In one of the least surprising wine developments of the year, wine writers continued to wield strongly held opinions about every vinous topic under the sun, and Wine Spectator editors were no exception. Our team waded into wine controversies that seem destined never to settle, like corks versus screwcaps and the alcohol/ripeness debate. But there were also more somber topics in the wine world to address, disasters like the fires that scorched California and the Charlie Hebdo killings in France. Among our blog posts in 2015, some particularly resonated with readers. Has Napa gone cash-crazy? What's the next great grape? And so on.
Here, in alphabetical order by editor, are the top blog posts of 2015.
The years-long drought in California provided a tinderbox for wildfires in 2015. When California-based senior editor Tim Fish surveyed the scene in early August, there were more than 20 active, large fires in the state—none larger at the time than the Rocky Fire, which raged across Lake County, just north of Napa. When Fish was observing, growers were growing anxious. Parts of Highway 20 were closed, making some Lake County vineyards inaccessible, and errant winds threatened smoke damage in the vineyards. On Sept. 12, the even more destructive Valley Fire broke out just as harvest loomed, forcing some 20,000 evacuations in Lake and Napa counties and scorching 76,000 acres in Lake County alone. Most wineries dodged significant damage, but some were not so lucky.
Pritchard Hill, wrote senior editor James Laube in May, has richly earned its reputation as “The Rodeo Drive of Napa Valley,” as one 80-acre property with 32 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon went on the block for an asking price of $55 million. True, neighbors included heavyweights like Colgin, Continuum, Ovid, Bryant Family and Chappellet, and the property for sale, Montagna, accounted for a full 10 percent of vine land on Pritchard Hill. Still, Laube crunched some numbers and found that even selling $500 bottles of Cabernet would make this investment difficult to recoup for quite some time. It was, he wrote, an example of “a real-estate bubble building in wine country.”
In January, Islamist terrorists attacked the office of Paris satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Among the slain were five celebrated cartoonists, three of whom were also wine label designers—and the bawdy lens they trained on politics and culture was just as much on display on bottles of fine Bordeaux. For more than 40 years, wrote contributing editor Robert Camuto, Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe enlisted the Charlie crowd to help make his wines fun with outrageous cartoons. “They were my friends,” said Descrambes of the victims. He remained defiant in his right to bring an outlandish verve to his labels: "Humor is indispensable—it's what makes despair disappear." Elsewhere, Camuto sent dispatches on dining and drinking in Lisbon, an "out-there" top young winemaker in Spain, and the bonsai vines of an influential Illy family member. But his Charlie post was by far the most popular, and the most powerful.
Below are five examples of the humorous, outrageous and risqué labels that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists created. Click each image for a larger label view.
Portugal had a breakout year in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2014, as the 2011 vintage in the market represented perhaps once-in-a-generation quality. In 2015, lead Portugal taster Kim Marcus also found plenty of good wines and great values. Two particularly interesting styles cracked this year’s Top 100: a Late-Bottled Vintage Port from Taylor Fladgate (a 2009) and the Blandy’s Bual (Boal) Madeira 2002. Marcus explained what makes these wines attractive and distinctive: The Port is a single-vintage expression, aged in casks for about six years, released when ready to drink, at the friendly price of $25. The Madeira, heat-aged on the island of the same name, is also a fortified wine, pleasantly nutty and creamy in profile. You can read up on the rest of the 2015 Top 100 here.
Like it or not, wrote Mitch Frank, grocery stores have become major players in wine sales. A recent Nielsen study found that almost 30,000 U.S. grocery stores sold wine in 2014, up more than 9 percent since 2010. Yet Frank spoke to a winemaker with mixed feelings about selling in supermarkets. On the one hand, he wanted to introduce drinkers to his lower-range offerings in hopes of getting them to explore his premium wines down the road. On the other hand, he was wary of cheapening his brand image. In Frank’s view, “It's almost never a bad idea to put wine in front of a large segment of consumers who would never consider walking into a fine-wine shop.” But he still prefers small local wine shops himself.
Senior editor Alison Napjus had an opportunity in June to judge the great cork-versus-screwcap debate with a comparative tasting of wines from Jermann in northeastern Italy. She tasted three whites and a red, each bottled under both closures, side by side. The twist: The wines had been aged six to 10 years. Could screwcaps prevail over the long haul? Indeed, they could: While the cork-aged wines had begun to develop the tertiary flavors and signs of, well, aging, the screwcapped wines evinced still-vibrant fresh fruit flavors. “You might liken it to someone with the experience of a 40-year-old who looks 25. Who wouldn't want that facelift?” wrote Napjus. Harvey Steiman, who tastes the oft-capped wines of Australia, also shared some observations on closures this year.
Our editors take a variety of approaches to serving wine at Thanksgiving, ranging from Francophile to all-American. Senior editor Dana Nigro sees the holiday as a way to shake her family out of familiar wine habits and try new pairings with the diverse dishes on the table. Last year, the Cune Monopole white Rioja was a hit at her gathering, and in the past, she’s “subbed in Mencía for Pinot, Croatian reds for California Zin [and] cru Beaujolais for the Nouveau that looms large this time of year.” While Nigro didn’t want to spoil the surprise of her picks this year, she planned to explore indigenous Italian varieties, try a new Riesling and even perhaps venture to Virginia, Arizona or her home state New Jersey. Thus, the holiday provides a chance to educate, even among the clatter of plates and chatter of kids.
In February, associate editor Ben O’Donnell wrote that the time has come for “the Cabernet in the shadows” to take its rightful place on the world stage of celebrated wines. In 2014, he observed, Americans were importing three times more Loire Valley reds—typically Cabernet Franc–based—than a decade earlier. Cab Franc was, according to various winemakers O’Donnell met, “the Chanel No. 5” of blends, “as close to Burgundian varieties as you get for a Bordeaux variety,” and an elegant wine “you can have with fish, as you do with Pinot.” Serious wine bars have been taking notice: Manhattan’s Pearl & Ash, a winner of the Grand Award for wine-list excellence in 2015, carries more than 50 red Loire selections. Concluded O’Donnell, “Cabernet Franc unites Francophiles, terroir snobs, locavores, 'balance' freaks and plant geeks.”
Late-night infomercial connoisseur Robert Taylor, WineSpectator.com's assistant managing editor, may have once assumed that no one actually buys gizmos “as seen on TV,” but no longer: In this post, Taylor writes how television and movie exposure sells not only insta-cookers but even wineware. In February, Taylor noted that Crate & Barrel’s Camille red wineglass saw a 20-fold increase in sales after Kerry Washington’s power-broker character on Scandal began sipping from it. And Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel has witnessed real success with her Skinnygirl brand of purportedly low-calorie wines and beverages: from a 90,000-case launch in 2010 to 950,000 cases in 2012. Taylor reminds skeptics that California Pinot Noir annual tonnage has shot up 350 percent since Sideways came out, and not a few enophiles took their cues from James Mason and Orson Welles in decades past.
Real-estate investors aren't the only ones who find Napa expensive: Folks looking to do some wine-country travel there are usually forced to open their wallets wide as well. But California-based senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec knows a few tricks for getting the most bang for your buck, gleaned in part from her research for our June 15 Napa travel feature. Three pointers for the Napa-bound: Go in the offseason or midweek, travel with a local and hit up the chichi restaurants—for lunch. Beyond that, Worobiec recommends some free or inexpensive winery experiences around the valley: Heitz, Buehler, Hess, St. Supéry, Robert Mondavi and Pride Mountain are just a few she considers to be well worth the price of admission.
“Even the mightiest first-growth, cult star or grand cru bottling can have a misstep every now and then,” as senior editor James Molesworth wrote in March. So he tips his hat to what he calls “dialed-in” wines: Bottles that deliver quality and consistency year-in and year-out, that you’d almost never go wrong picking up for dinner or a party. Molesworth gave two examples: Among whites, the Hamilton Russell Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Chardonnay from South Africa has hit 90-plus points for a decade straight, without losing sight of its friendly $35 price. For a red, he turns to France’s Rhône Valley with the Château de St.-Cosme Côtes du Rhône Les Deux Albion, also a bargain at $25. Readers chimed in with their own dialed-in picks, ranging from Chile to Alsace.
“Being a young person interested in wine today is both a blessing and a curse,” wrote senior editor Bruce Sanderson in November. The world of wine is bigger and better than ever before, but now the classics are out of reach to most. Sanderson recalls his own years as a wine newbie, snapping up a whole case of Lynch Bages in the ’80s for $300 or premier cru Burgundy for $200. With other passions, like music, film, art and literature, you can educate yourself on the canon for the price of a book or museum ticket; not so with wine. Concluded Sanderson, “It might be harder than ever to achieve a comprehensive palate education on a newcomers' budget, but for the truly devoted, it might also be even more rewarding.” The savvy shopper can still find near-benchmark wines on a budget.
Harvey Steiman, while tasting through a set of Oregon Pinots, ruminated on the balance between fruit and ripeness in capturing the most flattering expression of terroir. To achieve lower alcohol, especially in a ripe vintage, you often have to pick grapes early and risk making a wine with underdeveloped fruit flavors. While there are many fine, harmonious wines with low alcohol, in a vintage that comes in naturally ripe, like the classic 2012 that furnished the highest-rated Oregon Pinot Noir ever, Steiman argued that prudent winemakers embraced what nature gave them. “I say fruit is part of terroir,” concluded Steiman. “We know Pommard tends to have more black fruit flavor in its profile than Beaune's red-fruit character.”