What a long, strange trip this decade has been—which is great for you readers of Unfiltered, who are absolutely here for the weird and wild exploits of the wine world. Looking back on the stories you loved most in the 2010s, some feel evergreen—the French remain committed to rioting and vandalism as ever—while others are a real blast from the past, if not downright quaint. (Remember when a president serving California "champagne" counted as a scandal?)
So come with us for a trip down wine memory lane, featuring all your favorite heroes (Meghan Markle, winemaker-Bachelor Ben F.) and villains (Rudy Kurniawan, winemaker-Bachelor-heartbreaker Courtney R.) of 10 heady years of wine in culture.
The cast and crew of Eat, Pray, Love, the upcoming film based on the memoir of the same name written by Elizabeth Gilbert, spent this past week wrapping up their press junkets in Napa Valley, and numerous California wines were on hand for the celebrations. Both the press junket and the after-party were held in Napa at the foot of Mount St. Jean at the estate of John and Barbara Witt. The Witts were thrilled to host the stars of the foodie film and pulled from their cellars some bottles of the Witt Estate Repartie Merlot 2004 made with grapes from their 6-acre vineyard. The events at the rustic modern rammed-earth estate were organized by Napa-based location and production company Scout Napa Valley, which tapped numerous California wineries to provide the libations. Our West Coast spies tell us the stars in attendance—Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins and director Ryan Murphy—were treated to Domaine Chandon Étoile Rosé and Brut, Mumm Brut Prestige, Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc 2008, Lail Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Spring Mountain Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Del Dotto Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2007, Roundpond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 and a Hill Family Estate dessert wine. “[Eat, Pray, Love] is a celebration for the world of the senses and emotions; the wine’s presence [at the events] this past Friday continues Mr. Mondavi’s legacy for celebrating food, wine and the arts as an integral part of gracious living,” said Robert Mondavi Winery winemaker Rich Arnold. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2010.
2011: The Summer of Winecrime
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. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2011.
Unfiltered's long love/hate affair with ABC's The Bachelor came to its merciful end this week with the revelation of California wine country's worst-kept secret: Envolve winery co-owner Ben Flajnik popped the question to Courtney Robertson, the beautiful L.A. model that viewers almost unanimously loved to hate. Of course she said yes, but anyone who has passed by a drugstore magazine rack in the past few weeks knows there's been trouble in wine country. Fear not, however, reality TV romantics! Unfiltered got the inside scoop that Courtney flew to San Francisco yesterday for a crack at reconciliation with our winemaking hero, and that last night they made up over a bottle of Two Hands Shiraz and Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs. More important, we also got an Unfiltered exclusive that Ben is finally getting back to the business of wine. "I just wrapped up all my Bachelor filming and am very much looking forward to getting back to my full-time life as a winemaker," Flajnik said via e-mail. "Since the show premiered in January, these have been some of the busiest months of my life. The Bachelor was an amazing experience, but I'm looking forward to having a normal life again—cooking for my roommates/business partners Mike Benziger and Danny Fay (they've gotten really thin since I went on the Bachelorette, since I'm the only one who cooks in the house), spending time with my mom and sister Julia, and making wine. Definitely don't expect me on Dancing with the Stars. I will miss all those helicopters though!" Read the Best of Unfiltered 2012.
In just 10 days, President Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term as Commander in Chief, meaning we at Unfiltered have four more years of executive wine pairings to look forward to reporting on. The 57th Inaugural Ceremonies are taking place Jan. 21, and the wine-and-food pairings have been announced. Korbel will be there, for the eighth time, with a special Inaugural-labeled edition of Korbel's Natural Russian River Valley. "Such a historic celebration deserves to be toasted with American champagne with roots in our country's most memorable occasions," said Korbel president and owner Gary Heck in a press release, "We are honored." Also on hand in Statuary Hall for the luncheon will be two New York state wines, Bedell Cellars Merlot 2009 from Long Island and Tierce Dry Riesling 2010 from the Finger Lakes. Tierce is a collaborative effort between three of the Finger Lakes' top winemakers, Peter Bell of Fox Run, Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars. The lunch menu will begin with lobster tails and New England clam chowder, to be followed by hickory-grilled bison with a huckleberry reduction sauce. Dessert is a Hudson Valley apple pie with New York maple syrup-caramel sauce accompanied by cheeses and honey also native to the Empire State. So how did New York wine and food earn such a prominent spot at the Inaugural table, aside from their Unfiltered-attestable excellence, of course? New York's own Sen. Chuck Schumer is chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and wasn't shy about cheering for the home team during the menu-selection tastings. "I was hopeful of having Long Island duck, but … the dish [didn't] quite work," Schumer told the New York Times. "The duck was not at fault."
Despite the festive Inauguration atmosphere, it's not all lobster tails and apple pie on Capitol Hill. Sam Heitner, the director of Washington, D.C.'s Champagne Bureau, has taken issue with the Inaugural menu's use of the term Champagne as it applies to Korbel. The menu's dessert pairing reads "Korbel Natural, Special Inauguration Cuvée Champagne, California," but Heitner told the Hill that "under the law, the label for this wine would state 'California champagne.' While we do not support this practice … we would urge the Inaugural Committee to follow that law and not state the sparkling wine being served is Champagne. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France." Never ones to miss a good frog-bashing opportunity, members of congress were quick to retort. "The Champagne lobby should have a glass of their own product and relax," Matt House, a spokesman for the Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, told the Hill, "We are proud to be serving American champagne at the Inauguration." California Rep. Jared Huffman wasn't shy, either. "With all due respect to the fame and heritage of French wine, this smells like sour grapes from the French about the superiority of our California champagnes," Huffman told the Daily News. "Only the finest champagne should be served at Pres. Obama's Inauguration celebrations, and in my opinion, the Inaugural Committee made the right call." We expect Korbel to name Rep. Huffman the World's Finest Wine Critic at any moment. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2013.
Unfiltered learned a surprising-until-you-think-about-it bit of wine trivia this week. Have you ever wondered which country consumes the most wine per capita? You probably know it's not the U.S. by a long shot. Perhaps France, Spain or Italy? Nope. Think smaller: it turns out that size matters when conducting a study like this, which is why the tiny sovereign city-state of Vatican City wins the top spot. Vatican City consumes on average 62.2 liters of wine per person per year according to California's Wine Institute. That's almost 83 bottles. France comes in fifth with 45.6 liters of wine per person each year. Italy, at ninth place, consumes a modest 37.6 liters per capita. The United States, you ask? Just 10.5 liters per person. In the case of the Vatican’s consumption rate, one has to expect that no small portion of that annual figure is related to communion wine. But as any statistical analysis professor will tell you, the smaller the group, the greater the chance for distortion. With a reported population of just 836 in 2011, coupled with a full calendar of entertaining visiting dignitaries, the aforementioned communion wine, and a largely older, educated, single white male with no kids demographic … well, those numbers actually make a lot of sense. Have fun stumping your tasting group at its next gathering! Read the Best of Unfiltered 2014.
It's been a busy two days in the saga of convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan. On Wednesday, a three-judge federal appellate panel in lower Manhattan heard Kurniawan's appeal of his 2013 conviction. Lead defense lawyer Jerry Mooney, who'd flown in from Los Angeles, was allotted 10 minutes of oral argument. A key issue was the warrantless search of Kurniawan's house by F.B.I. agents on the morning of his arrest. As Mooney's narrative of what happened that morning gathered speed, presiding Judge José Cabranes interrupted. "Mr. Mooney, you're on a roll," he said, but warned that his 10 minutes were almost up. After the hearing, a disappointed Mooney said of his foreshortened search argument, "It's the stuff that is spicy, sexy and fun." The appeals court does not reveal when it will announce its decisions. Kurniawan is serving his time in a California correctional facility, but Mooney told Unfiltered that he hasn't heard from his client in some time: "We send him all the papers, but he's gone dark."
And today, the end came for more than 500 bottles of Kurniawan's counterfeit and unsellable wine seized by the U.S. Marshals (more than 4,700 bottles seized from Kurniawan are being sold). Trucked to a recycling/composting facility in Creedmore, Texas (pop. 219), the bottles were unboxed by hand into a 20-cubic-foot, concrete-bottomed tub and smashed by a magnet. A door in the tub was cracked open, allowing the rogue wine to run out into a pile of earth. Witnesses said that the scent of wine infused the air. After thorough mixing, the "drunk earth" was carted to a 200-foot-long compost heap kept at a steamy 145° F by microbial activity. "The sugars and nitrogens in the wine will be a good benefit," explained Paul Gregory, director of organics and recycling for Texas Disposal Systems. The bottles, once pulverized into tiny pellets, will be sold as decorative glass at the firm's retail shops, Garden-Ville. Purchasers likely won't know that the glitter in their garden was once bottles of such faked luminaries as Lafite Rothschild, Lafleur and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Had his firm ever before recycled bottles of wine? "We've done beer, water and Gatorade," Gregory said. "But people don't usually bring me wine. They drink it."
U.S. Marshals destroy some of Kurniawan's confiscated counterfeit wines. Credit: Brien Aho for U.S. Marshals Service
Read the Best of Unfiltered 2015.
What's black and white and red all over? A highway in the south of France, after a 150-strong gang of irate French winemakers hijacked five tanker trucks and dumped their contents—90,000 bottles' worth of Spanish bulk wine—all over the road. What's that about? French winemakers have a storied history of responding to things they don't like—be they experimental vineyards, unwelcome competitors, or just their neighbors—by simply destroying them. In this case, the winemakers sharpened their (figurative) pitchforks against Spain because they claim the wine, destined for bottling and subsequent sales in and out of France, presents unfair competition.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Frédéric Rouanet, the president of the Aude winemakers’ union, said, "If a French winemaker produced wine with Spanish rules, he simply wouldn’t be able to sell it." French winemakers contend that to follow their own country’s rules requires them to price their wine far above the Spanish juice—a squeeze on the bulk market that the south of France once had cornered.
Denis Pigouche, president of a winemaking organization called FDSEA des Pyrénées Orientales, went even harder, according to the Telegraph, accusing the wines of not even being Spanish: "These wines have no place in France … I suspect they are from South America and then 'Hispanicized' in Barcelona and then Europeanized, or even Frenchified in France."
After an impromptu but no doubt thorough and objective tasting held in the street, the French winemakers rated the tanker wines "vin non conforme" (non-compliant wine), leaving that tasting note spray-painted on the sides of the tanks.
Spain, none too pleased, lodged a formal complaint with Brussels, citing that the "guarantee of free movement of goods and people within Europe is one of the basic tenets of the E.U." Among the evidence of bad faith is the report that the police largely stood back and let the attack take place, and while vowing to find those responsible, have not made any arrests to date. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2016.
Jennifer Lawrence is looking for a costar in her upcoming wine-country vacation. As part of a charity fund-raising campaign, the Hollywood leading lady—of Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle fame—is offering fans a chance to join her on a trip to California vineland for a day of picnic lunching, lawn games among the vines and lots—and lots—of wine. "It'll be great," Lawrence says of the boozy bonanza in a promo video. "We'll hang out, we'll drink some wine, talk politics, drink wine, maybe we'll call your ex, maybe we'll call my ex. Who knows?"
To prove her chops as a knowledgeable wine-tasting companion, the Oscar winner plays a game of "Wine Review or Movie Review." Can J-Law guess whether "full-bodied, strongly grounded, simply sensational" refers to a fine vintage of Domaine Leroy—or is it a cringe-worthy comment on her, uh, talents?
Lawrence's charity of choice is Represent.Us, an anti-political corruption organization that's close to her heart, right up there with a good Cabernet (though which winery's Cabernet she'll be tasting is still under wraps). The competition is hosted by the fund-raising site Omaze, and every $10 donated buys 100 entries in the J-Lawttery. May the odds be ever in your favor. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2017.
The Royal Wedding is mere hours away, and anticipation over which wines the couple will serve is at an all-time high. Has Prince Harry chosen another California beauty? Will British fizz sparkle for Meghan Markle? The secrecy surrounding the final wine list is intense, so even the chosen wineries may not even know that they’ve been tapped for the special honor—or so they tell us. Still, Unfiltered has some leads on the likely candidates.
California girl Markle has been vocal about her wine preferences in the past, and a betting person would say her home state will likely be on display on her big day (and believe us, people are betting on this stuff). From our investigations, Sonoma's Flowers Vineyards & Winery is looking like the top contender: General manager Troy Watters told Unfiltered that Markle reached out to the winery about two years ago via Instagram to say she was a fan, and the winery and the royal-to-be have kept in contact since. "We are flattered that Meghan enjoys our Flowers Pinot Noir and would be honored if she does in fact select this to be the wine for her special day, thereby bringing a little bit of the Sonoma Coast and California with her," Watters told Unfiltered via email.
But sometimes it takes more than just a social media follow to score a wedding invite. Luckily, Agustin Huneeus, owner of Flowers' parent company Huneeus Vintners, is a friend of the British wine consultant who a Huneeus rep told us advised the wedding coordinators—and "thought it would be a good idea to include Flowers as a consideration for the wedding," Watters relayed; Huneeus himself also mentioned a large order of Flowers placed by prominent London wine merchant Corney & Barrow about a month ago.
Super Tuscan Tignanello is another Markle favorite, so much so that she named her now-defunct lifestyle blog, the Tig, after it—but the Antinori family went with a demure demurral: "The truth is that we have never had any official confirmation and have no hints, but, in case it would be served, that would be such a wonderful surprise."
Jordan, another Sonoma winery that Markle has praised in the past, is not expecting to make an appearance, but they hope to help her celebrate nonetheless: A winery rep told us vintner John Jordan wants to send etched magnums from the couple's birth years as a wedding gift.
Across the pond, Britons are rooting for representation from one of their own. One would be remiss to rule out Queen Elizabeth's bubbly, Windsor Park. Chapel Down, another Brit fizz, is known to pop up at Buckingham.
Perhaps highest in the running is Camel Valley Vineyard, a still and sparkling producer based in Cornwall, England, that just last month became the first wine producer in the United Kingdom to be granted a royal warrant, a prestigious mark of official recognition for companies that provide goods and services to the royal court. According to Camel Valley founder Bob Lindo, royal warrant protocol restrains warrant holders from commenting on these matters. Lindo also said that even if Camel Valley were to be poured at the wedding, he likely wouldn't know one way or the other, as the winery supplies the royals so frequently. As we wrote previously, nine Champagne houses also hold such warrants, with various royals each having their own preferences.
So despite our best Sherlocking, the crown is historically tight-lipped about these matters, and the suppliers that want to continue to be suppliers tend to follow suit. However, if some lucky Unfiltered reader (Pippa?) scored an invite to the reception, send us a tip (and a piece of that elderflower cake)! Read the Best of Unfiltered 2018.
Some of us love wine so much, we dream about swimming around in a barrel full of the stuff. And while that fantasy is highly unsanitary and probably a little dangerous (try a bathtub instead), certain wine-minded holiday-spot proprietors are offering an alternative that's just as immersive: wine-barrel hotel rooms.
The travel trend has been popping up around the world: In the village of Cambres, in Portugal's Douro Valley, Quinta da Pacheca winery added 10 giant wine barrels to its on-premises lodging offerings in 2017. Each barrel room is outfitted with a double bed, a full bathroom, and a private terrace, and plopped among the quinta's vines. "They are a real success in the high but also in the low season," Ricardo Rebelo, a staff member at the hotel, told Unfiltered. "At this time we are already receiving bookings for 2020."
Courtesy of Quinta da Pacheca, De Vrouwe van Stavoren, Cava Colchagua and Alde Gott
In the small village of Sasbachwalden in Germany's Baden region, visitors to the Alde Gott winery can experience Schlafen im Weinfass (that's German for "Sleeping in Wine Barrel"), featuring eight 8,000-liter barrels, each with a charming vinous address, such as "Rieslingplatz" ("Riesling Place") and "Burgunderplatz." A one-night-aged experience for two includes two bottles of wine and breakfast, plus views overlooking the Rhine Valley, though bookings for 2019 are already almost topped up here as well.
You don't even need to be at a winery to get a turn in the barrel. At Hotel de Vrouwe van Stavoren in the Netherlands, guests can stay in one of the 12 novelty wine-barrel rooms that were shipped to the property from Switzerland. There are two different barrel room sizes—the smaller is 15,000 liters—and one of the larger barrels serves as a "wellness suite" for two, which could hold 23,000 liters of wine but instead has a couch, a Jacuzzi and a steam room.
And it's not just a Euro-centric trend. Chile's Cava Colchagua is an all–wine barrel hotel, created by the Ravanal wine family using barrels that actually once held early vintages of their wine. With more than 12 acres of land, the property includes eight two-story barrels, a spa, a pool and a lagoon.
"Rooms" at all four human cooperages start at around a reasonable $200, so if you're looking for hospitality sur lie, you won't find yourself over a … well, you get the idea. Read the Best of Unfiltered 2019.
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