Best of Unfiltered 2011

All eyes were on the scantily clad pin-up princesses of the Austrian wine industry and the hunky Sonoma winemaking Bachelorette suitor in 2011, but a looming international wine crime wave demanded attention as well
Dec 29, 2011

Five years of intensive research at the Unfiltered Institute for Concluding the Obvious has yielded some titillating patterns among the page-viewing habits of our readership: They're as predictable as Unfiltered's cheeky puns. With rare exception, you've all been furiously clicking on the items featuring the most beautiful women to cross paths with the wine world, going back as far as we've been secretly watching you surf the Web.

In 2006, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Savanna Samson popped bottles (and eyes); in 2008, Dom Pérignon's tribute to Claudia Schiffer's breasts had hearts pounding (cheers to Dom for knowing our audience); in 2009, Jamie-Lynn Sigler took off her Little Black Dress; and last year Sheryl Crow and Courtney Cox were a popular pair of well-aged wine-loving cougars. Unfiltered's favorite swashbuckler, Johnny Depp, seems to be the exception that proves the rule, capturing the booty in 2007 by outdueling Gwyneth Paltrow and Tyra Banks.

So what were Unfiltered's readers most interested in this year? Pre-ordering the 2012 Young Female Winemakers calendar from Austria, apparently. Our most popular item of 2011 featured photos of beautiful Austrian vintners in their cellars, in their lingerie. And in appreciation of your interest, we've included even more photos below (click on the thumbnail images to view the slideshow). Unfiltered also chronicled the rise and fall and rise again of the wine world's first bonafide reality TV crossover star, Benjamin Flajnik of Sonoma's Evolve winery (known to millions of Bachelorette fans as "Ben F").

It wasn't all pretty faces in 2011, though. Summer brought a rash of wine crimes as Unfiltered temporarily became a makeshift blotter for some of the world's dumbest would-be wine thieves. Tragedy struck New Zealand, with one of the nation's worst maritime disasters in history wiping out hundreds of shore animals and close to $1 million of Sauvignon Blanc, and China's well-to-do are turning Bordeaux into their own Fort Lauderdale. So reminisce with us here on the quirky year that was 2011, and we promise to keep Unfiltered filled with high-brow irreverent social commentary coupled with plenty of Page 3 girls in 2012 (well, one or the other).

• Young, female Austrian winemakers are setting out to prove that when it comes to wine, “seductive” is not just a term reserved for the tasting notes. As of September, wine lovers, Austrophiles, calendar enthusiasts and fans of women in lingerie could purchase the 2012 Jungwinzerinnen Kalender, or "Young Female Winemakers Calendar," for $36. Created in 2004 by publisher Ellen Ledermüller-Reiner, the annual calendar is meant to promote Austrian wine and tourism as sexy and fun. Though initially the calendar featured both young men and women (the first model was Daniel Bauer, a young winemaker from Weinhof Bauer-Pöltl in Burgenland), publishers quickly discovered that young females better satisfied the largely male demographic (Unfiltered could have told them that). Shot entirely in black and white, the scantily clad calendar girls are pictured leisurely reclining in barrel rooms, striking sultry poses alongside fermentation tanks and strolling through vineyards wearing lingerie and lace-up stilettos. Vine maidens to pose for the camera in recent calendars include Marianne Falk from Weingut Falk, Christina Weber of Weingut Weber and Tanja Burda from Burda Weine. Posted July 21

Photograph by Ellen Ledermüller-Reiner Photograph by Ellen Ledermüller-Reiner Photograph by Ellen Ledermüller-Reiner

• Unfiltered took a keener-than-usual interest in the finale of the Bachelorette this year, as wine country favorite Benjamin Flajnik was one of bachelorette Ashley Hebert's two remaining suitors. Flajnik, 28, is co-owner of Evolve Winery in Sonoma, and throughout the season we appreciated his efforts to introduce the other contestants to various wines and even give a few of them tasting pointers. His Evolve partner Michael Benziger shipped out a few cases of Evolve and Benziger wine for the contestants to drink while they were stuck in the mansion waiting for dates. And when another contestant, Constantine, was on a date with Hebert, he took a shot at describing the wine in his glass, crediting Flajnik for teaching him how. The potential rose recipients traveled around the world in romantic pursuits, and got to eat at some swanky restaurants. After picking out a $300 bottle of wine one night, however, Flajnik noted he was no longer handed the list when it came time to order the wine.

Sadly, when our handsome winemaking hero got down on bended knee and proposed to Hebert in the Bachelorette finale, she could only respond with a mumbled “Sorry." Flajnik told Unfiltered the day after the finale aired that he was a little bummed—“Last night I had a bottle of '09 Evolve Cab, all to myself,” he said—but he'll have no shortage of suitorettes himself. He was a fan favorite on the show (Hebert's family much preferred him to her actual choice) and being a dead ringer for tennis heartthrob Rafael Nadal never hurt anyone. He's already been rumored to be seeing another Bachelor reject, chef and young Daryl Hannah lookalike Britt Billmaier. When Hebert rejected him, the Bachelor/Bachelorette-loving blogosphere, Twitterverse and Facebook nation were abuzz with rumors that Flajnik should be the star of the next season of The Bachelor (Hebert herself got the recent gig after being rejected at the end of last season's The Bachelor.) We asked him if he'd be interested in being on the other side of the rose next season. “I don’t know," he said. "Harvest is coming.” But the very next morning, he tweeted, @BenFlajnik: “Plans to be the next #thebachelor? I don't know … lots to ponder.” So fear not, Flajnik fans, he's at least thinking about it. Update: Ben F will be back, soon! After a rumored fling with Jennifer Love Hewitt, he'll be handing out the roses on this season of the Bachelor, premiering Jan. 2 on ABC.

Bachelorette items posted June 2, Aug. 4 and Aug. 25

• The Chinese spending spree on Bordeaux real estate continues at a brisk pace, with more than a dozen châteaus either recently acquired or in the final stages of closing. On Nov. 30, movie star Zhao Wei and her real-estate magnate husband, Huang You Long, purchased the 17-acre St.-Emilion grand cru Château Monlot for around $5.4 million. According to the former owner, Bernard Rivals, the glamorous couple is passionate about wine. “They fell in love with the estate,” he said. Rivals will stay on for two years to help them learn about running a Bordeaux château. Other transactions are less transparent, but word has leaked out that the elusive tycoon behind the Haichang Group, Qu Naijie, is in the process of closing on four châteaus—Château Branda, Château de Grand Branet, Château Laurette and Château Thebot. That makes five total for the Dalian-based oil baron, real-estate developer and amusement park owner. Qu purchased Château Chenu Lafitte, located in Bourg, for $4.3 million in 2010. The current acquisitions follow the same pattern begun with earlier Chinese investments: low-key appellations, lovely historical buildings, relatively unknown labels. Luxury real-estate broker Eric Groux, who handled the Monlot deal, said his Chinese clients want castles with vineyards, preferably in Bordeaux. “They can buy a Bordeaux château for the price of a Paris apartment.” Posted Dec. 8

• Winemaking is a millennia-old occupation. Unfortunately, crime-making is an even older one. And ever since—we're guessing—that first Bronze Age hoodlum snuck into a cave/winery/morgue (mixed-use developments are older than we thought) and absconded with an amphora of the Caucasus Mountains' finest 6,000 years ago, wine and crime have made a most distasteful yet captivating pairing.

In April, sticky-fingered sommelier Mark Lugo, once a staffer at chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se and of late a sommelier at New York’s BLT Fish stopped by Gary's Wine in Wayne, N.J., to pick up two bottles of Château Pétrus 2006, valued at $2,000 each. Lugo allegedly got them for the incredible discounted price of $0, though, by stuffing them into his jacket and walking out of the store. A big fan of the pricy Pomerol, he came back to the store a few days later to—again, allegedly—steal the third and last bottle. The following month, he stopped in once more, because, hey, free wine. By this time, a store manager recognized him from security tapes and confronted him. Claiming to be “Mark Hugo,” he made a hasty exit, but was nonetheless charged with the thefts. Unfortunately, that's not where this wine caper ends: Lugo had to miss his New Jersey court date because, by then, he was in San Francisco. He presumably figured that he next needed to augment his art collection. A Pablo Picasso drawing worth more than $200,000, Tête de Femme, caught his eye in a local gallery, so he allegedly picked it up and took it home. This time, though, a security camera at neighboring bar Lefty O’Doul’s caught a glimpse of Lugo strolling away, Picasso under arm. (Why Lefty O’Doul’s had tighter security than an art gallery full of masterpieces remains an unanswered question.) Police tracked down Lugo, arrested him July 7, and Rolls Royce dealerships everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.

In May, a young lady in France was caught trying to get a discount on Château Pétrus as well, switching the barcodes on the $3,300 bottles with ones on bottles priced $3.50. To help stop this crime wave, Unfiltered has invented and is seeking to patent a new device: It’s a cabinet—of sorts—that is fitted with a kind of “locking” mechanism so that it can only be accessed by someone, perhaps a store manager, who possesses what could be described as an “unlocking” mechanism, or “key.” It’s the simplicity of the device that makes it so effective, and Unfiltered hopes it can be used to restore Bordeaux’s time-honored status quo, in which it is the buyer who gets robbed.

Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents seized 670 gallons of illegal homemade wine that a Newport News man was selling out of his garage. The 82-year-old garagiste, James Edward Skinner, is just one of many vintners who have been forced out of business by either competition from large corporate producers who have access to distribution channels that are not a Ford Probe, or the police. Skinner has been charged with felony illegal manufacture of alcoholic beverages and illegal sale of alcoholic beverages without a license, but Unfiltered has not learned the fate of the requisitioned vintage of Skinner Winery Block D The Garbage Can 2011.

In Lodi, Calif., this summer, thieves were illegally harvesting vineyard equipment across the appellation. Grapegrower Frank Rashid's Petite Sirah vineyard was stripped of the stainless steel filtering tanks, control system and copper wiring that kept his irrigation system running and Mark Chandler's solar panels that power his $50,000 vineyard-irrigation system were ripped off as well. All told, area farmers suffered an estimated $1 million of theft and consequent crop damage and replacement costs this summer. Where is all this stolen equipment going? Logic says it's all being hauled out of county and sold for scrap, but Unfiltered sees a much more sinister plan behind it: Somewhere in the remote California hills, an evil enologist is building his own piecemeal stolen Franken-Vineyard.

Police in Liverpool, England, discovered a counterfeiting scheme after a shopper found a piece of already-been-chewed gum in a bottle of rosé. British officers seized 50 bottles of fake rosé—supposedly from brands Echo Falls, Blossom Hill, Kumala and Hardy—each on sale for about £5.

And then there was non-wine criminal Bernie Madoff, whose wine cellar was used to pay back a tiny fraction of his theft of the century. Madoff's wine cellar, which had been confiscated by the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service following his conviction for swindling billions of dollars out of investors in his Ponzi scheme, was auctioned off to benefit his victims. Despite the questionable provenance of the cellar's contents, wine lovers are still buying what Madoff is selling—well, technically, what the federal government is selling. Despite an estimated value of $15,000 to $21,000, the sale realized $41,530, with 100 percent of the lots sold and 54 of the 59 up for bidding exceeding their high estimates. But it wasn't the trophy wines driving up the tally (a bottle of 1975 Pétrus sold for just $900; the 1964 Cheval-Blanc garnered just $550). It was apparently the novelty of owning booze that once belonged to America's most infamous white-collar criminal that drove up prices on all the lower-end items confiscated from his cellar: A case of Veuve-Clicquot Brut Champagne Yellow Label Non-Vintage (about $450 retail) sold for $1,500; a handful of 2-ounce airplane bottles of Smirnoff vodka, Bombay gin and Grand Marnier, valued at $10, sold for an astounding $300. As shocking as it may be that people are still jumping at the chance to overpay for Madoff investments, the money is at least going to a worthy recipient this time around, via the U.S. Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Fund.

Summer of Wine Crime items posted May 19, June 23, June 30, July 7 and July 14

• Disaster struck the coast of New Zealand in October, and to a considerably smaller extent, one Marlborough winery. The 775-foot long, 50,000-ton cargo ship the Rena ran aground of a reef as it was leaving New Zealand. On board the ship were 4,000 cases—worth nearly $1 million—of Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc. The name of the reef upon which the Rena remains stuck? Also Astrolabe. And the cruelest irony of all: An astrolabe is a navigational instrument that dates back more than 2,000 years, and which might have helped avoid this whole catastrophe. Astrolabe general manager Jason Yank (who is referred to on the winery's website as "the captain of the ship"—will the irony ever stop?!) was scrambling to send another 2,800 cases of wine to Ireland this week, where the Rena's wine cargo had been destined. The U.K. is an important market for New Zealand, and this shipment was expected to fill holiday demand. "All I'm concerned with at the minute is making sure the Irish market has their Astrolabe for Christmas," Yank told New Zealand's Stuff.co.nz. "You don't want to upset the Irish."

But there are much more serious concerns than just spilled wine. The Rena is slowly breaking in half as it rocks back and forth on the reef and is spilling heavy fuel into the Bay of Plenty on the eastern shore of New Zealand's North Island. The oil slick has affected about 25 miles of coastline so far and more than 500 birds have been found dead. Environmental workers are treating four seals and dozens of birds, including 13 dotterels (let us save you the trouble—it's a near-extinct shorebird; this shouldn't help matters) for oil exposure. No humans were injured but the captain and first mate were arrested for the maritime equivalent of reckless driving. Tugboats are attempting to hold the boat on to the reef while crews work to extract the remaining fuel from the vessel, but the process could take another five days or longer. Meanwhile, oil isn't the only thing heading to shore. At least 80 shipping containers are afloat and have begun washing up on the beaches. So besides Sauvignon Blanc, what else might be washing up on Mt. Maunganui beach? Partially-cooked beef patties, dairy products, animal pelts and timber. The securely screw-capped Sauvignon Blanc is probably fine; please do not pair it with the beef patties and dairy products. Update: While the Rena remains stranded on the reef, all of her fuel was successfully extracted; the ship's remaining containers are still being removed. Posted Oct. 13

• We all know about Asian buyers bogarting the Bordeaux at auctions these days but Burgundy's top bottle is coming to America. A private U.S. collector took the top lot at the Christie’s fine-wine auction in Geneva, Switzerland, May 17, scoring a 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti for an eye-popping $123,899, besting the high estimate by more than 50 percent and shattering the world record for the highest price ever reached for a 750ml bottle of Burgundy at auction. Take that Hong Kong. The bottle comes with stellar provenance: It was originally donated by DRC owner Aubert de Villaine to Christie’s for a charity auction in Geneva in 2007, where it was bought and remained impeccably stored until this week, when it hit the block again to make history. Only 600 bottles of this end-of-war Romanée-Conti were ever made, and the 1945 vintage represents the final harvest from ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines. The entire Romanée-Conti vineyard was uprooted in 1946 and did not produce wine again until the 1952 vintage, which currently averages a mere $7,600 per bottle on the Wine Spectator Auction Index. Posted May 19

• Californian Matt Damon recently moved to the Big Apple and immediately set to exploring the city’s charming wine boutiques. But like many New York novices, he was blithely unaware of its colorful population of hobo poets, subway panhandlers and Matt Damon obsessives who have grafted a Matt Damon face onto their own face and also legally changed their name to “Matt Damon.” So it is understandable that a city-savvier wine shop clerk would turn down Damon’s credit card at the register when he attempted to purchase a $1,200 case of wine (“a little pricey,” Damon said as he recounted the tale to Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in a convincing actor voice). The reticent register man demanded that Damon, who was there with The Office star John Krasinski (or a John Krasinski impersonator), pay in cash, and, of course, Jason Bourne would know it’s foolish to carry more than $8 in your wallet in this town. So Damon left without his favored wine and has yet to return to his neighborhood wine shop. We hope they haven’t hung a “Wine-Loving Actors Unwelcome” sign on the front door. Posted March 17

More Best of 2011

See More

2011: In Memoriam

Dec 30, 2011

Top Stories of 2011

Dec 30, 2011

Top Wine Videos of 2011

Dec 28, 2011

Actors Crime Theft Environment Winery Purchases and Sales Best of 2011 Unfiltered

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