Top Stories of 2011

Record Bordeaux prices—again. Historic sales and harvest horrors. Greatest vintage ever for California Pinot Noir? The year brought all this and more …
Dec 30, 2011

No one can call 2011 a dull year—and that held true for the world of wine as well. Bordeaux sent U.S. consumers reeling from sticker shock over the potentially classic 2010 vintage. Historic family wineries (and homes) changed hands. The weather toyed with winegrowers across Europe and the United States. A winery sparked controversy with an unusual way of dealing with a shortage of a top-rated wine. U.S. Representatives tried to make it harder for consumers to order directly from wineries.

Ensuring things stayed lively, Wine Spectator editors and columnists provided plenty of forums for debates over everything from the world’s most underrated wines to alcohol levels to why local wines don’t appear often on restaurant wine lists. The always-provocative Matt Kramer even announced that he’d stopped buying “expensive” wines and was selling off prestige bottlings—not for the money, but because they no longer held his interest.

For wine drinkers, plenty of good news arrived, in the form of the excellent 2009 Pinot Noir and Zinfandel releases from California, along with more great value bottlings from around the world. Restaurants continued their quests to provide top-notch wine lists, while states ended bans on corkage or loosened restrictions on retail sales and online or mailing-list orders from wineries.

Here are our most popular news and feature articles, tasting reports and blogs of 2011 (determined by page views). Take a look back with us at the best of the vintage, and see what you may have missed along the way.

Top Free News and Features

1. Why I No Longer Buy Expensive Wine
Conventional wisdom expects that as wine drinkers grow older and more established, the price of their wine purchases tack north. But Matt Kramer, in his bimonthly Drinking Out Loud column, usually defies conventional wisdom. In his most-read column of 2011, he reveals that, after being around the wine block a few times, he sold some of the greatest bottles in his collection to buy less-pricey wines instead. It’s not because Kramer is cheap, but because prestige wines don’t provide the pleasure of surprise. A bonus—in addition to cash saved—is the delight an unexpected bottle can add to a party or tasting, an experience many WineSpectator.com readers were eager to share in the comments. Elsewhere this year, Kramer stirred up discussion on other big questions in wine: Which are the most underrated, why aren’t some of the world's best wines catching on and what is the most important word in wine today?

2. Bait and Switch? Aussie Winery Runs Low on Acclaimed Wine; Creates More
After Schild Estate’s flagship Barossa Shiraz 2008 (94 points, $20) earned a spot in Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of 2010, the run on the 45,600-gallon production left the family-owned Australian winery low on supply. The 2009 wasn’t yet ready for bottling, so Schild simply made more of the 2008. Problematically, to create the 5,000 additional cases, Schild purchased fruit from a different vineyard, one it didn’t own, and labeled it with the same name as its award-winning wine. None of this was illegal under Australian law (and Schild insisted the new bottling would only hit the Australian market), but after the move became public, Schild offered to tag the new wine as a second blend.

3. Seghesio Family Sells Their Historic Winery
Sonoma County’s second-oldest winegrowing family decided to join a larger corporate portfolio, following the path of other longtime California family wineries like Sebastiani, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Robert Mondavi. The Seghesios sold their facility, inventory, brand and 300 acres of vineyards to Napa-based Crimson Wine Group, which also owns Pine Ridge Vineyards, Chamisal Vineyards and Archery Summit. Crimson said it had no plans to change Seghesio, and Pete and Ted Seghesio—the generation that transformed the family operation from a jug-wine producer into an upscale Zinfandel specialist—kept their jobs as CEO and winemaker, respectively. The decision to sell was difficult, but the challenging economy made it an attractive one: “I think it will be more and more difficult for mid-sized brands like us in the future," said Pete.

4. Corkage Etiquette in Restaurants: What to Know When You BYO and Is It Time to Open Up Corkage Laws?
In February, Wine Spectator looked at the state of corkage in America with an etiquette guide for BYO and a survey of the 50 states’ corkage laws (plus Puerto Rico and D.C.). Francesco Grosso, wine director at Manhattan restaurant Marea, offered a glimpse into corkage dos and don'ts: Do bring special old bottles not on the list, do offer the sommelier a taste, don’t blame the restaurant if your wines are warm or faulty. In the survey, Wine Spectator found 25 allowed BYO at restaurants with wine licenses, 15 forbade it and 12 had more complicated statutes. Of these 12, most permitted corkage only in unlicensed restaurants. The survey came amid efforts in Virginia and Maryland to overturn corkage bans. Virginia’s initiative, introduced by Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, passed, and McWaters hoped it would bring revenue to the state’s wineries. “This bill allows our wineries to say to someone who has a great Virginia wine, ‘Go to your favorite restaurant, try it and if you like it, come back tomorrow, and we’ll sell you half a case,’” he said.

5. Five Restaurants Earn New Wine Spectator Grand Awards in 2011
Marking its 30th anniversary, Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Wine List Awards program has grown to include more than 3,700 restaurants, in all 50 states and 67 other countries. Of those, 74 hold the highest honor, the Grand Award. That list contained five new winners this year: Eleven Madison Park and Gilt in New York, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas, the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, N.J., and Restaurante Rekondo in San Sebastián, Spain.

6. 2011 Vintage Report: Northern Hemisphere
Winemakers across the Northern Hemisphere sweated out the 2011 harvest, following a growing season that was, in many of the world’s top regions, highly unpredictable. In France, the seasons came all wrong, with a summerlike spring and a cool, wet summer. Italy, especially toward the south, was dealt intense heat and scant rain. Elsewhere in Europe, the heat steered cool-climate grapes like German Riesling to optimal ripeness; Portugal came away well, too. In the United States, California got the short end of the stick: Cold and rain throughout the season weighed many grapes down with rot before harvest. Washington, Oregon and the East Coast, meanwhile, took a battering as well—chill, frost, even hurricanes. Still, most winemakers were in agreement about this year’s overall quality: Too soon to say.

7. Wine Spectator Unveils VintageChart+ for Smartphones and
Wine Spectator Unveils New Wine Travel App for iPad
Wine Spectator’s first app, VintageChart+ for the iPhone, became one of the most popular wine apps in the App Store. This year introduced a mobile Web App version of VintageChart+ that’s compatible with most smartphones, including Android-powered and Blackberry devices. With 54 charts, the free app lets consumers look up and compare different vintages for major wine regions and grape varieties—a handy cheat sheet for sizing up restaurant lists on the fly. A few months later, the first Wine Spectator iPad app debuted, our Guide to Napa Valley. Content includes editors’ recommendations on the top hotels, restaurants, attractions and wineries of the region, plus 400 reviews of top-scoring Napa wines. A helpful companion to visitors in the region, it costs $4.99. Get more details at apps.winespectator.com.

8. Bordeaux 2010 Sticker Shock
It may be impossible to crown a “best vintage ever” in Bordeaux, but it is easy to name the priciest Bordeaux futures campaign ever. The 2010 Bordeaux futures, or en primeur, campaign, got underway in early June (weeks later than usual), and any speculation that a turbulent global economy would rein in prices from record 2009 levels was quickly dispelled. Of 15 leading châteaus Wine Spectator tracked, all maintained or raised prices over 2009, some as much as 122 percent at retail in the United States. Understandably, many retailers took smaller allocations than in the past, fearing that customers would spurn such markups. Château owners and négociants, however, were not concerned about Americans holding back: For luxury labels that earned high barrel scores, sales were brisk, not only to the United Kingdom and China, but to traditional European markets as well. At the end of June, the first-growths made their wines available. Most were priced at 600 euros ex-négociant, though Latour broke ranks to set the bar at 780 euros.

9. Wine Laws Changing in up to 7 States
In April, Wine Spectator checked in on state legislatures loosening the knot of restrictions on buying wine. Despite opposition from wholesaler interest groups, Maryland residents can now enjoy direct shipping from wineries with the passage of HB 1175. New Mexico's SB 445 achieved the same, while in New Jersey a sure victory for direct shipping slipped away, replaced by a bill allowing only producers of no more than 250,000 gallons to ship into the state. That bill passed in the state Senate in December, and it awaits a vote in the Assembly in January 2012. Florida attempted to place a production cap on direct shippers too, while Pennsylvania debated (and continues to debate) allowing direct shipping. Three states looked at restrictions on retail sales: Georgia legislators tossed out the state’s blue law, now allowing liquor sales on Sundays, but Tennessee’s supermarkets remain prohibited from selling wine and North Dakota’s in-state wineries were blocked from selling directly to retailers.

10. U.S. Congressman Introduces New Act Threatening Direct Shipping
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) dragged the Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE) Act out onto the House floor once again last March. The 2011 version, designated HR 1161, again threatened to put major obstacles in the way of consumers attempting to buy wine to ship directly to their homes, which is currently allowed in 39 states. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it’s unconstitutional to ban out-of-state wineries from shipping while allowing in-state wineries to do so, states have seen their direct shipping regulations challenged in court. The CARE Act purported to fight such costly court cases and keep liquor control in the hands of the states, but its most ardent supporters have been the wholesalers and distributors that control the flow of alcohol. Wine Spectator reported that the nine co-sponsors of the House bill in March had received $185,000 in campaign contributions from the National Beer Wholesalers’ Association and $70,073 from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America since 2005. As of December, 117 representatives (including Chaffetz) had become co-sponsors, but the bill has not moved from subcommittee since June, and Congress is reaching the end of this session.

Tasting Reports

1. Top 100 Wines of 2011
The curious and the collectors once again gravitated en masse to our annual list to see if they had tried any of the year’s most exciting wines or had them stashed away in their cellars. A small Sonoma winery—started by two wine-country waiters who pooled their tips to buy grapes—topped our selections, showcasing the rise of Pinot Noir in California. Along with another Sonoma Pinot from an early believer, the 2011 list contained one of the stars among 2008 Napa Cabernets, a stunning dessert wine from France’s Loire Valley, two classic Italian reds from the 2006 vintage, a Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend from Washington priced at only $35, a rare single-variety Portuguese red and a pair of Rhône reds representing the north and the south in 2009. Each of the 10 was accompanied by a video in which our senior editors explained what made that wine so special—and that entire lineup was our most popular set of videos for 2011.

2. 2010 Bordeaux Barrel Tastings
How lucky can this famous French region get? Though 2009 was a tough act to follow, a long, dry, warm growing season in 2010 helped the Cabernet-dominated wines of the Left Bank excel once again. But a small crop and continued demand from the growing wine market in Asia meant the big-name wines would continue to be expensive. To let consumers know which wines would be worth their high futures prices, senior editor James Molesworth spent two weeks tasting in Bordeaux to evaluate the new vintage, sampling more than 400 wines from barrel and visiting the top châteaus—including all five first-growths, Cheval-Blanc, Pétrus and the Right Bank estates of Christian Moueix. His lists of top-scoring reds, whites and sweet wines, plus his vintage analysis and the detailed reports in his blogs, will continue to come in handy once the wines are released in bottle.

3. California Pinot Noirs
Buoyed by the stellar 2009 vintage, Pinot Noir from the Golden State has truly captured wine lovers’ hearts, garnering more views for the second year in a row than even the ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon in our twice-weekly Tasting Highlights. Of the series of reports from our California office’s latest tastings, none drew more than the 13 California Pinot Noirs from Brian Loring, who provided an early look in January at what would be coming to market over the course of 2011. Following closely behind was a March listing of more Outstanding Pinot Noirs from Anderson Valley, Livermore Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands. Other appellations and producers were showcased in 21 Outstanding Sonoma Pinot Noirs—which featured favorites such as Martinelli, Patz & Hall, Siduri, Williams Selyem and more—and 12 Outstanding California Pinot Noirs from Lynmar, a producer that has really come into its own in recent years.

4. 9 California Values
Good deals were a big draw throughout the year, as the tumultuous global economy kept buyers’ eyes on the bottom line. This set was both affordable and diverse—Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Syrah from all over the state, for as little as $8 to just under $30. Readers also sought out value in less-familiar regions, including under-$15 wines from Amador County and Clarksburg in 13 Hidden California Gems, and among wines where it’s not uncommon to drop a Benjamin, such as Napa Cabernet, in 10 California Reds for $40 or Less. Washington, a perennial source of values, came in shy of California’s top slots, but lovers of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah-based wines knew to jump on 9 Red Values from Washington and 10 Bordeaux-Style Values from Washington.

5. 15 California Zinfandels
California Zinfandel is on a winning streak, with a series of excellent vintages back to 2005. As the first of the promising 2009s were coming to market, late-blooming 2008s were shining—rich and fleshy but balanced with lively acidity. This list covered Zins from Napa, Sonoma and beyond, in styles from ripe and jammy to crisp and elegant, in a range of prices, including five for $17 or less. 12 Powerful California Zinfandels picked out big reds perfect for pairing with grilled meats, just in time for the start of summer barbecue season.

6. 13 Exciting 2008 Napa Cabernets
Although 2008 appeared to be a tricky vintage, it turned out dozens of impressive, concentrated wines. Along with the first Napa Cabernets from French wine magnate Bernard Magrez, this list covered the spectrum of valley history, from historic Louis M. Martini to the groundbreaking international partnership of Opus One to cult wine vintner Bill Harlan's Matriarch and The Maiden and newer stars like Revana. Two other lists made up a top-drawing trio on this topic: Three Napa and Sonoma standouts for $50 or less were found in 13 Diverse California Cabernets, while Napa's valley and mountain subappellations were explored in 18 Outstanding Napa Cabernets.

Editors’ Blogs

Tim Fish: A 100-Point Napa Cabernet for $15?
Exploring the world of wine values, Sonoma-based associate editor Tim Fish has pointed readers throughout the year to California regions, varieties and producers providing great bang for the buck. But he also challenged their preconceptions and biases—about wine prices, quality, regions and varieties—with this provocative post. Fish also looked at What Does It Take to Make an $8 Wine?, explaining the economic conditions and techniques that allow wineries to deliver good, inexpensive wine.

James Laube: Uncovering the Secret Buyers of Robert Mondavi's Home
After being on the market since 2010 and going up for a sealed-bid auction, the late Robert Mondavi’s former Napa Valley residence finally sold, for just more than half of the original asking price of $25 million. The buyers’ names weren’t disclosed, but it’s hard to keep news secret in the small world of Napa wine. Senior editor James Laube got the exclusive confirmation: A famous wine couple was moving in—Boisset Family Estates president Jean-Charles Boisset and winemaker Gina Gallo, of the Gallo family, with their infant twin daughters. A slideshow depicts the great views, impressive entertaining spaces and indoor pool they’ll enjoy. When not uncovering the local gossip, Laube was busy with his tasting reports, and his teaser, 2009 California Pinot Noir: Best Vintage Yet?, let readers know that he’d found more outstanding Pinot from 2009 than in any previous vintage.

James Molesworth: Overall Impressions of 2010 Bordeaux
While spending two weeks in Bordeaux to evaluate the 2010 vintage, senior editor James Molesworth somehow found time to blog almost daily about his château visits and his tastings. After sampling 447 wines from barrel, he shared his vintage ratings for the Left and Right Banks, as well as for Sauternes and Barsac, and highlighted some of the top wines and the sleepers. His visits to châteaus Pétrus and Cheval-Blanc capped off a string of popular posts from first-growths Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton, along with a stop at Christian Moueix’s headquarters on the Right Bank. But Molesworth isn’t all about Bordeaux. With wines from the Finger Lakes getting ever better, he asked why more New York restaurants don’t feature New York wines in Why Doesn’t Eating Local Translate to Drinking Local?

Bruce Sanderson: More Brunello, Young and Old
Wine Spectator’s tasting director has the enviable job of evaluating the wines of Italy’s prime regions: Piedmont and Tuscany. After visiting Tuscany in the spring, he continued to explore Brunello di Montalcino in depth, sharing notes from vertical tastings of Col d’Orcia’s single-vineyard Poggio al Vento Riserva, Mastrojanni (an estate owned by Riccardo Illy of the Illy coffee company) and Canalicchio di Sopra. Sanderson’s tasting beats also include Burgundy and his notes on Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s 2008 wines were his second-biggest hit, in keeping with last year when his blog on the 2007 DRC bottlings topped his list.

Harvey Steiman: What Makes a Wine a Wine?
Editor-at-large Harvey Steiman examines how a “wine” is defined by more than the terms permitted on a label. Can—or should—a winery blend up a new 2008 Barossa Shiraz if it runs out of its original and then still call the wine by the same name, if the vintage, region and variety are the same? When does what’s legal become misleading? Steiman also addressed another charged question, Will Oregon's 2010 Pinot Noirs Polarize or Seduce Us?, as he visited the state and barrel-tasted wines that showed delicacy, grace and ripe flavors—along with alcohol levels mostly between 12.5 and 13.5 percent.

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