Each year, Wine Spectator's senior editors assemble to taste, debate over and finally rank the Top 100, the most exciting wines of the year based on quality, value and availability. "What emerges," said senior editor Kim Marcus in his introduction, "is a fascinating, inspiring assembly of wines that define the cutting edge."
And every year, guests at the Wine Experience get to sample the 10 wines “at the summit" of that list in the previous year, while the owners and winemakers fill them in on the fourth criteria for selection, known as the X-factor, the compelling story behind the wine.
In four “Top 10 of 2016” seminars spread over the weekend, the audience had the opportunity to contrast four wines representing the scope of California, from the historic to the ultramodern; two of Oregon's leaders, showcasing the state's signature white and red varieties; and four highlights from classic Old World regions that continue to evolve.
The tasting started with No. 10, Hartford Family's 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel from Sonoma's Russian River Valley, where the cool climate results in Zins with bright berry and cherry flavors. One of the notable things about the Hartford Zins, said cofounder Don Hartford, is that they all come from 100-plus-year-old vines: "Most of our grandparents probably weren't born in the late 1800s when these vines were planted."
Next was Bordeaux's Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, making its second Top 10 appearance, this time with its white, from 2013. The Sauvignon Blanc–dominated blend shows white flowers and a hint of smoke that is "very characteristic of our terroir," said co-owner Florence Cathiard, who with her husband rejuvenated the Pessac-Léognan estate through organic and biodynamic farming and built a winery that is a model of energy efficiency.
At No. 8 was Tignanello, whose 1971 launch represented "the beginning of a new era for Italian wine," said owner Piero Antinori. The 2013 super Tuscan, 80 percent Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, is ideally balanced, with firm tannins. There is more to the wine's greatness than the vineyard's prime location, said Antinori, citing a rare "connection between a wine and a producer, similar to the emotional connection between two human beings."
Ridge Monte Bello, which also traces its vineyard lineage to the late 1800s, has a track record of 55 vintages in California's cool Santa Cruz Mountains. While the now-retired Paul Draper shaped the iconic Cabernet blend from the beginning, he credits his team, including winemaker Eric Baugher, for the excellence of the past 10 years. The 2012 (No. 7), with its dark fruit flavors and fine tannins, stands as proof: "They are doing it even better; they are even more rigorous than I've been," said Draper.
In contrast with the previous two elegant California wines at Nos. 10 and 7 was a relative newcomer at No. 6, the brawny Orin Swift Machete 2014, a Petite Sirah–Syrah-Grenache from innovator Dave Phinney, whose wines stand out for both bold flavors and bold labels. Rather than relying on a single stellar site, he blended the wine from various vineyards. "I think the easiest way to obtain complexity is through geographic diversification," Phinney said.
The No. 5 wine, from Italy's Piedmont region, is all about a specific site. The Produttori del Barberesco cooperative specializes in single-vineyard Nebbiolos, and the Asili cru excelled in the warm 2011 vintage, as the bowl-shaped site near the river mitigates the summer heat while protecting from humidity. Managing director Aldo Vacca said the wine "can be summed up in two words: strength and finesse."
Château Climens, at No. 4, showcased the sweet side of Bordeaux with its 2013 Barsac, from an appellation whose elegant wines get less attention than opulent Sauternes. Climens, which is farmed biodynamically, is known for the freshness and vibrancy of its botrytized Sémillon. Owner Bérénice Lurton explained that much more than acidity balances the sweetness—minerality, a slight bitterness, floral aromas—so that the wine "always has tension, brightness and length" that help it pair well with savory foods.
The pair of 2014 wines from Oregon at Nos. 3 and 2 "makes a statement" about the state's "signature ability to pack layers of flavor into an elegant package," said editor at large Harvey Steiman. While people once thought Chardonnay wouldn’t ripen well in the Dundee Hills, Domaine Serene, which previously appeared in the Top 10 with its signature Pinot Noir, is now so committed to the grape that it is building a white-wine-only facility. Its 2014 Evenstad Reserve, wine No. 2, a selection from five estate vineyards, combines intensity, minerality and generous fruit. Explained cofounder Grace Evenstad, "The magic that happens in Oregon is when Chardonnay is planted on Jory soil at high elevation with Dijon clones."
The plummy Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir (No. 3) illustrated how the Beaux Frères style has evolved since cofounder Mike Etzel's first vintage in 1991 to his son Mike Jr. taking over as winemaker. Following the switch to biodynamic farming, the wines emphasize purity and transparency, rather than the earlier oak influence. Etzel paid tribute to Oregon pioneers David Lett, Dick Ponzi and Dick Erath: "Grace and I are standing on their shoulders."
The tasting capped off with the Wine of the Year, with the 2012 Lewis demonstrating Napa Valley's full-throttle, modern Cabernet style. "It has the physiological ripeness, the signature flavors and depth and weight," said senior editor James Laube. "It's got plenty of oak, and it wears it well."
A self-taught winemaker who used to race cars for a living, Randy Lewis attributed much of his success to consultant Helen Turley, who taught him when to pick for optimal ripeness; to great vineyard sources over which they have full control from leaf removal to picking; and to winemaker Josh Widaman and the rest of the winery staff. "You can take the greatest grapes in the world just like you can take the greatest Indy car in the world and run it into the wall at 220 miles per hour, and it's over. It takes a team."
The key member of that team was Lewis' wife, partner and best friend, who managed the winery and whom he lost to cancer in January 2017. "The reason I'm here, with the No. 1 wine, is because of Debbie Lewis," he said, tearing up as he and the audience raised a glass to her.
2016 Top 10 Wines by Rank
Poured in groups from Nos. 10 to 1 over two days, with numbers 4, 3 and 2 tasted in reverse order to show the wines in the most logical progression.
1. Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 (95 points, $90)
2. Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95, $55)
3. Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2014 (95, $90)
4. Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97, $68)
5. Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 (96, $59)
6. Orin Swift Machete California 2014 (94, $48)
7. Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (94, $175)
8. Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2013 (94, $105)
9. Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Pessac-Léognan White 2013 (96, $106)
10. Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 (93, $38)