The crowd inside the ballroom had come to taste wines. They had not counted on a surprise performance by a musical legend. But not one of the guests at Wine Spectator's New York Wine Experience objected when Sting walked out on stage, perched himself on a stool and began plucking an arpeggio on his guitar.
"Just a castaway, an island lost at sea-o," Sting sang out, beginning a soul-stirring performance of his hit "Message in a Bottle." "Another lonely day, no one here but me-o."
The 36th-annual Wine Experience was packed with such surprises. And it was far from lonely. From Oct. 20 to 22, more than 5,000 guests—wine lovers, winemakers, wine merchants, even a Tuscan winery owner who played bass in The Police and a film star turned New Zealand vintner—came to the New York Marriott Marquis in the heart of Times Square to celebrate their shared passion for wine. (Sting accompanied his wife, Trudie Styler, as she presented their Italian wine, Il Palagio Toscana Sister Moon 2011.)
The event packed two evenings of Grand Tastings, 15 seminars, two multicourse lunches paired with the wines of Chile and Rioja, and a black-tie Champagne reception and banquet featuring a performance by Huey Lewis and the News into 53 hours. More than 350 wines were poured from 24,264 bottles into more than 65,000 glasses.
The weekend was a chance to taste the incredible quality of the world's wines today, to see old friends, make new ones and celebrate life. And it was an anniversary celebration: Wine Spectator turned 40 this year, and many guests spoke of not just how the magazine had grown since 1976, but how America's wine culture had flourished during those same years.
That blossoming of wine was on display from the start of the events, when more than 2,400 guests began lining up Thursday for the first of two nights of Grand Tastings. Vintners from 267 wineries poured their wines, all rated 90 points or higher, for the crowd.
Celebrating wine's diversity, 16 nations were represented. Benchmark Bordeauxs, including four of the first-growths; cult California Cabernets and Pinot Noirs; and grand cru Burgundies were all being poured. So were four different wines from Israel, two from Virginia and one from Japan. Hungary's Royal Tokaji Wine Company occupied a table next to South Africa's Klein Constantia and just across from Château d'Yquem—a deliciously sweet international alliance. Wine lovers had a wonderful chance to explore, and they eagerly did.
"It was incredible to have the access to the winemakers and owners, and to taste their wines and discover new wines," said Steve Peterson, an investment banker from Seattle attending his first Wine Experience. "I'll definitely come back. It was amazing. You won't find a collection of world-class wines like this anywhere else."
That world-class selection continued at the daytime seminars. A tasting of Pinot Noirs from around the globe highlighted diversity again, spotlighting wines from Burgundy, California, Oregon and New Zealand. "If you don't know where New Zealand is, find Australia on a map. We're 1,000 miles to the right," said actor Sam Neill, presenting a wine from his Two Paddocks farm. "We are as far away from Burgundy as you can possibly be."
Wine can bring people together from the world's four corners, but it can also be a source of inspiration. Diamond Creek owner Boots Brounstein spoke of her late husband Al's determination to make single-vineyard Cabernets in Napa Valley in the 1970s when no one else did. "I've never met anyone as upbeat and optimistic as Al. If you told him he couldn't do something, he'd smile, thank you and do whatever he wanted."
Donn Chappellet, who founded Chappellet Vineyards in 1968, had a similar dream, believing rocky Pritchard Hill was an ideal Napa terroir, although all his neighbors opted for the valley floor. His widow, Molly, spoke of that dream as she sat on a panel of five Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon winemakers, none of whom might have been there without Donn's pioneering spirit.
Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator, found his own inspiration when he first came across a copy of the publication in its early days, one of several memories he shared when he took the stage between seminars to look back on the magazine's 40 years. (Read our full 40th anniversary package.) In 1976, most articles on wine seemed to perpetuate the idea that it was a beverage for elitists. Started by San Diego wine-shop owner Robert Morrisey, The Wine Spectator was the opposite. "I was blown away," said Shanken. "It was so down to earth."
But it wasn't profitable. In 1979 Morrisey met with Shanken, who published a trade newsletter called Impact, and offered him the publication for free so Shanken could keep it alive. Shanken insisted on paying Morrisey $40,000, then devoted his management skills to turning the newspaper around. He also instilled a strong sense of editorial independence, which meant consumers could trust Wine Spectator's reviews and opinions. Since then, Wine Spectator has become a glossy magazine, covering not just wine, but food, travel and spirits, and now has more than 3.5 million readers.
STORY CONTINUED BELOW
Sharing winemakers' stories was an inspiration for Julian Rodier and Camille Broderick, winners of this year's Wine Spectator Video Contest. The video, which shows Piedmontese winemaker Giuseppe Vaira sharing the story of his family's love for the Bricco delle Viole vineyard, was made while Rodier and Broderick were falling in love with each other. They're now married. After the audience watched the video, Broderick came on stage to accept the award.
There were plenty of incredible wines to share with the memories. Four winemakers from Montalcino served some of their Brunellos from the classic 2010 vintage. Bollinger, Salon, Dom Pérignon and Piper Heidsieck brought some of their prestige cuvées. Baron Eric de Rothschild of Château Lafite Rothschild lugged over 36 cases of Lafite for a vertical tasting of the 2012, 2010, 2009, 2005, 1995 and 1985 vintages. The winners of Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of 2015 were also on hand. (Enter our Top 100 sweepstakes this year to win a bottle of each of the 2015 Top 10.)
Presenting wine No. 3, Evening Land Vineyards' general manager Rajat Parr spoke of his long relationship with Wine Spectator. As a young man studying at the Culinary Institute of America, Parr received a scholarship from the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, before going on to become a Master Sommelier and now winemaker.
All net proceeds from the Wine Experience go to the Foundation, which has raised more than $20 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries, including Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute, the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's hospitality school. Those donations would not be possible without the continued generosity of the countless vintners who share their wines and time, as well as the Wine Experience attendees.
The Wine Experience also recognizes leaders in food and wine, and on Saturday night, guests put on their tuxedos and ball gowns for the Grand Award Banquet. The Grand Award is the highest honor in Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards program, recognizing the world's best wine lists. This year, seven new winners in three countries joined the ranks of Grand Award winners, raising the total to 87.
Peter Michael Winery was recognized for capturing Wine of the Year honors last year. And Mel Dick, president of the wine division for wholesaler Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, accepted the magazine's Distinguished Service Award for a lifetime of growing the wine industry and for giving back through charities.
As guests took to the dance floor for the music of Huey Lewis and the News, one more surprise remained. Sting had not left the building yet. He joined the band onstage for a rendition of "Every Breath You Take." The crowd surged forward, singing along and dancing the night away.
An icon of America's wine industry, Robert Mondavi appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator six times, more than anyone else during the magazine's 40 years. One of the keys to his success was his campaign to spread the concept that wine was not just a beverage, but a part of history and culture—like great food, fine art and certainly music.
Fifty years after he opened his Napa winery, and 40 years after a small newspaper named The Wine Spectator began publication, there is no doubt that wine is recognized as a cultural phenomenon. It holds a message in every bottle.
Wine Spectator's 2017 New York Wine Experience will be held from Oct. 19 to 21 at the New York Marriott Marquis.
—With reporting by Tim Fish.