The Top Stories of 2020

In a year many are eager to forget, our most-read articles reflected the times—covering the impacts of the pandemic, wildfires and political spats, but also human ingenuity in responding to crises and helping others

The Top Stories of 2020
Clockwise from top left: Restaurant staff work masked during the pandemic; French president Emmanuel Macron tries to smooth tensions with U.S. president Donald Trump; wine and cheese pair well with brain health; Meadowood Resort burns in the Glass Fire. (Clockwise from top left: Julie Soefer, Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images, Lorado/Getty Images, Adam Housley)
Dec 31, 2020

The past 12 months have been a year to remember ... and one almost everyone would like to forget. A global pandemic killed more than 1.76 million people and shut down multiple nations, often more than once. The restaurant and travel industries were particularly devastated and have yet to recover; in the United States, more than 110,000 restaurants have permanently closed and the number is expected to rise.

Wildfires devastated parts of Australia and the U.S. West Coast, with the Glass Fire destroying buildings at more than two dozen Napa Valley wineries and other fires blanketing wine regions from Santa Cruz to Washington with heavy smoke for weeks. A trade battle between the U.S. and the E.U. continued to hurt wine importers, retailers and consumers.

But there was good news too. The pandemic forced people to try new wines and new ways of buying them. Crowded dinner tables were replaced with crowded Zoom calls, including virtual tastings conducted by vintners and sommeliers. And many people found comfort in a daily glass of wine, hoping for a better 2021.

Top News Items

1. Meadowood Resort, Newton Vineyard Among Napa Wildfire's Many Victims

Meadowood Resort
The Glass Fire consumes the restaurant at Meadowood as firefighters work to contain the massive blaze. (Adam Housley)

West Coast vintners were already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic's impact as it shut down tasting rooms, almost eliminated sales demand from restaurants and forced changes in how winery and vineyard staff work. Then a hot summer brought one of the worst years for wildfires in recorded history. An August wave of fires both north and south of San Francisco blanketed Napa, Sonoma and other regions with smoke.

But the worst was yet to come—by September, wildfires were raging in 12 western states. A winery in Southern Oregon burned down and smoke threatened Willamette Valley. And in the early hours of Sept. 27, the Glass Fire broke out and quickly spread through northern Napa Valley, damaging more than two dozen wineries and countless other buildings. No structure symbolized the destruction more than the Meadowood Resort: The flames destroyed the Grand Award–winning restaurant and many other structures on the back half of the property. Co-owner Bill Harlan vowed to rebuild better, a common spirit across the region. Unfortunately, the impact of smoke from multiple fires means many winemakers will not produce some of their wines this vintage.

2. How Will the New Coronavirus Impact the Restaurant and Wine Industries?

Canlis takeout
In the weeks after shutdowns began, Grand Award winner Canlis in Seattle became a burger drive-thru. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 was a mysterious virus that had been spreading across China for several months. In late February, we looked at how the disease had triggered shutdowns in major Chinese cities, from Macau to Shanghai to beyond, shuttering restaurants and bars. Italy's spike was already beginning, and less than a month later, the shutdowns would come to the United States, Europe and much of the world.

The pandemic would impact nearly every aspect of the wine industry, from winery tasting rooms and vineyard work to restaurants and retailers. Big names in wine and food were lost. Restaurateurs worked desperately to come up with creative strategies to reach customers despite having to close indoor dining in the spring and again as winter arrived. Wineries shut down tasting rooms for several months. South Africa banned all alcohol sales for months.

When they did reopen, there were new safety protocols in place and the rules kept evolving as our knowledge of the virus improved. When California required wineries to be able to serve food if they reopened, some Napa wineries—forbidden by local ordinance from offering meals—bristled at the unfairness, but soon they were back open too. But as the year ended, new shutdowns arrived, and many say federal aid has been too little to save suffering businesses. The pandemic will sadly be top news again in 2021.

3. Wine and Cheese a Perfect Pairing to Prevent Alzheimer's, Study Finds

Wine and cheese
Red wine and cheese can not only produce pairing magic, but can offer health benefits. (Lorado)

In a year of difficult times and upsetting news, who wouldn't want to learn that two things we love that go well together may actually help prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer's? Pass the Port and Stilton.

Researchers at Iowa State University analyzed data from 1,700 people, ages 46 to 77, over the course of 10 years, including questions about their diet and a Fluid Intelligence Test (FIT), which measures the ability to quickly use reason and logic to solve problems. Two follow-up assessments were administered. The data showed a correlation between red wine and cheese consumption and higher performance in FIT tests.

4. How Might Resveratrol and Red Wine's Antiaging Properties Work?

resveratrol chemical formula
Scientists are still working to understand how resveratrol helps our bodies and if it must be consumed in foods and wine. (iStock)

Wine's place in a healthy diet came under attack this year, as a government advisory panel discounted past studies showing moderate consumption has benefits and recommended the U.S. reduce the guidelines for men from no more than two glasses of alcohol a day to one. And yet studies continued to show that while alcohol, particularly heavy consumption, can pose some health risks, light to moderate consumption offers many benefits.

Scientists have been trying for more than a decade to decode the health effects of resveratrol, a polypenol found in grape skins and wine. Clinical trials using large doses of the substance have been inconclusive. But University College London's Dr. Henry Bayele has found an interesting explanation for its potential as an antiaging substance. Dr. Bayele's team found that resveratrol can mimic the hormone estrogen in the human body to activate antiaging proteins called sirtuins, which may help prevent age-related health problems.

And a study out of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed long-term health data on more than 112,000 Americans and found that adherence to a healthy lifestyle, including moderate alcohol consumption, exercising, eating a healthy diet and not smoking, is associated with a longer life expectancy.

5. Wine Spectator Reveals 2020 Restaurant Award Winners

Margaux Grill's cellars
In a year when restaurants struggled to keep doors open, many still offered incredible wine service. (Courtesy of Margaux Grill)

No doubt about it: 2020 was a challenging year for restaurants. But amid the shutdowns and the strictly regulated re-openings have come inspiring stories, as an entire industry came together to support its members and the communities they serve. The Wine Spectator team was thrilled to recognize the achievements of nearly 3,800 restaurants, hailing from all 50 states and 80 countries and territories, that have demonstrated the passion and devoted the resources to create outstanding wine programs.

Sadly, pandemic shutdowns and travel restrictions made it impossible to rigorously inspect candidates for our highest honor, the Grand Award. Thus, there were no new Grand Award winners in the class of 2020. But hopefully 2021 will bring new winners and new heights for excellence in wine service in restaurants.

6. Exclusive: Bill Foley Expands Empire with Sonoma Jewel Ferrari-Carano

Rudy Kurniawan
Ferrari-Carano has been a top stop for visitors to Sonoma for years now. (Courtesy of Ferrari-Carano)

Despite the uncertainty of 2020, people continued to see opportunity in the wine business. Numerous big-name wineries changed hands. Iconoclast Randall Grahm sold control of Bonny Doon. The owners of Roederer Champagne purchased Diamond Creek. Gaylon Lawrence Jr. and Carlton McCoy Jr. of Heitz Cellar bought not one, but two historic Napa wineries.

Bill Foley is no stranger to mergers and acquisitions, but his purchase of Sonoma's Ferrari-Carano in July drew a lot of attention. Not only has the estate long produced outstanding wines, but it has been a pioneer in the wine hospitality business.

7. Where in the World is Wine Counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan?

Rudy Kurniawan
Where is the man they call Dr. Conti? And what will his next chapter be?

Sometime in the late hours of Nov. 6, infamous wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan left the federal prison near El Paso where he has spent the past few years. The Indonesian national, convicted in 2013 of selling millions of dollars' worth of fake collectible wines, did not walk through the jailhouse gates into fresh air and starlight, however.

He was handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has a standing deportation order for Kurniawan, who has been in the U.S. illegally for more than a dozen years. He's currently being held at ICE's El Paso Processing Center. It's unclear whether he'll fight deportation—and whether he'll resume counterfeiting operations wherever he ends up.

Rudy wasn't the only wine counterfeiter in the news in 2020. After Italian police found a case of bogus Sassicaia on the side of a road near Florence, they began an investigation that uncovered a ring filling Turkish bottles with Sicilian wine and slapping phony Sassicaia labels made in Bulgaria on them. The wines were ordered by customers as far away as South Korea.

8. The New War Against Wine

Marvin R. Shanken
Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken spoke out on the tariffs threatening wine. (Shannon Sturgis)

Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken spoke out against tariffs on wine in this column posted just before 2020 began. Wine was collateral damage of a long trade battle between the U.S. and the E.U. over aid to airline manufacturers. The Trump administration seized on a World Trade Organization ruling to impose 25 percent tariffs on most table wines from France, Spain, Germany and the U.K. in Oct. 2019, and the tariffs remain in effect as 2020 ends, with no word on if and when the Biden administration would repeal them.

Trans-Atlantic tensions accelerated when the White House threatened to impose 100 percent tariffs on French sparkling wines, in retaliation for a planned tax on big, multinational tech firms, most of which are based in the U.S. Importers, retailers and more testified before Congress on the damage the current tariffs and proposed duties would do to American small businesses and consumers. In the end, representatives of President Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron came to a temporary agreement, though a final deal has been elusive.

9. Australian Wildfires Scorch a Third of Vineyards in Adelaide Hills

Fire in New South Wales
A wildfire in New South Wales, Australia, in January, part of the country's "Black Summer". (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Australia faced its own wildfire nightmare early in 2020, as hundreds of bushfires broke out over five months, part of what became known as Black Summer. More than 46 million acres—72,000 square miles—of land burned in the blazes. Wine regions were evacuated and thousands of homes destroyed. Three of the country's 65 wine regions—Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia and the Tumbarumba region of New South Wales—suffered burned vineyards. Some may have to be replanted, while others may recover. And many more vineyards were exposed to smoke for long periods, endangering the 2020 vintage.

10. Court of Master Sommeliers Chairman Steps Down After Sexual Harassment Scandal

Studying wine
CMS students rely on Master Sommeliers to mentor them for exams; multiple Masters stand accused of abusing that trust. (Getty Images/SeventyFour)

The story was devastating. For years, some of the most respected members of the restaurant wine community, Master Sommeliers, had been sexually harassing female sommeliers looking to them for mentorship. And the evidence suggests the Court of Master Sommeliers turned a blind eye to the problem, providing little oversight and ignoring complaints.

When a New York Times article gave voice to 21 women who said they had suffered harassment and even rape, the Court struggled to respond at first. But pressure from members—women and some men—triggered moves toward change, as the old board of directors resigned, a new board was elected and it chose Emily Wines as the organization's first female leader. The group is also bringing in outside help to investigate allegations, has suspended accused Masters, and will hire an outside consultant to help it create new rules. Will it be enough to regain the trust of its members? That's a big question for 2021.

"Staying Home" Features

1. Essential Wine Books to Read While Staying Home

Glass of red wine, open books and a pair of glass in front of a window looking onto an empty landscape
Take advantage of time alone to deep dive into an aspect of wine new to you. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Once pandemic-related lockdowns took effect this spring, Wine Spectator editors, like all of our readers (or least those who were not parents unexpectedly dealing with remote schooling), looked for ways to pass our free time sheltering in place. As many of us dipped back into favorite reading material, we shared some of our top book picks. Whether you're a wine lover or a wine pro, 2020 was a great time to expand or refresh your wine knowledge—and it looks like 2021 will be too. Settle down into a cozy chair with a good glass of wine, and crack open one of these histories, references or memoirs.

2. 5 Favorite Roast Chicken Recipes

A plate of spatchcocked roast chicken and vegetables, along with a glass of red wine
A Middle Eastern herb blend adds a flavorful twist to this roast. (Greg Hudson)

As long as you're sitting at home for hours, you may as well fill the kitchen with enticing cooking aromas. Few things make our readers' mouths water more than a great roast chicken recipe (unless it's grilled steak with a new twist or savory, grilled lamb chops) that's easy to pull together quickly and can be adapted to any season or occasion. We rounded up five reader favorites—from a simple classic to a speedy, single-pan meal to an elaborate preparation meant to impress—along with wines to pair with them. Whether you find inspiration in Middle Eastern flavors or island fare or your local seasonal produce, you’re sure to find a new favorite here.

3. A Perfect Match: Bourbon Applesauce Cake with Sauternes

A cream-cheese-frosted, nut-topped bourbon applesauce cake with a slice cut out
Topped with rich cream cheese frosting, this Bourbon-spiked cake is simple to whip up, and you can make everything but the frosting ahead. (Quentin Bacon)

Beloved cookbook author Ina Garten published her 12th book, Modern Comfort Food (Clarkson Potter), this fall, and it's full of accessible dishes such as grilled cheese with chutney, Tuscan-inspired turkey roulade and the comforting, autumnal applesauce cake shown here. Like much of her handiwork, the dessert is rich and easy to make, but with a little flair: Raisins in the batter, as well as cream cheese frosting, are spiked with Bourbon. The cake sings alongside a special-occasion wine such as a Sauternes with a few years of age. Get Garten's baking tips, recipe and suggested sweet-wine pairing.

4. Staying Home: Essential Wine and Food Viewing

A scene from the movie Big Night with Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci
In Big Night, brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) try to revive their failing restaurant rather than return to Italy or work for a competitor. (Allstar Picture Library/Alamy)

When we weren't reading or cooking during lockdowns, we were in front of the television (or computer), making maximum use of all those streaming subscription services. Of course, wine and food featured heavily in our choices of movies and TV shows. If we couldn't be out visiting wine regions or dining at our favorite restaurants, at least we could be learning, finding home-cooking inspiration and dreaming of better days to come. This roundup of our team's picks has it all: comedy, romance, documentary, family drama, a cartoon rat who cooks and more. (And there are even more options in Part 2.) Wine or food take center stage in some, and play just a supporting role in others, but in all >a passion for eating and drinking well shines brightly.

5. 8 & $20 Spicy Pantry Pasta with Capers and Pan-Roasted Tomatoes

A plate of pasta with capers and pan-roasted tomatoes, along with a glass of red wine
Many ingredients in this dish can be swapped out for similar items you have on hand. (Julie Harans)

There has never been a better time for a pantry pasta recipe than the early part of the pandemic when we were facing grocery shortages, long lines for social distancing at stores or week-long waits (or longer!) to get a grocery-delivery time slot. While a quick dinner made from ingredients you probably already own is especially valuable now (and we rounded up five other favorite recipe picks), this recipe, which paired nicely with a Nero d'Avola from Sicily, is also helpful to have in your back pocket for everyday dinner crunches.

News Alzheimer's / Dementia Cheese Cooking Economy Fires Fraud Health Restaurant Awards Resveratrol Trade Winery Purchases and Sales Cans Top 100 Beaujolais Napa Oregon Cabernet Sauvignon Gamay Pinot Noir Best of 2020

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