Best of Unfiltered 2020

From Beethoven’s poisoned wine to JFK’s Dom Pérignon obsession to Brad Pitt’s rosé Champagne to weaponized sex inhibitors, 2020 was wilder than you know

Best of Unfiltered 2020
The hits kept coming in this year of garlic-sprayed vineyards, celebrity Champagne, wineries offering pandemic relief and a coming-of-age wine movie. (Credits clockwise from top left: Champagne Henriet-Bazin/Anthony Chaudron, Serge Chapuis, Courtesy of Viña Concha y Toro, Nina Robinson/NETFLIX)
Dec 24, 2020

To put it lightly, 2020 was a challenging year. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and California wildfires, we were all in need of distraction. Luckily, wine was here with riveting tales of boozy eruptions and ancient discoveries buried beneath our feet.

There were plenty of diversions online, like a relaxing video of adorable vineyard sheep and NBA star Carmelo Anthony’s chats about basketball’s new favorite hobby (spoiler: it’s wine). And we can’t forget eye-catching reports of fine-dining mannequins and chilling wine crimes. Let’s keep the entertaining distractions going with our top wine and culture items of 2020, and don’t forget to sign up for our Unfiltered email newsletter so that you won’t miss a thing in 2021.

13. What Do You Drink When You're the President? New Wine Book Tells All

Franklin Delano Roosevelt drinking a glass of wine
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who once called Prohibition a "stupendous blunder," enjoys a glass at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 1938. (Thomas D. Mcavoy/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

After a blundered wine pick on a first date, Fred Ryan knew it was time to take wine seriously. Decades later, Ryan would become chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, and publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, but he's come back to wine—and presidents—in his fascinating new book Wine and the White House: A History, an in-depth look from an inside source at the sometimes-colorful story of wine in the president's residence.

"Throughout my life I have developed a passion for wine and presidential history as separate subjects," Ryan told Unfiltered via email. "I realized that these topics could come together to tell the never-before-collected story that would further enrich the body of scholarship on the history of the White House." From bubbly to Bordeaux, there’s been a range of presidential pours.

Posted Oct. 16.

12. Lead in His Red: Wine Killed Beethoven, Suggests Provocative New Research

A statue of Ludwig van Beethoven
A case of Resting Beethoven Face on a monument at the Tiergarten at Berlin (iStockPhoto)

By the end of his life, classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven's body was performing a full symphony of ailments and afflictions, very loudly. By 1827, the 56-year-old Beethoven was bedridden with a failing liver and pancreas, migraines and abdominal pain, unable to hear or work. Beethoven's doctors, noting the master's fondness for drink, concluded in their autopsy that he was felled by cirrhosis, with pancreatitis and peritonitis as likely contributing factors. But in recent research published in La Libre Belgique, professor Fabrizio Bucella of the Université Libre de Bruxelle, surmises there was more to it than alcohol—and even that Beethoven's doctors might have had motive to release a clean bill of death. "Wouldn't they try to justify themselves after the fact, having been unable to prevent the master's death?" Bucella wondered to Unfiltered via email.

What if it wasn't just the quantity of Beethoven's wine that killed him, but the quality? Specifically, the quality of having lethal amounts of an insalubrious wine additive of the time: lead. The autopsy sealed Beethoven's reputation as a hard-bitten boozer, though his physicians didn't much help: Even on his deathbed, a quorum of doctors attempted to remedy him with spiked punch, which was unsurprisingly ineffective. But was he? "What does it mean to drink a lot of wine?" Bucella mused to us. One source pegged Beethoven at a bottle per meal, which "seems huge from 2020, but the wines were not products with 13 percent alcohol"—often much, much less—and drinking microbe-infested water from Vienna's wells would be a quicker ticket to the grave. But how did deadly lead get into Beethoven’s sips?

Posted Aug. 31.

11. Wine Thieves Bust Open Cellar, Steal $250,000 Worth of DRC and More

A hole in the wall created by thieves
The break-in to the Formel B cellar. An oversized anthropomorphic carafe of red wine with good intentions but poor spatial awareness is not among the suspects. (Courtesy of Formel B/Facebook )

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and the specter of the Wine King of Europe—Aubert de Villaine—looms, folding his arms and shaking his head. In the past week, two cellar burglaries have shaken the Copenhagen restaurant world, with thieves lifting dozens of rare Burgundy treasures like those of de Villaine's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Michelin-starred Formel B’s 3,000-bottle cellar was literally broken into via an adjacent wine shop: Thieves hammered through a brick wall and stole 63 bottles of rare Burgundy worth between $200,000 and $250,000. The wine shop’s own inventory remained untouched. Four days later, thieves broke into Sushi Anaba and made off with Champagnes and other wines valued at nearly $9,000. It’s a real whodunit, and some very collectible wines are at stake.

Posted March 3.

10. Taco Bell's 'Jalapeño Noir' Sells Out on Day Uno

A bottle of Taco Bell’s Pinot Noir next to a taco and a glass of wine
"Yo quiero Queenston Mile Vineyard" may not have the same ring to it, but the wine apparently hits the spot. (Taco Bell Corp)

Taco Bell is unveiling a buzzy new menu item. To toast the relaunch of the toasted cheesy chalupa, a fan favorite, the fast-food chain is releasing a Pinot Noir to pair it with, the Bell's first exclusive house wine and first wine partnership. The limited-edition bottling from Queenston Mile Vineyard, in Canada's Niagara-on-the-Lake region, is only available in select Toronto-area locations and on the brands’ websites, and it's called, as it must be, Jalapeño Noir.

Some of the Bell's "cantinas" have been serving wine for a few years, but this represents another level (or layer, if you prefer). The project only landed on Queenston winemaker Rob Power's desk three months ago, but he quickly got to work, choosing the winery's 2018 single-vineyard cuvée for the Pinot. Power described the wine as a "very earthy style of Pinot," more of an Old World style. He made 33 cases for the launch, priced at $25 Canadian ($19), which sold out on Taco Bell Canada's website 11 minutes after going live. And now we know which Taco Bell favorite to pair with Pinot Noir.

Posted Sept. 17.

9. Dry Your Eyes: 'Wine Tears' Finally Explained by Science

A glass of red wine used to demonstrate wine tears
The research team used a real wailer for its analysis. (Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi / UCLA)

Surely you've noticed the slow-dripping streaks encircling the inside of your wineglass after swirling a Port or a hearty Cab: That melancholic vinous phenomenon we call "wine tears" (or "wine legs"). We know a bit about what causes weepy wine—and that the streaks have nothing to do with the wine's quality. But Prof. Andrea Bertozzi of the UCLA department of mathematics realized there was more to it—and it involves little shock waves going through your wine.

Bertozzi told us that the study produced by her and her team, recently published in the journal Physical Review Fluids, was inspired by a lecture on wine tears she had planned previously. “I thought that it would be really good for the students to have a fun lecture. I knew the tears of wine literature,” Bertozzi told Unfiltered. “So I brought in wine and glasses, and some cheese and crackers.” But leading up to the lecture, Bertozzi noticed that previous research hadn’t quite nailed it. “I realized that there was a gap in the literature … they were missing some physics that I thought was actually really important.” Bertozzi and her team then made a breakthrough discovery ...

Posted March 30.

8. NBA Stars Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler Reveal Favorite Wines on Instagram Live

Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler on a live chat, holding glasses of wine
Carmelo Anthony (left) and Jimmy Butler swish during their chat on “What’s in Your Glass?”. (Instagram / @carmeloanthony)

As the NBA remains under a prolonged timeout, players are using quarantine life to indulge in basketball's favorite hobby: wine. And now some are taking to social media to gab about it. Portland Trail Blazers star Carmelo Anthony and Miami Heat guard Jimmy Butler were social distancing last week as they discussed wine on “What’s in Your Glass?” the weekly Instagram livestream between host Melo and wine lovers around the world (Anthony’s wine convo with Jamie Foxx was another Unfiltered hit for 2020). For the hour-long conversation, Anthony selected a 2011 William Fèvre Chablis, and Butler brought out a Sassicaia 2010.

As Butler's on-court star has risen, he's also reached the elite enophilia tier attained by the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He told Melo and viewers that it all started in 2013 when his pal Mark Wahlberg invited Butler to the set of Transformers, which was being filmed in Chicago; Butler played for the Bulls at the time. Wahlberg gave Butler his first sip of wine that day: the Sassicaia 2010. He liked it so much, he now has between 500 and 600 bottles of the super Tuscan in his cellar. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for wine and NBA champs.

Posted April 7.

7. 5 Days and 2,500 Years Under the Sea: Ancient Underwater Winemaking Technique Revived

Baskets of grapes under water
Basket (to) case: The Ansonica grapes in their baskets, soaking in the Mediterranean before vinification. (Courtesy of Roberto Ridi)

What kind of wine were Roman big-timers—from Pliny the Elder to Julius Caesar himself—knocking back, back in the day? It was strong, it was sweet and it just might have been … salty. A team of researchers recently presented evidence that some of the most praised and prized wines of antiquity were made from grapes submerged in baskets in the Mediterranean before crush, a 2,500-year-old technique for flavoring and washing the grapes. Winemaker Antonio Arrighi got word and decided, if it was good enough for Caesar, it was good enough for him to spare a few bunches for an experiment.

“At the end of a conference where [lead researcher] Attilio Scienza spoke about this old Greek wine, I approached him,” Arrighi told Unfiltered about the project’s genesis. “He told me that nobody has tried to repeat this experiment in 2,500 years, and I told him, ‘I'll do it on Elba island’, and our adventure started.” Scienza, who recently helped revive Leonardo da Vinci's lost vineyard, was on board to advise. Arrighi gave us an idea of what the wine tastes and looks like.

Posted Feb. 24.

6. Make It So: How a Not-So-French Vineyard Got Cast as Star Trek's 'Château Picard'

Brent Spiner and Sir Patrick Stewart sitting in costume in a vineyard
Set phasers to sun: Data (Brent Spiner, left) and Picard (Patrick Stewart) catch some shade during filming at Sunstone Winery last spring. (Facebook / Hanelle Culpepper Meier / Sunstone Winer)

Star Trek beamed up the premiere of the latest series in the saga, Star Trek: Picard, yesterday on CBS All Access. In the episode, we find Jean-Luc Picard not at the helm of a starship but retired and restless, tending his family's vineyard in Burgundy, Earth, which, in a real sci-fi mindbender, is still an arable part of the planet in 2399. But wait—didn't you read that the real Château Picard is actually in Bordeaux, France? Well, now comes news that the real setting of the fictional Château Picard is actually … in Southern California's Santa Ynez Valley.

"They were looking for an authentic-looking French château within driving distance of L.A.," explained Sunstone Winery general manager Dave Moser to Unfiltered, on how the production team landed on Sunstone as a setting. As it happens, Sunstone's owners had constructed a villa on the property out of reclaimed architectural elements and artifacts from buildings around the south of France. Soon, hundreds of cast and crew were posting up wherever they could find a room around sleepy Santa Ynez, and for one week last April, Sunstone was transformed into a historic French estate … 400 years in the future.

Posted Jan. 24.

5. The Making of Netflix’s 'Uncorked,' the New Movie with Serious Wine Chops

Mamoudou Athie in the movie ‘Uncorked’
Mamoudou Athie plays a somm-in-training caught between an old world and new. (Netflix)

It opens, as many wine movies do, with a harvest sequence: Ungloved hands shearing grapes off the vine, nimble fingers picking at the sorting table, Chardonnay juice flowing into tanks and bottles. But over the real-life rhythm of September in Chablis, specifically at Albert Bichot's Domaine Long-Depaquit, thumps the Yo Gotti track "Juice": "I got that juice," Gotti raps. "D-R-I-P-P-I-N-G." In the new Netflix film Uncorked, we're in for a story of contrasts—and the conflicts they ferment. But the movie is also the first mainstream narrative film to wade into the world of wine wonkery as deeply as it does in a long time.

Prentice Penny, showrunner of HBO's Insecure and veteran writer for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs and Happy Endings, is debuting his first feature as a director on March 27 after years of conception and production. Mamoudou Athie stars as Elijah, a Memphis kid who dreams of becoming a sommelier, opposite Courtney B. Vance as his father, Louis, who is adamant his son follow him into the barbecue business instead and take over the family joint. The movie’s cast and director took us behind the scenes.

Posted March 27.

4. From Testing Labs to Supporting Black Communities, Wineries Continue Major COVID-19 Relief

A lab technician processing COVID-19 test samples
In the lab Concha y Toro built to study grapevine disease, a Hamilton Microlab Starlet robot is now ready to process 2,300 samples of coronavirus RNA per day. (Courtesy of Viña Concha y Toro)

Wine has remained an essential pleasure for many during the coronavirus pandemic, and for the most part, wineries and wine shops have been deemed essential businesses. Still, the wine industry, especially smaller producers, has felt the economic strain. But the community has been more than eager to step up and help out victims hit far harder. From independent businesses donating proceeds to multinational producers partnering with major nonprofits and celebrity boosters, the drinks industry is going into overdrive to support the needy, the vulnerable, first responders, and their own out-of-work comrades in the severely crippled restaurant industry across the U.S. Many wineries took part and developed creative ways to help.

Posted April 3, and last updated June 15.

3. A New Discovery of Very Smuggled, Very Old Old Smuggler

A hatch in a wood floor where whisky bottles were discovered, and a parcel of whisky bottles
Beneath the floorboards of this Upstate New York home, a bootlegger's secret stash … (@bootleggerbungalow)

Last year, designer Nick Drummond and his partner, Patrick Bakker, purchased a home in the tiny hamlet of Ames, N.Y. More recently, they discovered that their classic American foursquare, built in the early 1900s, came with a few spirited historical surprises.

“We were told a story from the prior homeowners how it was supposedly built by an old German bootlegger,” Drummond told Unfiltered via email. And the couples’ new neighbors agreed, adding that the supposed bootlegger was possibly an aristocrat, a count or a baron. “We loved and embraced the story,” Drummond said, “but never thought it could be true!”

Drummond and Bakker started renovating the house this past September, removing wood from outside their mudroom to add some 21st-century insulation. As ruined trim fell from the wall, so did hay and a bit of debris … or was it? “It turned out to be the remainder of a package!” Drummond recalled. And in the package was a bottle of whisky, wrapped in paper. That was only the beginning of Drummond and Bakker's discoveries, and soon they were hot on the trail of an alleged 1920s bootlegger.

Posted Dec. 14.

2. Brad Pitt Unveils Fleur de Miraval Rosé Champagne After Five Years of Production

Brad Pitt and Marc Perrin walking in a vineyard
Winemaker Marc Perrin (left) and Brad Pitt embark on another adventure. (Serge Chapuis)

Brad Pitt is getting into the Champagne biz, and today brings new details of what the A-list project looks like. Pitt and Angelina Jolie, of course, have been making Château Miraval wine from their Côtes de Provence estate since the 2012 vintage and, with the co-owning Perrin family of the Rhône's Château de Beaucastel, quickly made a name as serious contenders in pink wine.

As we reported in January, the Jolie-Pitts and Perrins would be adding grower Champagne darling Rodolphe Péters, owner of the Pierre Péters maison in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, to their ensemble to create a rosé Champagne, called Champagne Fleur de Miraval (devoted Unfiltered fans will recall that our peek inside Château Miraval’s new winery was one of our top Unfiltered items of 2019). While Marc Perrin may be the more experienced wine guy in the Pitt-Perrin equation, he told Unfiltered via email that “the idea to create the only Champagne house only dedicated to rosé Champagne was Brad's idea." Then the Fleur de Miraval team fine-tuned their Champagne.

Posted Aug. 31.

1. Sex and Garlic: New Weapons Against the Most Notorious Vineyard Diseases?

A tractor in a field at night
A tractor at Champagne Henriet-Bazin, armed with garlic spray. It is also rumored to ward off Champires. (Champagne Henriet-Bazin / Anthony Chaudron)

Winemakers have numerous adversaries: phylloxera, smoke taint, birds and saboteurs, to name just a few. But one of their most persistent foes has been that oddly unthreatening-sounding scourge, powdery mildew (aka oïdium). This fungal disease, a menace to wine regions around the globe, creeps its way across vines’ leaves and onto grapes, ultimately choking yield and quality if not managed. Given the damage it inflicts, winemakers have long wondered what can be done to stop its spread. Some vintners turn to sulfur sprays, some to synthetic fungicides. But for French vineyard specialist Anthony Chaudron, the new weapon of choice is a familiar friend to gastronomes and chefs: garlic.

“Garlic is an anti-fungal, so it naturally fights off powdery mildew,” Chaudron told Unfiltered via email. “[It] reverses the [vines’] pH. The fungus no longer feels comfortable on the [vine].” Chaudron explained his method’s secrets. Plus a French scientist offered a revolutionary technique for fighting another vineyard nemesis.

Posted Sept. 25.

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