“Man, it feels good to be here,” said California winemaker Mark Aubert, speaking from the stage at the 2021 New York Wine Experience. “If I had to do another Zoom tasting … .”
The hundreds of vintners and wine lovers in the room heartily agreed. After 18 months of pandemic-induced complications and uncertainty, the Wine Experience returned to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for a weekend of outstanding wines, education, entertainment and friendship.
Attendees also raised their glasses to the Wine Experience itself, celebrating its 40th Anniversary and taking stock of the dramatic changes the event has weathered, including recessions, the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Pulling it off this year wasn’t as easy as popping the corks on the 12,121 bottles of the 270 wines that were served over three days. To keep guests safe, proof of vaccination was required and masks were encouraged. Attendance was reduced to allow for spacing. The Grand Tastings, which normally accommodate 2,000 to 2,500 guests, were limited to 1,000 per night. Seminars, usually open to 1,000 or more, were capped at 650. Vintners from outside the U.S. had to negotiate special visas to attend.
“The ever-evolving [coronavirus] landscape was the real challenge,” said Liz Mott, vice president of events for M. Shanken Communications, Wine Spectator’s parent company. “The uncertainty of international travel restrictions and local health and safety mandates kept us on our toes. We were frequently having to shift what the program would look like.”
Despite the hurdles, those who were able to attend were thrilled to be back together in person. As Trudie Styler, co-owner with her husband, Sting, of the Tuscan winery Il Palagio, put it, “For me, the pleasure of wine is drinking it together.”
Pleasure was surely in the air during two nights of Grand Tastings, where guests sampled among 210 wines from regions around the globe, with each bottling having earned 90 or more points in Wine Spectator blind tastings and 91 of them boasting classic scores of 95 points or higher. Winemakers, industry executives and consumers toured two large ballrooms to taste benchmark wines, old favorites and new discoveries.
Many began with Champagne, such as Bollinger Brut Champagne La Grande Année 2012, Krug Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée 169ème Édition NV and Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne Rare 1998. Incredible sparkling wines from other regions included California’s Schramsberg Reserve North Coast 2011 and Italy’s Ferrari Extra Brut Trento Perlé Nero Riserva 2012. Choices for Chardonnay lovers ranged widely too, from the opulence of California and Australia to the vibrance of Burgundy, including Arista Chardonnay Russian River Valley Ritchie Vineyard 2018 and Domaine Laroche Chablis Les Blanchots La Réserve de l’Obédience 2019.
For those craving pink, premium rosés such as the traditional Domaines Ott Côtes de Provence Rosé Château de Selle 2020 and the modern-style Château d’Esclans Côtes de Provence Rosé Garrus 2019 were available.
Pinotphiles enjoyed examples from California, Oregon, Burgundy and elsewhere, such as Siduri Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Barbieri Vineyard 2017, Lingua Franca Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Lingua Franca Estate 2016 and Domaine Faiveley Corton Clos des Cortons Faiveley 2016.
Attendees could also educate their Bordeaux palates with Cheval-Blanc 2011, Cos-d’Estournel 2016, Haut-Brion 2011 and La Fleur-Pétrus 2010. Napa fans flocked to Accendo Cellars 2016, Dalla Valle Maya 2018, Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace 2018 and Orin Swift Papillon Napa Valley 2018. Those looking to explore Italian offerings took in Vietti Barolo Lazzarito 2016, Biondi-Santi Brunello Tenuta Greppo 2015 and Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore 2011, among others. The event brought together our diverse wine world, with Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Germany, Israel and even Virginia all represented.
Friday and Saturday featured daytime seminars. To begin, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken recounted the history of the event, which started in 1981.
“Perhaps my greatest decision was making Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation the event’s owner, allowing us to provide millions of dollars of donations to worthy institutions,” said Shanken.
Since then, the event has become the world’s premier wine tasting and educational experience, an essential gathering not only for winemakers from every continent but also for passionate wine consumers.
“It’s the shared passion for wine that makes the Wine Experience possible and makes Wine Spectator special,” said Italian wine luminary Piero Antinori while presenting his Antinori Toscana Solaia 1997, Wine Spectator’s 2000 Wine of the Year. Antinori rewarded that passion by serving the final dozen cases of the ’97 Solaia from the winery’s library.
The Tuscan vintner was one of several wine stars to pour at seminars highlighting people who have propelled the wine industry forward over the past 40 years. “We have so many legendary figures of the wine world who have come back,” said Shanken.
Shanken spoke of how he was able to convince Ernest Gallo to participate in a rare video interview in 1999, on the occasion of the wine patriarch’s 90th birthday. Gallo founded E.&J. Gallo with his brother, Julio, the year Prohibition ended. This Wine Experience marked the first time the interview was shown publicly.
The year of the first Wine Experience, America drank just over 200 million cases of wine. Last year, it drank 337 million cases, and much credit belongs to the Gallo brothers, who mastered how to produce reliably high quality wines in large quantities at affordable prices. “[Ernest] was the Henry Ford of the wine business,” remarked Shanken.
Other wine stars in the spotlight included Chuck Wagner of Caymus, Prince Robert de Luxembourg of Château Haut-Brion, Napa’s Bill Harlan and the Gaja family of Italy, who discussed via video the growth of Italian wine in the past four decades, attributing that in large part to the burgeoning American interest in fine wines. Other seminars included tastings of the Top 10 wines of 2020 and also the Top 3 wines of 2019.
And then there were the chefs. Since 2002, Thomas Matthews, longtime executive editor of Wine Spectator, has assembled chefs and restaurateurs for a seminar on wine and food pairing; each panelist presents a dish, and Matthews and a chef pick wines to pair with the food.
As they tasted, Matthews asked about the restaurant industry’s grappling with the ups and downs of the pandemic. Noting that Michael Lomonaco of Porter House had been chef of Windows of the World in September 2001, he asked Lomonaco how he had moved forward after the establishment was destroyed with the World Trade Center’s collapse.
“Every day you wake up and it’s a new day and you start fresh, and this is the chef’s life,” said Lomonaco. “We approach the kitchen without the problems of yesterday. And I think that New York, the nation, the globe, is approaching a fresh start. As we learn more, we adapt, so adaptability is part of resilience.”
The chefs also paid tribute to Matthews for making the wine world a more thoughtful and passionate place; after more than three decades with Wine Spectator, Matthews stepped down as its executive editor at the end of 2020.
The Wine Experience would not be possible without the generosity of the participating vintners, who donate all the wines poured. All net proceeds from the event go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $30 million for scholarships and grants for hospitality and wine industry education. Foundation beneficiaries have included students at the University of California, Davis, School of Viticulture & Enology; the Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute; Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. In the past year alone, the foundation has donated $10 million to expand and update the teaching facilities of Napa Valley College and its viticulture, wine and technology program. It has also supported the Roots Foundation, which provides scholarships and support to members of minority communities who want to work in wine careers. And it donated $250,000 to World Central Kitchen, the organization founded by chef José Andrés that works to feed people in crisis around the world. Andrés was recognized at the Wine Experience with Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award for his tireless efforts. Speaking by video from Spain, Andrés said feeding people is about respect.
Passion, creativity, respect. Wine can inspire all these things. It can also inspire art, and the weekend highlighted musical performances from musicians and vintners Sting and Jon Bon Jovi. As the latter took the stage to perform a new song, his son and partner in Hampton Water rosé, Jesse Bongiovi, addressed the crowd: “I want to raise a glass to an event that has been bringing people together for 40 years.”
—Mitch Frank, with reporting by Wine Spectator staff