Top Wine Stories of 2013

Vintners Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, a brilliant new invention, another reason to drink Champagne (as if you needed one), tumult at Torbreck and more from the year in wine
Dec 31, 2013

What caught your attention in the past year? Celebrity power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sold out their brand-new French rosé, but classified-growth Bordeaux had to cut prices to boost sales. You can now drink a wine without opening a bottle, then save the rest for weeks, months and maybe longer. And if you want to become smarter, never mind studying—just drink Champagne!

In this brave new world of wine, Wine Spectator's columnists and bloggers pushed you to ditch your preconceptions, drop habits that don't make sense anymore, put aside pretensions and try new things—from under-the-radar steals to new-fangled closures.

Meanwhile, readers turned to Washington for hot values and took a new look at Nouveau, but still stuck firmly to their favorites: Pinot Noir from California, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and, yes, Bordeaux (as long as it was priced correctly). And under the influence of Millennials, America looked like it was reliving the 1980's, with pink wines (albeit dry ones) and Italian sparklers such as Lambrusco back in fashion. As always, our selection of the Top 100 Wines of the Year was our top draw, but that goes without saying here.

Capping off 2013 in a bit of late-breaking news, an alleged wine counterfeiter, who had sold millions of supposedly rare wines at auction, was found guilty on Dec. 18 in a landmark federal court case; Rudy Kurniawan's sentencing could be one of the biggest stories of 2014.

Here are our most popular news and feature articles, tasting reports and blogs of 2013 (determined by page views). Take a look back with us at the best, worst and weirdest of the vintage, and see what you may have missed along the way.

Top Free News & Features

1. Jolie-Pitt Star Power Propels New Provence Rosé
For the second year in a row, a celebrity wine story lured in more readers than any other. But unlike last year's Skinnygirl wines launch from Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sourced their rosé from their own Château Miraval in Provence and made it in partnership with the Perrin family of the Rhône's famed Château de Beaucastel. The 1,000-acre Miraval estate, with a mansion at which Pink Floyd recorded The Wall, was purchased by Pitt and Jolie in 2012, the first vintage of their wine. Miraval, an organic blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Rolle, was released at $28, with 15,000 cases imported beginning in April. "It is not a celebrity wine—it is a great terroir and we produce a family wine, so that's why we are there," said Marc Perrin, who added that Jolie and Pitt helped craft the blend. The Jolie-Pitt & Perrin Côtes de Provence Rosé Miraval received 90 points, outstanding on our 100-point scale, and earned a spot in our Top 100 Wines of 2013.

2. Is It Worth It to Age Wines Anymore?
As usual, Matt Kramer was the man who kicked the hornet's nest, questioning whether it makes sense anymore to dream of having an extensive wine cellar where wines rest quietly for decades, ostensibly getting better with time. Wines have changed and so have our palates, he declares. Thanks to green harvesting, cleaner winemaking and closer attention to fermentation methods, wines have been dramatically transformed. The bottom line: Today's wines are far more drinkable, far more gratifying, far more rewarding when drunk younger than their counterparts of 20 years ago. Can they age as long? Probably. But do they need to? He continued his broadsides against standard practice in The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People, in which he wondered why otherwise intelligent people cling to habits that no longer work—from insisting customers learn jargon to ignoring wines that aren't already famous.

3. Four Restaurants Earn First-Time Grand Award Honors in 2013
Wine Spectator's Restaurant Wine List Awards program honored nearly 3,800 restaurants across 50 states, 76 other countries and 11 cruise ships in 2013 for the quality of their wine lists. In its 33rd year, the program added four new achievers to the ranks of its highest designation, the Grand Award, which requires at least 1,500 selections with superior breadth in the world's major wine regions, depth in vintages and superior presentation and service, as verified by an on-site inspection. The new inductees are La Ciau Del Tornavento in Italy, Per Se in New York, the Royal Mail Hotel in Australia and the Village Pub in Woodside, Calif.

4. Accused Wine Counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan Guilty in Landmark Case
Rudy Kurniawan did something unprecedented in the world of rare wines in 2006. An Acker, Merrall & Condit auction of his wines raised $24.7 million, the largest total ever for a single consignor. On Dec. 18, Kurniawan set another precedent. A federal jury pronounced him guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company, making the 37-year-old Indonesian the first person tried and convicted for selling fake wines in the U.S. Kurniawan’s image as a savvy collector was tarnished in 2008 when a collector questioned the authencity of 22 lots of Burgundies supposedly from Domaine Ponsot and the proprietor asserted they were fakes; other doubts, then a lawsuit, soon surfaced. In 2012, FBI agents arrested Kurniawan and turned up what appeared to be raw materials for counterfeiting wines. While collectors breathed a sigh of relief at the verdict, others wondered how many more frauds remain to be uncovered.

5. How to Drink a Wine Without Removing the Cork
A hot topic among wine geeks this year was the July unveiling of a new device that could change the way wines—especially collector picks meant for cellaring—are aged and consumed. The Coravin, first conceived by medical-device specialist Greg Lambrecht while his wife was pregnant and teetotaling, allows drinkers to pour a glass without uncorking the bottle, via a needle that penetrates the cork, pushing argon in and drawing wine out. Argon is heavy enough to block oxygen from entering the bottle, and the cork reseals, leaving the remainder of the bottle fresh for another occasion. While the device is pricey at $299, it has been a hit with high-end by-the-glass programs. A five-week experiment by Wine Spectator tasters later concluded that the Coravin-equipped bottles showed no signs of oxidation.

6. Health Watch: Champagne Boosts Brainpower
Our readers always enjoy good news about the potential benefits of moderate wine consumption, and their attention was really captured this year by the idea that drinking France's famous bubbly could make them smarter. A study from a U.K. university looked at phenolic acids and found that rats that drank the equivalent of a glass of Champagne a day showed improvements in spatial working memory. The researchers said the tests showed promise for humans as well. Now there's some science we're not likely to forget anytime soon!

7. Caymus Pays $1 Million for Alleged Violations of Napa County Winery Rules
Iconic Napa Cabernet producer Caymus faced some growing pains when the winery decided to settle with Napa County over an alleged violation of local ordinances. Caymus was bottling 830,000 cases of wine a year at its Rutherford facility, 20 times what its use permit allows. The company has been expanding since the 1980s, and now includes a winery in Santa Lucia Highlands and five brands in addition to the flagship; all of the wines are bottled at Caymus. "It’s a complicated matter, but basically we disagree with the county on the use permit," said owner Chuck Wagner. "Rather than engage in a lengthy debate with them, we want to continue our business and decided to settle." The $1 million is the largest amount a Napa County winery has paid up for such violations. Caymus plans to build a 5 million-gallon facility in a neighboring county.

8. Bordeaux Futures Are Here. Is Anyone Buying?
After the disorganized, slow campaign for 2011, consumers, négociants and retailers in key markets around the world called for the top classified châteaus to release 2012 futures quickly and drop prices significantly—or else they wouldn't bite on the very good but not great vintage. Among those setting the early pace were first-growths Mouton and Lafite Rothschild, which made notable cuts. (On the other hand, Pavie and Angélus, which were elevated to the top ranking in St.-Emilion, bucked the trend of reducing prices from 2011 levels.) But even though most châteaus lowered prices, it wasn't enough to pique interest among Americans. A month later, we followed up with "Why Aren't 2012 Bordeaux Wine Futures Selling?" Discounting was already underway as most consumers felt the wines weren't worth the early investment and preferred to wait until they're bottled and in stores.

9. West Coast Wineries Are Up for Sale—Quietly
With buyers snapping up leading California wineries Qupé, Araujo, Clos Pegase and Mayacamas over the year, and other players investing in Oregon and Washington, it seemed like the market for wineries is suddenly hot again on the West Coast. But it's an under-the-radar market. Plenty of wineries, faced with tough finances or generational change, are looking for buyers. But they're not advertising the fact. One of the buyers, Charles Banks, estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of California wineries are either in financial difficulty or aren’t as profitable as they could be. “And everyone is trying to be quiet because they’re not broke and their name may be on the winery.”

10. Forecasting Wine's Future
In an effort to predict what's next in wine, we looked at how wine sales have changed in the past decade and at what America's youngest drinkers are buying. The United States—now home to more than 100 million wine drinkers—is the largest, most important market today and for the foreseeable future. Millennials have helped popularize dry rosé and a range of sparkling wines—Prosecco, Moscato, Lambrusco and even high-end Champagne—year-round; they are also moving away from traditional American regions and toward imported wines, but are open to wines from emerging states. Overall, consumers are increasingly willing to try new things, from blends to alternative packaging.

11. New Spring Recipes and 16 Red and White Wines
A great pleasure of wine is, of course, drinking it with a delicious meal, so we regularly share recipes, from simple weeknight fare to holiday feasts. These dishes, from the recently published Jerusalem: A Cookbook by London chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, were a hit. Fresh, relatively simple, and chock full of the flavors that announce the gustatory pleasures of spring, these recipes for Chicken with Caramelized Onion & Cardamom Rice and Stuffed Artichokes with Peas & Dill reflect the diversity and versatility of Middle Eastern cuisine. Of course, we provide wine pairing recommendations, and for the flavors in these dishes, we chose 16 affordable Pinot Noirs and aromatic whites like Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

12. Green Talk: The Man Behind Whole Foods' Wine Department
Issues like organic agriculture and sustainability have undeniably become a major part of the conversation in the wine world. Doug Bell, Whole Foods' global wine and beer buyer, is the man driving the big decisions about the chain's selections, and few—if any—retailers have the green clout his does. That translates to 25,000 wine SKUs across 245 locations that, as Bell put it, "overly skew in our eco-friendly category." Bell described the considerations that go into making their selections: "What practices are you doing in the vineyard? How do you treat your grapes? How do you handle the wine? How do you treat your workers? All of that is important to us."

13. Torbreck Ousts Founder Dave Powell from Australian Winery
Torbreck Vintners, the esteemed Barossa winery known for its RunRig bottling, forced out founder Dave Powell in August. Powell started Torbreck in 1994, but lost financial control in 2003. Businessman Pete Kight, who also owns Quivira Vineyards and Winery in California, bought 100 percent ownership in 2008 for what sources claimed was $20.5 million. Kight claimed he offered Powell a contract renewal to continue representing the winery in a marketing capacity (it was refused), calling the parting "a classic example of a business that has outgrown its original founder." Powell countered, "I was offered a deal five years ago when I had my back to the wall financially … I signed it and that one stupid mistake has cost me my life's work." He announced plans to begin a new project in the region with his son.

Top Tasting Reports

1. Beaujolais Nouveau 2013
In a stunning reversal of previous trends among our readers, our annual tasting of the newest wines from Beaujolais—published on their official release day, the third Thursday of November—beat out everything from Bordeaux to California Cabernet to Pinot Noir. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, it seems a large number of people were searching for guidance on which Nouveau to drink over the holidays; another uptick came around Christmas. These juicy, young reds from the Gamay grape do make a nice foil to the varied, rich fare on the table. Is the category—once a worldwide phenomenon whose hype has trailed off in recent years—seeing a resurgence of interest? We'll have to see what happens next year …

2. 2012 Bordeaux Barrel Tastings
Our early spring visits to Bordeaux to evaluate the newest vintage aging in barrels are perennial favorites, as collectors look for tips on which of the unfinished wines are worth buying as futures. James Molesworth visited many châteaus to talk with the winemakers and blind-tasted hundreds of reds, whites and sweet wines from the top estates and lesser-known names, at all price points, across the spectrum of appellations. 2012 was a less-than-stellar growing season, and Molesworth put the vintage quality on par with 2011, though the style was very different. Whites and Right Bank Merlot fared much better than the Cabernet-dominated wines of the Left Bank. His scores and tasting notes are broken out by type, name, appellation and top-scoring wines.

3. Tasting Highlights: 14 Exciting California Pinot Noirs
For the fourth year in a row, Pinot Noir nudged past Cabernet Sauvignon as our readers' favorite variety from California when it came to our twice-weekly Tasting Highlights, reports from our editors' latest blind tastings. Our California team worked through late-release 2009 bottlings, the remainder of the generally strong 2010 wines and the challenging 2011 vintage. This year's top set focused on single-vineyard bottlings from Sonoma and Mendocino and included prominent names such as Williams Selyem and Dehlinger. Central Coast Pinots from places such as the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands made a strong showing as well in this set of 11 outstanding wines. Early in 2013, Brian Loring, one of the first vintners to release his lineup each year, from a range of appellations around the state, gave wine lovers a good preview of how the 2011 Pinots would look.

4. Tasting Highlights: 12 Impressive Napa Cabernets
Napa's strong 2010 vintage—which ultimately earned a classic rating from senior editor James Laube—gave Cabernet lovers plenty to be excited about, including wines that were moderately priced (for the category) and produced in sizable quantities, such as the $45 Honig Cabernet. While $70 is not inexpensive, it's become more appealing as prices for Napa wines continue to rise; we found another 10 outstanding wines under that limit for this list, along with some other affordable examples in this mixed bag of bold Cabs.

5. Tasting Highlights: 10 Hot Values from Washington
The Evergreen State makes its first appearance in this list since we first started keeping track in 2006, beating out Oregon and famed European regions for the fifth slot. Washington's Columbia Valley appellation has succeeded with Bordeaux-style reds, striking a balance between ripe fruit and sleek structures, and Merlot and Cabernet fans found much to like here, with all the wines ranging from $11 to $28. This selection comprises a mix of well-established names and new labels worth seeking out.

Top Editors' Blogs

Tim Fish: A $10 Spanish Value Wine that Puts California to Shame
People get excited about a great bargain, whether 10 bucks is all they can afford or they're buying it by the case for a barbecue. Sonoma-based associate editor Tim Fish is always on the hunt for a good value, but it's not that easy to find a good $10 bottle of California red anymore. He asks: Why can't more wine regions—particularly California—make wines like Altovinum's Evodia Old Vines Garnacha Calatayud 2011? This Spanish Grenache stood out to him for its distinctiveness and availability at a low, low price.

James Laube: A Restrained View of California Wine
San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné insists he doesn't dislike all California wine, but he's hardly enamored with much of it. He makes that point clear in his new book, The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. Senior editor James Laube, lead taster for California, reviews the book and finds many rewarding vignettes about eclectic vintners experimenting with new grapes, sites and styles. However, he feels Bonné minimizes much of what California's vintners have accomplished over the past 30 years. His thoughts sparked a lively discussion in the reader comments.

Mixed Case—Jennifer Fiedler: 7 Do's and Don'ts of Talking About Wine to a Non-Wine Crowd
It's no secret that wine people can come off as a little cultish, with their special vocabulary and tasting rituals. Yet our hobby bumps up against the real world on a regular basis—at meal times, business dinners, and fun moments with friends and family—provoking everything from anxiety to enthusiasm among those who aren't experts. So what do those who are not obsessed with wine want to hear about it? Jennifer Fiedler polled some friends and came up with a handy list of tips and common-sense etiquette.

Mixed Case—Mitch Frank: The Sweet Taste of Humiliation
Double-blind tastings—where you know nothing about the wines hidden in the bags—can be the perfect way to embarrass yourself, but they can also expand your horizons. Just like everyone in the industry at some time, associate editor Mitch Frank has fallen into the trap of trying to guess a wine based on logic or what he knows about the person who brought it, even though relying on sense memory is usually his best bet. Still, he finds the exercise valuable–for getting us out of our comfort zone and bypassing our prejudices. At the start of 2013, he suggested we all resolve to try something new—a resolution that holds equally valid for 2014.

Mixed Case—Dana Nigro: Goodbye Cork, Hello Sugar Cane? Wineries Try New Plant-Based Closure
Screw caps, synthetics, glass stoppers—the wine industry has not yet stopped looking for a better way to close the bottle than the traditional cork. Eco-minded vintners often end up torn over what to do about closures: Risk flaws to choose renewable cork, or reduce waste but pick a mined metal? In late April, alternative-cork manufacturer Nomacorc unveiled a new type of closure—made from renewable polymers derived from sugar cane. The company is touting its Select Bio Series as recyclable, with a net zero carbon footprint. Italian producer Allegrini was among the first to test it.

Mixed Case—Ben O'Donnell: The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Napa Cabernet
In the world's finest wine appellations, the price of admission can be too high to get familiar with the regional techniques, grapes and vintage quality. Continuing the series he started in 2012, assistant editor Ben O'Donnell shares his tricks to benchmarking on a budget. In the case of Napa Cabernet, where under $70 is considered a value, that means finding wineries that run lean, drive assertive deals with their growers and aren't caught up in the hype. He also tackled classified Sauternes (look for second labels in half-bottles) and Brunello di Montalcino (try Rosso di Montalcino instead, or even Morellino di Scansano for another expression of Sangiovese).

Mixed Case—Robert Taylor: Has Massachusetts Winery Shipping Legislation Finally Reached the Red Zone?
Would 2013 be the year that Massachusetts, the seventh-largest wine-consuming state, finally got a legitimate winery-to-consumer shipping bill? Hopes were high in the Bay State, despite repeated setbacks, once former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe got in the game. Now a Washington vintner, Bledsoe conducted a media blitz along with Free the Grapes to bring attention to the plight of small wineries who can't get their products to their fans. But come November, the bill was still stuck in committee. It received a hearing Nov. 12, with overwhelmingly positive testimony versus just one dissenting opinion, but the committee has yet to vote on it.

James Molesworth: A Minority Opinion on the Wine Film Somm
As soon as director Jason Wise released his documentary on four young men vying for the coveted Master Sommelier title, it generated a lot of excitement among those in the industry. But when senior editor James Molesworth caught up on his movie-viewing, he found Somm boring and cold. His synopsis: "There's a test, it's hard, people study (a lot); some pass, some fail." While he applauds the dedication of those who aspire to the credential, Molesworth felt the film shed little light on the exam itself or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Other readers weighed in with their own critiques, while its fans chimed in to defend it. Molesworth wasn't all thumbs-down in 2013: He deemed A Year in Burgundy well worth watching.

Bruce Sanderson: 20 Vintages of Tuscany's Luce della Vite
Wine Spectator's tasting director had the enviable job of evaluating the evolution of this Tuscan red from Frescobaldi, originally produced as a joint venture with Robert Mondavi Winery. The vertical tasting covered every vintage of Luce della Vite since the Merlot-Sangiovese blend from Montalcino debuted with the 1993 vintage, including the 2011 and 2012 bottlings that had yet to be released. Bruce Sanderson shared his tasting notes, score ranges and recommended drinking windows for anyone who has Luce bottles in their collection or is looking to buy.

Harvey Steiman: Blind Tasting and Context
When several prominent wine writers argued on Twitter that blind tasting was bad, since it's devoid of context, our editor at large couldn't keep silent. Harvey Steiman learned the value of blind tasting early in his drinking life when he participated in a wine group of opinionated collectors who routinely dismissed California's quality in favor of France's. A secret decanter switch showed that their perceptions didn't match their palates. Steiman's stance is simple: "If we know—or even suspect—the identity of the wine we're tasting, it's too easy to find exactly what we expect, not what's really there." The context comes later, once we discover a compelling wine and follow up in stories to learn about the winemaker, the vineyard and the techniques.

Best of 2013