Top Wine Stories of 2017

A wave of devastating natural disasters dominated the conversation this year. But winecrime still had its moment, as did celebrities in the wine spotlight
Top Wine Stories of 2017
Flames burn on the ridges above Napa vineyards. (Stuart Palley via ZUMA Wire)
Dec 29, 2017

In 2017, the world watched as natural disaster after natural disaster befell the world. Wine Spectator reported on how the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean—particularly Puerto Rico—affected the restaurant communities. Winegrowing regions in Europe suffered the worst frosts in decades. But the biggest tragedy for the wine industry came in the form of sweeping wildfires in Northern California wine country, displacing thousands and decimating neighborhoods. We delivered on-the-ground reporting every day, updating our readers on which areas were burning and which wineries were affected.

It wouldn't be a typical year's news cycle without a little winecrime. Former wine executive Charles Banks (who was indicted last year, delivering our top story of 2016) was sentenced to four years in prison for defrauding retired NBA star Tim Duncan. And a French wine company executive was indicted for allegedly passing off inexpensive table wines as prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Contributing editor Matt Kramer clearly foresaw that we would need some good juice to handle this tumultuous year. In January, he recommended 25 wines to get to know in 2017—did you try them? Among our tasting reports, our editors had plenty of picks to share in your favorite categories, from Beaujolais to classified-growth Bordeaux, New World Pinot Noir to Napa Cabernet.

To further lighten the mood, we had some blockbuster features of wine-loving celebrities opening up their homes: Candace Cameron Bure and Val Bure, as well as Diane Keaton, shared gorgeous photos of their kitchens and wine cellars, and the stories behind them.

Here are the most-read stories published in 2017.

1. Massive Wildfires Devastate Parts of Napa and Sonoma Counties, Burning Wineries and Vineyards

Stuart Palley via ZUMA Wire
Flames burn on the ridges above Napa vineyards.

In early October, wildfires started to burn in Northern California's Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. For the people living and working there, the nightmare would continue—and worsen—for a dozen more days. Thousands evacuated their homes as the blazes rapidly spread. A total of 44 people were killed, 245,000 acres were burned and around 9,000 buildings destroyed; at least 11 wineries reported significant damage. So far insurance claims exceed $9.4 billion. Wine Spectator provided on-the-ground reporting from our Napa-based team every day during the fires, regularly updating our readers on which areas the fires were spreading to and who was being affected. In addition to our running coverage, we rounded up detailed reports of the damages for readers to browse through region by region. The outpouring of support from communities in and out of California translated into a massive fundraising and volunteering push for victims of the fires; we kept an eye on charity happenings and ways you can (still) help remotely. See our full coverage of the California wildfires.

2. Wine & Design: Fullest House

Colin Price
Val Bure and Candace Cameron Bure's deck has a view of their prized Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard.

Actress Candace Cameron Bure, of the original TV series Full House and now Fuller House, and retired hockey player Val Bure fell in love with Napa Valley in the early 2000s. This passion spawned a second calling: In 2006, they started Bure Family Wines, making wine with purchased grapes. Soon they found a plot of land in St. Helena with a small vineyard and a fixer-upper house. They got to work and now have a gorgeous, light-filled home with a modern kitchen, outdoor deck and, of course, a basement wine cellar stocked with California favorites, as well as bottles from Italy and Bordeaux. Check out the photo gallery for an inside look of the Bures' home!

3. Oregon Winemaker Patricia Green Dies in Apparent Accident

Moment of Thyme
Patricia Green in one of her vineyards in Oregon's Ribbon Ridge appellation

In one of the most tragic events of this year, beloved Oregon winemaker Patricia Green passed away at the age of 62. She was found dead inside her cabin retreat near Roseburg, Ore. The apparent accident is presumed to be a fall. She had studied forestry before catching the wine bug and becoming the first winemaker at Torii Mor, then later starting her own project, Patricia Green Cellars. Senior editor Tim Fish remembers her accomplishments.

4. Wine Executive Charles Banks Sentenced to Four Years for Defrauding NBA's Tim Duncan

James Carriere
Charles Banks pleaded guilty to fraud.

In 2016, the dramatic fall of Charles Banks—whose company, Terroir Life, owned or managed dozens of wineries in California, New Zealand and South Africa—was our most-read news story of the year. Now, he is an inmate at a federal prison camp in Alabama. Banks started his four-year sentence in August, after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud in April in a case in which he was charged with defrauding NBA star Tim Duncan of millions of dollars. He also sold his stake in Mayacamas Vineyards, the historic Napa winery that was the crown jewel of his portfolio. Find out the details of all of Banks' legal troubles.

5. French Wine Executive Arrested for Allegedly Turning Cheap Wine into Châteauneuf-du-Pape

French authorities had doubts on some wines that were labeled with Southern Rhône appellations.

With notorious counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan now behind bars, our eyes turned to the next wave of winecrime. After months of investigation, French authorities indicted the chairman of bulk-wine company Raphaël Michel on criminal charges. Prosecutors accused Guillaume Ryckwaert of buying 4 million cases' worth of table wine over three years and selling it as premium appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The president of a regional syndicate for vintners summed up the reaction of the region when Ryckwaert was taken into custody: "Oh-laa, this is serious." Find out how this case came to light.

6. Wine & Design: Diane Keaton

Jesse Stone
The actress and longtime wine lover stocks her cellar with her own label, The Keaton.

Actress Diane Keaton barely needs an introduction. What you might not know about her, though, is that she spent many years flipping houses: buying, renovating and selling neglected homes. She would live in them, too, moving as often as once a year. More recently, she found her dream house and is staying put (for now). Keaton opened up her new 8,000-square-foot Los Angeles home to Wine Spectator. Her favorite room in the house? The kitchen. Of course, there's dedicated wine-bottle storage, stocked with her own California label, The Keaton. Take a peek at the photo gallery of Diane Keaton's beautiful L.A. home!

7. Frost Strikes Again, Savaging Bordeaux Vines

John Hodder - Collection CIVC
Vineyards in Champagne were hit hard by frost.

The 2017 growing season was not easy for many vintners, especially in Europe. What some said was the worst frost in 25 years hit winegrowing areas in France and Italy. Our report about Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne in particular caught the eye of Wine Spectator readers. The Right Bank of Bordeaux was hit hard, with some estimating half the crop had been lost, including in the top appellations of Pomerol and St.-Emilion. Pessac-Léognan and the Graves were also affected. Farther north, vineyards in Burgundy and Champagne froze a second time, days after another cold snap had threatened the region, also touching the Loire Valley and northern Italy. Get our full coverage of the destructive frost in Europe.

8. How Will California's Wine-Country Fires Impact the 2017 Vintage?

Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group
A vineyard next to a scorched property on Napa's Silverado Trail

Amid California's inferno, we checked in with winemakers on the year's harvest and how the fires would affect the vintage. While most of the grapes had been picked before the fires started, some were still left on the vine. Harvesting the rest was a challenge for vintners, who were dealing with evacuation orders, power outages, road closures and thick smoke in the air. We also took a close look at smoke taint, including the science behind it, how it affects the final wine and how winemakers can combat it. But these devastating fires will have a much more lasting effect: on tourism, on labor and the wine industry as a whole. Read our analysis on the California fires' impact.

9. Drinking Out Loud: 25 Ways to Leave Your Wine Love

Jon Moe
Matt Kramer suggests opening up to new horizons with 25 new wines to try.

Whether you're someone who's constantly looking for something new to try, or you're trying to get out of a rut, contributing editor Matt Kramer had a great master wine plan for 2017. The premise was simple: Try one new wine every other week—that's just 25 wines a year. And of course, he gave his own suggestions, including fun picks like Lambrusco, Austrian reds and dry Tokaji. You can revisit the list and see how many you tried in 2017, or see how many you can check off in 2018! Get Matt Kramer's 25 exciting wine recommendations.

10. Amazon Halts Online Wine Sales

Amazon's familiar boxes won't contain wine next year.

The world of wine shipping is a complex web of state and local laws and regulations. In October, online giant Amazon decided to step back from it. Since 2012, Amazon Wine had operated as a middleman, serving as a marketing platform so that consumers could order from wineries through their website. But when the company acquired Whole Foods Market, the model became too complicated to keep up because of so-called "tied-house laws" that prohibit alcohol merchants from getting payments from suppliers to advertise their products. This was Amazon's third attempt at getting into the wine-retail business, and so far, the company has struck out. Get the latest details on Amazon's wine ventures.

Tasting Reports

1. The Top 100 Wines of 2017

Every year, our readers love trying to guess what our senior editors will pick as the most exciting wines they reviewed in the past 12 months. And every year there are fun surprises, especially in the Top 10: California Merlot?! Barsac?! In 2017, California made a very strong showing, duking it out with classic Old World regions for primacy at the top of the list. But the wide range of grape varieties and wine styles in both the Top 10 and the full Top 100 list will provide an excellent education for wine drinkers who hunt at least a few of them down. Making that global exploration affordable, 38 of the wines cost $25 or less. Don't miss the videos that tell the stories behind the wines in more depth.

If you wanted even more value, for the third year running, we compiled a 100 Top Values list, which pulls together the best wines rated 88 points or higher, priced at $20 or less and tasted in 2017. Whether you love crisp whites, big reds or sparklers, there's something to suit every taste.

2. 2016 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting: James Molesworth's Blogs and Wine Reviews

Pistolet Bleu
The barrel rooms of Bordeaux, like Château Léoville Barton's, are now home to the highly anticipated 2016 vintage.

Every March, senior editor James Molesworth heads off to Bordeaux to do the hard work for our readers—tasting hundreds of barrel samples to find the standouts that are worth snapping up as futures. Sure, visiting glamorous châteaus, eating French food and spending the entire day thinking about wine might sound like a vacation to most of you. But you try spending several days straight blind-tasting young, tannic reds, with only the occasional break for some vibrant dry whites, and writing distinctive notes on each. (We save the dessert wines for last as Molesworth's reward.) You might conclude that it's far more fun to read about the wines, plan your shopping list and then break out the bottles after a few years of aging and enjoy them with a nice dinner—which is why our annual Bordeaux report is always such a popular read.

Fortunately for Molesworth, the 2016 vintage was an exciting one, perhaps the best since the classic 2010 vintage, and he found plenty of wines worth buying before release. Between tastings, Molesworth also chatted with château owners and winemakers about the 2016 vintage, going green at Château Latour, the latest changes at Mouton-Rothschild, what it's like being the new director at Margaux and small-production estates that shouldn't be overlooked. In case you missed his original report, discover what to look forward to when the bottled wines are released, with this full alphabetical list of all the reds he tasted, complete with scores and tasting notes.

3. 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau Wines: Good Wine from a Small Vintage

Alex De Toth
The 2017 Beaujolais-Villages Nouveaus reflect the deep fruit character of the vintage.

While you're waiting on the 2016 Bordeaux, you need something that's ready to drink—right now. That would be Nouveau, the first wines released each fall. While the hype over the light, fruity reds has died down over the years, interest has grown overall in the Beaujolais category thanks to reasonable prices and producers boosting quality from the more distinctive crus. A tasting of Nouveaus gives a hint about the potential of the upcoming vintage releases, and in 2017 they made a strong showing. While the crop size is very small, due to devastating frosts and hailstorms during the growing season, expect well-defined Gamays with dark berry and spice flavors. Senior editor Alison Napjus found nine wines to recommend, complete with scores and tasting notes.

4. 2007 California Cabernet Retrospective: A Star Comes of Age

Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube found the vintage still deserves its stellar reputation after 10 years.

The 2007 vintage was among the finest ever in Napa Valley, so when senior editor James Laube retasted the wines 10 years later, plenty of collectors were curious about what he would find. The best wines remain exceptional, with great depth, purity of flavor and the plushness expected of the region. He shares retrospective scores and tasting notes, with updated drink windows, for 75 wines. Check on what's in your cellar.

5. Tasting Highlights: 10 Napa Valley Classics

Courtesy of Cliff Lede
Cliff Lede's Sauvignon Blanc is primarily sourced from old vines in eastern Rutherford.

The Tasting Highlights series brings the best wines from our editors' most recent tastings to members each week. And what do you most want to see? California Cabernets under $25? Absolutely! Paso Robles and Sonoma County provided excellent value in the 2015 vintage. But this year, you really embraced the full diversity of Napa's staple grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc—all attractively priced at $35 and under to get you inspired.

6. Tasting Highlights: 9 Elegant Santa Barbara Pinot Noir Wines

Santa Barbara's sites yield delicate yet well-structured Pinot Noir.

When readers aren't picking out their wish-list Cabernets, they're looking for New World Pinot Noir. California's Santa Barbara County has been experiencing a surge in quality Pinot Noir as winemakers hone their skills in the region's varied terrain, from the cool Sta. Rita Hills to Santa Maria Valley, home of the renowned Bien Nacido vineyard. Close behind in interest were another set of California Pinot Noirs from Sonoma, Mendocino and other appellations, along with a dozen under-$40 Pinots from Oregon, where the Willamette Valley's excellent 2014 and 2015 vintages balanced freshness and ripe fruit. Keep an eye on Tasting Highlights each week for the latest wines worth buying, and happy drinking in 2018!

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Crime Fraud Direct Shipping Disasters Fires Frost Obituaries Red Wines France Beaujolais United States California Cabernet Sauvignon Gamay Pinot Noir Best of 2017