more where that came from.

2. Matt Kramer's Drinking Out Loud: Wine's Three Biggest Lies and Wine Myths That Need Shattering
Longtime Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer continued to bring his thought-provoking and sometimes iconoclastic views to his online opinion pieces, which remain a favorite among readers. This year, readers especially liked Kramer in takedown mode, giving the most clicks to articles on wine lies and myths. In exposing these falsehoods, which ranged from "if you like it, it is good" (lie) to "wines should be kept in a cellar with a certain amount of humidity" (myth), Kramer sought to disabuse readers of received wisdoms heard all too often in the wine world, especially those that steer drinkers toward higher price tags by equating cost with quality. As usual, many readers posted spirited reactions in the comments section.

3. Four Restaurants Earn New Grand Awards in 2012
Now in its 31st year, Wine Spectator's Restaurant Wine List Awards program honors nearly 3,800 restaurants across 50 states and 70-plus countries for their thoughtful and comprehensive wine lists. In 2012, four restaurants newly gained the ultimate recognition, the Grand Award, which is only given after a rigorous review and inspection to restaurants that generally offer 1,500 or more selections with superior breadth and depth in many of the world’s classic wine-producing regions. The four additions this year were A Voce Columbus in Manhattan, Acquerello in San Francisco, Commander's Palace in New Orleans and Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif.

4. 8 & $20: Homemade Meatballs and Chianti
The idea behind our 8 & $20 feature is a simple one: that a delicious meal can be made quickly, easily and cheaply, using eight ingredients or fewer, and paired with a bottle of wine that's $20 or less. While many recipes proved popular this year, the most-read was this take on a classic, which showed readers how to whip up a meatballs-and-tomato-sauce dish in a half-hour and change, not always an easy feat. With a total food price of $24 and an ideal match in a $12, 90-point Chianti, this recipe perfectly demonstrated the type of weeknight dinner solution that has made the feature so useful.

5. Santa Barbara Vintner Christopher Marks Dead in Mysterious Incident
In the early morning hours of Sept. 20, a dog walker on the beach happened upon the body of 60-year-old Santa Barbara County vintner Christopher Marks; three months later, authorities are still stymied by the cause of Marks' death. Initially ruled an accidental fall from high bluffs, the case became more complicated when autopsy results revealed "suspicious" findings, an indication of suicide or murder. Marks and his wife planted vines in the Sta. Rita Hills 32 years ago and began bottling their own small Sweeney Canyon Vineyard label in 2006. Some with knowledge of the case told the Santa Barbara Independent that Marks was shot in the back of the head, but authorities did not verify the claim. The paper also reported that Marks was embroiled in lawsuits involving his investment firm and his vine holdings at the time of his death.

6. A Red-Wine Chemical Cuts the Fat
For WineSpectator.com readers, there's no news like good wine health news. Unsurprising, then, that the most popular story in health this year reported on a study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry that found piceatannol, a polyphenol in grape skins and red wine, effectively blocks the formation of fat cells. The polyphenol had already been found to have "strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activities," according to one of the study's authors, but its effects on fat cells were previously unknown. Fat, when consumed, is either converted into energy or fatty tissue, and at high enough doses, piceatannol virtually blocked the latter process entirely.

7. Wine Spectator's New WineRatings+ App Delivers Convenient, Expert Advice
This year saw the launch of one of Wine Spectator's most exciting new digital initiatives, the WineRatings+ app for iPhone. The free download provides vintage charts, educational content and an enhanced news and features feed, but for $2.99 a month, on-the-go users can get quick access to all 270,000-plus of our expert wine reviews. The app is automatically updated with more than 1,000 new reviews each month, and in December, Version 3.0 debuted. New features included additions to the Picks section, including an all-new Biggest Bargains list and an updated Top 100 Wines list for 2012.

8. Moscato Mania
Moscato was the wine on everyone's lips in 2012, outstripping every other varietal in U.S. sales growth. "You're probably talking about 7 million cases for Moscato that didn't really exist five years ago," said Tom Steffanci of Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, whose Yellow Tail Moscato is a leader in the market. The slightly sweet, low-alcohol, easy-drinking white wine, sometimes made in a fizzy style, captivated Americans. Moscato has been especially popular among entry-level wine drinkers, but holds appeal across a range of demographic groups, appearing in rap videos and supermarkets alike. While demand has put a strain on supply worldwide, one welcome byproduct of the Moscato craze has been a modest lift in the fortunes of Italian winegrowers, who have been suffering through a very difficult economy.

9. Château Lafite Rothschild Releases Its 2011 Price
Unlike the frenzy of recent years, the 2011 en primeur releases landed with a soft thud, as wines that were "just very good" hit economically stressed markets at prices that, though reduced from the record breakers of 2010, most buyers still felt were too high. Most châteaus waited and waited to unveil their prices, but Lafite and Cos-d'Estournel took the opposite tack, dropping in April. Lafite came out at 350 euros ex-cellar, a 30 percent drop from 2010, followed by Cos at 108 euros, a 50 percent slash. Lafite's popularity in Asia made its pricing look smart, as 2011 is now the cheapest vintage of that wine on the market. Other estates cut prices by 20 to 50 percent but still got burned, as their 2011s were still pricier than older vintages nearer to peak drinking. Château Latour, meanwhile, announced that next year it would sit out the futures game entirely.

10. Crushpad's Assets Go on the Auction Block
California custom-crush facility Crushpad had a rather bad year in 2012. The company's assets were auctioned off in August after months of speculation about its solvency. CastleGate Capital Advisors, a Tiburon, Calif.-based firm specializing in turning around troubled companies, picked up the pieces. As many as 500 customers still had their wines in barrels at the facility at the time; some clients had reported that Crushpad had been blocking them from removing their wines since June. Ultimately, the customers were left holding the bag, as the new owners asked them to help pay for the reorganization by ponying up more money to get their wines bottled and labeled, expenses already charged in their initial purchase.

11. Has Bordeaux's Bubble Burst?
The tribulations of the 2011 futures campaign were hardly the only woes for Bordeaux in 2012. Across the board, prices went limp for a variety of reasons, including economic turmoil in Europe and China, which was supposed to be the new hot market for classified growths. Many négociants were stuck with too much stock and not enough cash, forcing them to sell low and flooding the market with wine. Chinese buyers, having seen poor returns on their 2009 futures purchases, became wary of blue-chip Bordeaux; some even canceled their 2010 en primeur orders. Credit has also dried up, and the Chinese government has cracked down on smuggling between the Hong Kong and Mainland borders as a way of avoiding the 48 percent duty on wine. Good news for producers beyond the classified growths, however: The volume of basic Bordeaux exported to China grew over 100 percent every month of 2011.

12. Alleged Wine Counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan Indicted
A federal grand jury indicted Rudy Kurniawan—who had established himself as a serious collector active in the auction scene, buying and selling millions of dollars' worth of wine—on four counts of wire and mail fraud in May. In a March raid, the FBI found a lab's worth of counterfeiting materials at Kurniawan's house: a cork inserter, hundreds of used corks, bags of new corks, foil capsules, hundreds of rubber stamps for vintage dates ranging from Château Latour 1899 to Screaming Eagle 1992, thousands of counterfeit labels for wines dating as far back as the 1899 vintage and evidence of numerous bottles being counterfeited, including a relatively recent California Pinot Noir that Kurniawan had marked as "40's/50's DRC," potentially referring to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. As his Manhattan trial was beginning in September, Kurnawian's defense team moved to have this evidence thrown out on the grounds that FBI agents had an arrest warrant but not a search warrant when they entered the house. The U.S. Justice Department later rejected those accusations.

Top Tasting Reports

1. Top 100 of 2012
If our annual list of the year's most exciting wines weren't our top-drawing tasting report, that might have been a sign of the 2012 "Mayan" apocalypse (see Best of Unfiltered 2012). California took the No. 1 spot again, with an unusual Syrah-based blend from Napa, the region where Cabernet is king. Filling out the Top 10 were three more Rhône variety bottlings (two from Southern Rhône appellations and another from Australia), two stars from Bordeaux's stunning 2009 vintage, an Oregon Pinot Noir from a Wall Street refugee, a California Cabernet for only $45, a great value in traditional-style Brunello di Montalcino and an Argentine wine that represents the peak of old-vine Malbec. Each of the 10 was accompanied by a video in which our senior editors explained what made that wine so special—and that entire lineup was, once again, our most popular set of videos for 2012.

2. 2011 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting
This may have been a somewhat disappointing vintage after the stellar 2009 and 2010, with a growing season full of ups and downs, leading to very good, but uneven quality. All the more reason Bordeaux collectors sought out James Molesworth's report from the region, as he barrel tasted his way through the top châteaus, value producers and full spectrum of appellations. His scores, tasting notes and analysis on hundreds of 2011 samples helped consumers who were considering buying futures choose the châteaus that made excellent wines. Drinkers who prefer reds with brighter acidity and lower alcohol found much to be happy about after the two preceding richer vintages, as did lovers of Bordeaux's dry whites and the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Molesworth's lists of wines by top scores and by name and appellation will continue to come in handy once the wines are released in bottle.

3. Tasting Highlights: 25 Outstanding California Pinot Noirs
For the third year in a row, Pinot Noir edged out Cabernet Sauvignon as our readers' favorite variety from California when it came to our twice-weekly Tasting Highlights, reports from our editors' latest blind tastings. Our California office saw a mix of vintages: the stunning-across-the-board 2009 vintage and the late, strong, but less-consistent 2010. These 25 new reviews of outstanding wines from the cool-climate Carneros and Russian River Valley appellations topped the series of reports; most came from names already familiar to Pinot lovers. Close on their heels were these 13 California Pinot Noirs from Sonoma and Santa Barbara, which included newer brands to watch. Once again Brian Loring, making an early charge with his 2010s, captured a lot of attention in this set of 16 California Pinot Noirs, a roundup of his Loring and Mateo releases from most of the state's key Pinot appellations, providing an overview of the 2010 vintage.

4. Tasting Highlights: 11 Outstanding 2009 Napa Cabernets
With the exciting 2009 vintage coming to market, California Cabernet—specifically those from Napa—climbed two steps back up our top list, after surprisingly falling briefly behind values and Zinfandel in 2011. This report contained some of the best single-vineyard examples, which showcase how winemakers can create distinctive wines from the same vintage based on the source of the grapes. Some of the later-release 2008 Cabernets took top billing in this mix of 15 Outstanding Napa Reds that also included Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel and Tempranillo. Another group of 16 Outstanding Napa Cabernets crossed over three vintages—2009, 2008 and 2007—and mixed valley blends, appellation-specific and vineyard-designated wines.

5. Tasting Highlights: 10 Oregon Standouts
California didn't capture all the glory this year. The Willamette Valley—Oregon's largest AVA—is the Beaver State's heartland for Pinot Noir. The best wines tend to come from the six subappellations in the northern valley. This mix included Pinots from hillside sites in those AVAs, single-vineyard expressions of the grape and broader valley appellation bottlings that provide relative bargains. Plus, a refreshing brut from Argyle, one of a small group of Oregon vintners making sparkling wines that can rival the best from California.

Top Editors' Blogs

Tim Fish: My Favorite Wines of 2012
Of all the great wines Sonoma-based associate editor Tim Fish tried in the past year, these are the 10 bottles that left the most lasting impressions. His picks range from Sonoma and Mendocino bubblies to the best California rosé he's ever tasted, an eccentric blend of old-school grapes, prominent producers' Zins and two Merlot-based blends that go head-to-head with a couple of rich California Pinots. Many readers weighed in with their own lists of favorites from around the world.

James Laube: Promising 2009 Cabs and 2010 Pinots
Our California senior editor struck a one-two punch by combining two of our readers' favorite topics into one post: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and California Pinot Noir. As James Laube worked his way through his tastings of new releases, he gave readers insight into two strong vintages. Despite October rains, 2009 resulted in rich, structured Cabernets for Napa, though the timing of the storms was worse for Sonoma producers. For many of the state's key Pinot appellations, 2010 looked better than expected from early winemaker analysis, after the near-perfect 2009 growing season.

Mixed Case—Jennifer Fiedler: How Do You Pronounce Foreign Wine Names?
Even for savvy wine drinkers, wine names can be maddeningly tricky to pronounce. Do you Americanize names or use the foreign pronunciation? The "correct" choice can vary with context. And what about American wineries with foreign words in their names? Jennifer Fiedler discussed some examples that trip people up, while readers shared other names that stymie them up and their solutions for this problem.

Mixed Case—Mitch Frank: Will Amazon Change the Way We Buy Wine?
When he heard the plans for launching Amazon.com Wine Marketplace this year, associate editor Mitch Frank was reminded of the play Waiting for Godot. For a dozen years now, the wine industry has been waiting for Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, who has made unsuccessful stabs at selling wine twice before. Will this time be a game changer? So far plans are modest; the marketplace is merely a portal for domestic wineries, taking a cut of sales, while producers still have to handle shipping. But don't underestimate Amazon ….

Mixed Case—Ben O'Donnell: The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines
For the world's loftiest wines, the price of admission can be too steep to get familiar. Assistant editor Ben O'Donnell shared his trick to benchmarking on a budget—drinking "satellite wines" in orbit of the stars, to learn the regional techniques, grapes and vintage quality. He started his series with two French legends—Champagne and Châteauneuf-du-Pape—and their under-$20 counterparts. Meet Crémant de Bourgogne and Lirac.

Mixed Case—Robert Taylor: Prunes, Canes and Leaves
A longtime copy editor, associate editor Robert Taylor took on the tricky business of enological grammar, spelling and misused terms, as well as "Wine Spectator style." He explained varietal/variety, tannins/tannin, palate/palette/pallet and grands crus/premiers crus, among others. Readers shared their own pet peeves in wine terminology.

James Molesworth: Tasted Four Times, with Consistent Notes
Critic Pete Wells' now-infamous review of Guy Fieri's new Times Square restaurant inspired senior editor James Molesworth to discuss what makes a great tasting note. Wells deftly used descriptors to evoke the characteristics of a cocktail or an entrée; even if you've never actually tried radiator fluid or formaldehyde, you knew exactly what he was getting at. Molesworth put up an impassioned defense for sharing our dining or wine experiences with others and of the usefulness of tasting notes for doing so.

Bruce Sanderson: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2009—Magnificence in the Bottle
After tasting the lineup from Burgundy's most sought-after label in the superb growing season of 2009, tasting director and senior editor Bruce Sanderson shared his notes on each bottling—from the new Corton Prince Florent de Mérode to the famed La Tâche and Romanée-Conti reds, along with the Montrachet. He described the wines as "expressive, open and captivating" but with the structure and density to develop well over their lifetimes—which domaine co-director Aubert de Villaine put at 50 years at least. With retail prices for DRC wines ranging from $200-plus to more than $4,000, Sanderson's notes at least provide a vicarious taste.

Harvey Steiman: Tasting Notes Too Pretentious for Words?
Well before the Fieri review, our editor-at-large wrestled with the debate over whether tasting notes help readers or make wines seem "too la-di-da." Is it a fool's errand to try to describe a wine in detail when not everyone tastes the same thing? Not in Steiman's view. He outlined his approach—sketching out a broad overview of the wine, then homing in on specific characteristics that make it distinctive—and explained why and how Wine Spectator reviews wines in blind tastings. Many readers weighed in with their opinions, questions and tasting-note wish lists.

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