Top Wine Stories of 2010

Keep your government hands off my wine shipments! Record prices for 2009 Bordeaux, the Chilean earthquake, wine and weight loss, 2007 Pinot and Cabernet, and much more
Dec 29, 2010

Yes, the global economy was still gloomy in 2010, but that didn’t stop Bordeaux châteaus from charging record futures prices for the 2009 vintage, touted by many as the best modern vintage yet. (For U.S. consumers who had already maxed out their cellars—or credit cards—on 2000, 2003 and 2005, well, Asian buyers appeared more than happy to pick up what they didn’t.) Nor did it stop Congress from considering legislation that would make it harder for U.S. wineries—many of whom have already had to resort to discounting to stay afloat—to sell directly to consumers. At least they didn’t face a massive earthquake like the one that hit key Chilean wine regions just before the start of harvest, causing losses of millions of liters of wine.

On the bright side, California’s remarkable 2007 vintage—uniformly excellent for Pinot Noirs across the state and stellar for Napa Cabernets—arrived on the market, generating consumer excitement. Many restaurants are keeping their wine programs strong, as evidenced by the biggest class of Wine Spectator Grand Award winners since 1993. And women got some good news related to wine and their health, in the form of two new studies on pregnancy and weight loss.

Here are our most popular news and feature articles, tasting reports, blogs and videos of 2010 (determined by page views or plays). Take a look back with us at the best of the vintage, and see what you may have missed along the way.

Top 10 Free News and Features Articles

1. An End to Wine Direct Shipping? and Support for Direct Shipping Restrictions Builds in Congress
The battle over whether consumers can order wine directly from wineries heated up again in 2010, moving from the courts back to the halls of the U.S. Capitol. In April, alcohol wholesalers convinced members of Congress to introduce a bill (HR 5034) that could end direct shipping of wine and other forms of alcohol in the United States, or at least put major roadblocks in front of lawsuits by consumers and wineries trying to reduce restrictions on direct shipping. The bill, crafted by the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), would strengthen state governments' control of alcohol sales, allowing them to protect the three-tier system of distribution while putting a much greater burden on people challenging it. Within six weeks of its introduction, the bill had more than 100 co-sponsors, and a Wine Spectator investigation determined that wholesalers have made more than $11.55 million in campaign donations to U.S. congresspeople since 2005. Winery and grower associations and major breweries, along with outraged wine-loving consumers, pulled together in vigorous—though less well-funded—opposition. Amid mid-term elections and a busy lame-duck session, time ultimately ran out for HR 5034. Opponents fear, however, that it will be reintroduced in 2011.

2. Seven Restaurants Earn New Grand Award Honors in 2010
Despite the challenging economic environment for restaurants, many are still devoting serious attention to wine. In 2010, Wine Spectator inducted its largest class of new Grand Award winners—the top honor in its Restaurant Wine List Awards program—in nearly two decades. Four of the winners are located in the United States, while three come from the Far East, increasingly a source of fine restaurants with ambitious wine programs.

3. Study OKs Some Wine During Pregnancy
The link between heavy drinking and fetal alcohol syndrome is well-established, but women often hear conflicting opinions on the effects of lighter drinking, leading many to avoid alcohol altogether during pregnancy. Adding more data to the debate, British researchers studied nearly 12,500 children and found that not only can pregnant women safely drink a glass or two of wine per week, but that their children performed better three years after birth when compared to children of women who did not drink at all. The researchers believe social, economic or lifestyle factors may explain the results, not that there is any dietary benefit to the alcohol.

4. Alcohol May Help Fight Weight Gain in Women
Drinking alcohol would seem to be a plausible culprit for weight gain. But a study from a team of Boston researchers brought some promising news for wine-loving women who worry about their calorie counts. Women of normal weight who drink light to moderate amounts of alcohol gain less weight over time—and are less likely to become obese or overweight—than nondrinkers, according to an analysis of 19,220 female health-care professionals over 13 years. Unfortunately for men, the same does not seem to hold true for them, which may be explained by differences in how the two sexes metabolize alcohol.

5. Wine Cellar Photo Gallery
Do you think you know what a wine cellar looks like? Guess again. From the smallest nooks to the grandest collections, today's wine storage comes in all shapes and sizes. Wine Spectator asked collectors across America for a peek inside their cellars and showcased a selection of what we found.

6. Welcome to California Bargainland
At the start of 2010, despite solid business in the value category, wineries were still facing trying economic times. The distribution chain remained clogged with unsold wine, and to complicate matters, the 2009 harvest was a nearly record size. Credit was hard to come by as lenders clamped down on producers large and small. Wineries were mapping out strategies to keep sales humming, hoping that discounting—particularly of wines that normally sell for more than $30—would keep them afloat. Even familiar names such as Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi, Caymus and Joseph Phelps dropped prices. Others were funneling more juice into inexpensive appellation bottlings and less into single-vineyard labels.

7. Powerful Earthquake Rocks Chilean Wine Industry and Chile's Wine Industry Estimates $250 Million Loss
February brought tragic news, as an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, killing hundreds and causing billions of dollars in damage. The wine industry was not spared the effects; wineries in both the Curicó and Maule valleys, which are not far from the epicenter, were especially hard hit, and wineries further north in Rapel and Maipo also reported damage. Harvest was about to get underway, but between the travel difficulties, damaged facilities, disrupted electrical power and workers who had lost their homes, wineries were hard pressed to process grapes normally. Once producers were able to assess the damage, the industry estimated that they had lost about 125 million liters of wine in tanks, barrels and bottles [the equivalent of about 14 million cases] with a value of approximately $250 million.

8. Drinking Out Loud: What Makes a Wine Ageworthy?
We cellar wines because we believe they will transform, not just endure. But what qualities indicate that potential? In his bimonthly Drinking Out Loud column, Matt Kramer considers that question and concludes that he looks for balance, a sense of originality and, most important, midpalate density.

9. Red Bicyclette Suppliers Convicted
A French court handed out suspended jail terms and fines in February to 12 members of the Languedoc wine industry for illegally cutting Pinot Noir with cheaper Merlot and Syrah and selling it to Gallo for its Red Bicyclette label. The defendants—including figures from various vineyards, cooperatives, a broker, the wine merchant Ducasse and the large cooperative Sieur d'Arques—were convicted of selling the equivalent of 18 million bottles of falsely labeled wine. There has been no evidence that Gallo knew of any fraud. The company had stopped selling the wine and believed that only vintages 2006 and earlier were affected.

10. Foley Buys Chalk Hill Winery
Florida finance executive William Foley is becoming an even bigger player in the wine industry, expanding his rapidly growing portfolio with the acquisition of highly regarded Sonoma producer Chalk Hill Winery from owner Fred Furth in June. Since 1996, Foley has founded or purchased numerous wineries and vineyards— in California's Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara appellations, Washington and New Zealand—amassing them under the Foley Family Wines name. Among his notable purchases were the well-known Firestone Vineyard in Santa Barbara, Napa Cabernet producers Merus and Kuleto Estate and, in 2008, the historic Sebastiani Vineyards from the Sebastiani family. In October 2010, he branched out into wine-country travel and purchased the luxury Les Mars hotel in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg.

Tasting Reports

1. Top 100 of 2010
Our annual list of the year’s most exciting wines always generates huge interest and sparks much discussion. This year, California’s fast-growing Paso Robles region took its place on the world stage, with the Saxum James Berry Vineyard 2007 capturing the No. 1 spot and showcasing the level of excellence that the Central Coast can achieve with Rhône varieties. Along with two 2007 Napa Cabernets, reflecting the strength of that vintage, the Top 10 list contained two whites (from France and California), a Portuguese red, a Tuscan red, a Russian River Pinot Noir and two Australian Shiraz. Each of the 10 was accompanied by a video in which our senior editors explained what made the wine so special—and that entire lineup was our most popular set of videos for 2010.

2. 2009 Bordeaux Barrel Tastings
Even before châteaus opened their cellars for the first barrel tastings, 2009 was being touted as the mother of great modern vintages—and that’s following the classic 2000, 2003 and 2005 vintages. James Suckling spent three weeks in Bordeaux to blind-taste the young wines and visit top estates, sharing notes on nearly 700 reds, whites and sweet wines—with hundreds rated as potentially outstanding or classic. But the high level of interest meant the big names had no need to lower prices during the global economic downturn, and the wine industry was speculating and fretting about prices. What would be appropriate? Would the growing Chinese market pick up the slack if American buyers didn’t come through? In our followup news reports, we found that the futures campaign resulted in some of the highest prices on record, but early sales were still brisk worldwide, though down in the United States. Now we’re waiting to see what happens when the bottled wines are released.

3. 15 California Pinot Noirs
Reader interest in Pinot Noir seems to be at an all-time high, since it beat out the longtime king, Cabernet Sauvignon, in popularity among our twice-weekly Tasting Highlights, a series highlighting noteworthy wines from our editors' latest tastings. 2007 is probably the best Pinot Noir vintage across the map in California’s history, while 2008 will be more variable, a great reason to stock up in 2010 on the last of the 2007s. This group features some steady big-name wineries that specialize in Pinot—a trio from Patz & Hall, one from Martinelli, two from Merry Edwards and a pair from Talley in Arroyo Grande—making it the most-read among numerous reports on the state’s Pinots.

4. 2007 Napa Cabernets
Of course, California Cabernet wasn't far behind. Cabernet lovers won’t want to miss the 2007 vintage either. With a near-perfect growing season, this looks like one of the best vintages ever, with uniformly high and consistent quality, with the wines standing apart from other years for their purity of flavor, suppleness of texture and overall elegance and grace. This edition—one of many Tasting Highlights covering the latest 2007 Cabernet releases—zeroes in on a group of Cabernets from the famous Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard in Oakville, centered in the heart of Napa Valley, along with a few other gems that hail from other outstanding vineyards. The 2007 vintage was so good that two wines, also both from To-Kalon and both from Schrader Cellars, scored 100-points—but that was for a later report.

5. 11 California Values
California definitely dominated the overall list, but it wasn’t all about high-priced Cabernets and Pinots. Our tastings uncovered plenty of examples of values from a range of regions and grape varieties, with styles to suit anyone’s taste. This set of new reviews of Zinfandels, Syrahs, other Rhône reds and more all came in at less than $30.

Editors’ Blogs

James Laube: Napa Cabernet Vintages Are Heating Up
He thinks 2007 is one of California's best vintages ever. Funny thing is, most winemakers James Laube talked to in 2010 disagree—many think 2008 is superior. While 2007 produced an abundance of rich, opulent, well-proportioned and concentrated wines, many winemakers say their 2008s are even more concentrated, with greater depth and richness. A few are chirping that 2009 will be a winner, too. Any way you look at it, the string of current and future releases are good news for Cabernet lovers—except that prices haven’t come down significantly for the top wines.

Thomas Matthews: When a Wine List Falters
Have you ever opened a restaurant wine list to find that the vintages were missing? Executive editor Thomas Matthews, who started blogging in 2010, encountered just such a situation while on vacation and felt strangely lost—as if he were looking at a map with all the street names missing. It struck him that many people probably feel “lost” like that much of the time. Because even when the vintages are listed, they may not have the background knowledge to know what the vintage might indicate about the character of the wine. He used the experience to start a lively discussion with readers on whether they find vintage charts useful.

James Molesworth: Chilean Earthquake Hits Wine Industry Hard
When the 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, power went out and communication was difficult in many places, but James Molesworth tracked down some of Chile’s leading winemakers and growers, who were just about to start harvest, to see how they had fared. He used the comments section to post frequent updates as he heard back from his contacts, keeping readers apprised of both the losses and the good news.

Bruce Sanderson: The 2007s from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: A Year of Light
Tasting director Bruce Sanderson has the enviable job of evaluating Burgundy, the homeland of exceptional Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that express their distinctive terroirs. The region’s historic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sets the world’s benchmark for Pinot Noir, making some of the most sought-after wines from its extraordinary collection of grands crus vineyards. In this post, he shared his tasting notes on DRC’s reds and whites from the 2007 vintage, which, despite being topsy-turvy, produced wines of “luminosity and brightness.”

Harvey Steiman: The Real Problem with Corks
Too much of the discussion of corks vs. alternative closures centers on cork taint, according to Harvey Steiman, who says that is only part of the problem. The sneakiest, most worrisome issue is bottle variation: how every bottle in a case of cork-finished wines can age into something different. He shares details on a 10-year scientific study from Australia, with striking photos that show a wine’s varying degrees of oxidation in cork-closed bottles versus ones closed by screw cap.

Top Videos

While the Top 10 countdown videos are always the most popular of the year, here are the top views in other categories.

Video Contest: Wine Is... :
For the fourth year in a row, our readers showed off their talent for filmmaking and passion for wine by sending in their own videos. 2010 saw a record number of entries, with the nine finalists ranging from a spoof of The Office to a mockumentary about an urban Atlanta winery to a true tale of a family starting their dream winery after losing their Mississippi property to Hurricane Katrina. The winner—from Paso Robles, for the second year in a row—was a heart-warming look at what wine means personally to the local community of winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and wine lovers.

 

Editors’ Tastings: Drink Pink
Real men do drink pink, especially when the wine is a crisp and refreshing dry rosé. Join editors Kim Marcus and James Molesworth as they recover from pouring a concrete floor and installing a putting green by sampling rosés from the French regions of Provence and Tavel.

 

 

Learn Wine Videos with Worksheets: Hermitage Red
Learn about one of the Northern Rhône's top appellations. Print out the worksheet, to reinforce key details, then join leading vintner Michel Chapoutier and senior editor James Molesworth as they talk Hermitage over a glass of Chapoutier’s Sizeranne.

 

 

Wine Regions (Bordeaux): Margaux Terroir
How does one of the world’s top winemakers, Paul Pontallier, at one of the world’s top wine estates, Château Margaux in Bordeaux, think about the concept of terroir? Join him in the barrel room and in the vineyards to find out.

 

 

 

Food Pairing: Cooking 4 Wine—Magret Duck Breast with Ariane Daguin
WineSpectator.com's Cooking for Wine series continues with D'Artagnan owner Ariane Daguin, who prepares Magret duck breast with a savory blueberry sauce and potatoes fried in duck fat. In part 2, she shows how she finishes off the dish to make it extremely wine-friendly. Plus get a PDF of her recipe.

 

 

Special Reports/California Cabernet: Schrader—A Napa Valley Benchmark
In these interviews that complement our magazine cover story on the vintner, Fred Schrader shares his inspiration, while he and winemaker Thomas Brown explain how, with the right grapes sourced from the right vineyards (including the famed To-Kalon), they are making some of the best Cabernets (two 100-pointers!) in Napa Valley.

 

News

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