Top Wine Stories of 2018

Big-name wine brands were sold, wineries chased promised tax cuts, wine fraud was still very much on-trend, as was canned wine and Beaujolais Nouveau
Top Wine Stories of 2018
The most-read wine stories of 2018 ranged from Bordeaux futures to wine in a can and everything in between. (Courtesy of Heitz Cellars; Courtesy of E. & J. Gallo; AJ Wells / Union Wine Co.; Pistolet Bleu)
Dec 28, 2018

It was one for the ages. In 2018, many prominent wineries were sold, some to equally big-named wine companies, and others to newcomers to wine. This included Napa's Heitz Cellars, Pinot Noir specialist Kosta Browne and vintner Dave Phinney's Locations brand—can you guess who they sold to? Read on …

Every year, we also say goodbye to important figures of the wine industry, sometimes unexpectedly or too soon. Zinfandel icon Kent Rosenblum died at 74 in September after complications from knee surgery, and Ulises Valdez, a beloved vineyard manager and winery owner, died of a heart attack at 49.

As in any other year, there was no shortage of winecrime in 2018, and with Charles Banks and Rudy Kurniawan now behind bars, our most-read fraud stories came from France, where merchants in Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley allegedly blended cheap wine and passed it off for the good stuff. readers also followed the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which created headaches (and potential tax hikes) for small wineries due to problematic language in the final bill. Wine lovers were also keen to know why they faced increasing hurdles ordering wine online; state governments and the courts remain battlegrounds, with one important case on its way to the Supreme Court case).

Indeed, we could all use a little wine to get through the biggest stories of the year, and we do our best to deliver. Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2018 highlighted a slate of collectibles as well as great-value wines, the most exciting our tasters reviewed this year. Our regular wine-review roundups and tasting reports also drew thirsty hordes, from wines of prestigious Bordeaux châteaus to good old wine in a can, and everything in between.

Here are the most-read stories published in 2018.

1. Beloved California Vintner Ulises Valdez Dies at 49

Colin Price
Ulises Valdez was known for his vineyard knowledge and his trademark smile.

Ulises Valdez emigrated from Mexico at age 16 to work as a vineyard laborer in California, and later became one of the most renowned and skilled vineyard managers in the state, as well as starting his own winery in Sonoma County. He was an example of the American dream, and was remembered fondly by his peers in the wine industry when he died of a heart attack this year at age 49. Wine Spectator spoke with other vintners and looked back on his life and work.

2. Iconic Napa Valley Winery Heitz Cellars Sold

Courtesy of Heitz Cellars
Heitz' stone winery is a Napa landmark.

Heitz Cellars is an icon in Napa Valley and a champion of single-vineyard expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon. In April, the winery was sold to Gaylon Lawrence Jr., who is new to wine but not new to agriculture: His family owns farmland in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida, among other business ventures. The sale included more than 400 acres of vineyards, and Lawrence appointed a wine-industry veteran as the winery's new president and CEO.

3. Leading Bordeaux Wine Merchant Accused of Massive Fraud

Suzanne Mustacich
Bordeaux's criminal tribunal

In March, Bordeaux's criminal tribunal heard charges against négociant Grands Vins de Gironde, which stood accused of blending hundreds of thousands of liters improperly, including the mixing of table wine with more prestigious appellations. Such illegal practices could tarnish the image of Bordeaux as a producer of fine wines, declared the prosecutor: "It's a question of trust," she said after hours of testimony and arguments.

4. Duckhorn Wine Company Buys Kosta Browne

Courtesy of Duckhorn
Napa's Duckhorn is expanding its portfolio of Pinot Noirs with a big name.

Two Wine Spectator Wine of the Year winners came together this July when Merlot specialist Duckhorn purchased Kosta Browne, the Pinot Noir–centric winery in Sonoma. The deal includes its winery, tasting room and inventory, as well as 80 acres of owned vineyards and leases on 90 additional acres. What does the next chapter look like for these two renowned brands?

5. Zinfandel Icon Kent Rosenblum Dies at 74

Courtesy of Rosenblum
Kent Rosenblum was known for his bold Zinfandels and his warm, fun personality.

Kent Rosenblum, a former veterinarian, became a winemaker in the 1970s and later a passionate advocate for California Zinfandel. After complications from knee surgery, he died in September at the age of 74. His Zins inspired a new generation of winemakers to focus on the red grape; he was remembered for this legacy to the wine world, as well as for his Sven and Ole jokes.

6. E. & J. Gallo Buys Star Winemaker Dave Phinney's Locations Wine Brand

Courtesy of E. & J. Gallo
Dave Phinney built his name with The Prisoner and now has two projects with Gallo.

Once again, E. & J. Gallo saw an opportunity to work with vintner Dave Phinney, whose Orin Swift brand the wine company had purchased two years prior. In June, Gallo acquired Locations, a brand that highlights wine regions around the world by blending across appellations and producing bottlings from France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, various states in the U.S., and much more. Find out how Phinney was inspired to create the Locations brand.

7. Massive Rhône Valley Wine Fraud Reported by French Authorities

Grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape fetch a far higher price than the ones that allegedly went into the supposedly counterfeit wines.

A bulk-wine merchant in France's Rhône Valley allegedly sold nearly 50 million liters of table wine as higher-priced appellations such as Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape—see a pattern here? Two executives were implicated in the scheme, which all started with a simple tax audit and spiraled from there.

8. Hailstorms Damage Thousands of Acres of Vineyards in Bordeaux, Imperiling 2018 Vintage

Henry Eng
The May 26 hail (blue) started falling south of Bordeaux and tore across multiple regions.

Unfortunately for some vintners, extreme weather is a regular part of being in the business of winemaking. This spring, Bordeaux was hit hard by hailstorms, with the most intense spurt cutting from Pessac in the south to the Right Bank in the north, in the Blaye and Bourg areas. Close to 20,000 acres were impacted, with around 8,500 acres suffering 80 percent damage to the vines. Vintners spoke with Wine Spectator about the imperiled 2018 vintage. To read about how it all turned out, check out our 2018 Bordeaux harvest report.

9. Small Wineries Hoping for Tax Cuts Face Massive Tax Hikes Instead

Gabriela Hasbun
Mike Officer of Sonoma's Carlisle Winery & Vineyards was one of many small winemakers facing big tax increases.

When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017, and included breaks on alcohol excise taxes, wineries in question were expecting, well, tax cuts. Instead, because of problematic language introduced in the final bill, small wineries were facing tax hikes in the new year, and had to lobby Congress and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to get some reprieve. We looked at why this all happened.

10. Wine Lovers Face Increasing Hurdles Ordering Online

Jeff Amy/AP Photo
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (left) and Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson hold a press conference announcing a lawsuit against out-of-state wine retailers.

If you've ever been in a situation where you can't find a specific bottle of wine at your local wine shop, and you look at retailers online only to find that they can't ship to you, this (constantly developing) story is for you. We delved into how the changing policies of common carriers, increased crackdowns on the state level and other factors made it more difficult for you to buy wine online. The year in retailer direct shipping drama started with a sting operation involving "moonshine" in Mississippi.

Tasting Reports

1. The Top 100 Wines of 2018

Every year, Wine Spectator rolls out its Top 100 Wines, the most exciting wines reviewed by our tasters. In 2018, a legendary Italian bottling took the top honor as Wine of the Year—if you missed it, learn about the history of the super Tuscan Sassicaia. The Cabernet blend was followed by other stars in the Top 10, such as an iconic vintage Champagne, a single-vineyard California Chardonnay and a red from an under-the-radar Italian island. The full Top 100 list represents wines from 13 countries and three U.S. states, with an average score of 93 points and an average price of $50. For even more value, check out our 100 Top Values list, which rounds up some of the best wines of 2018 scoring 88 points or higher and priced at $20 or less.

2. Wine on the Go: 24 Top-Rated Wines in Cans and Boxes

AJ Wells / Union Wine Co.
Forget the canteen. Pass the cans!

It seems we are not seeing an end to this canned wine trend. In fact, it may be just the beginning. Drawn by the convenience and good value, with a healthy dose of good marketing, young wine drinkers are increasingly reaching for the can (or box) for their alcoholic beverage needs. In this report, we reviewed 24 canned and boxed wines.

3. 2017 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting

Pistolet Bleu
Château Canon's 2017 vintage is among the elite in St.-Emilion.

In March, senior editor James Molesworth went on his annual trip to Bordeaux to taste the wines in barrel from the 2017 harvest. This serves as a preview of the vintage, as well as a good buying guide for wine collectors considering buying Bordeaux futures. Check out the 2017 Bordeaux barrel tasting package, which includes reviews for more than 250 wines and dispatches of Molesworth's visits to various châteaus.

4. 2018 Beaujolais Nouveau: Bright Gamays Shine

Robert Taylor
One of these Nouveaus is not like the others.

The third Thursday of November is not just any other Thursday. It's Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The fruity, fresh, easy-drinking Gamay-based wines from France usher in a new vintage; they can be drunk on the day and throughout the holiday season. Get the reviews for 14 Beaujolais Nouveau wines—including one rosé, a new addition to the traditionally red lineup.

5. Tasting Highlights: 10 Standout Napa Wines for $40 or Less

Kent Hanson
Heitz is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Napa winery also makes a juicy Sauvignon Blanc.

Ask and you shall receive. California wines, those from Napa especially, are among the most popular for our readers, but the prices for these wines are not always easy on the wallet. In our twice-weekly Tasting Highlights series this April, we rounded up 10 wines from Napa Valley scoring up to 91 points and costing between $20 and $40. Napa is also particularly well-suited to Bordeaux grape varieties; here are eight Cabernets and Merlots from the valley from go-to California producers.

6. Tasting Highlights: 10 Pacific Northwest Reds at 90+ Points

Courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle
Canoe Ridge delivers a top-notch value with their Explorer blend, at 91 points and just $22.

We've found that if you're not dreaming of Cali, your sights steer toward other domestic wines, like those of Washington and Oregon. Here, 10 outstanding examples of the states' top reds, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, respectively, are represented, with most available for $30 or less. Check out these reviews, all 90 points and above!

More Best of 2018

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Crime Fraud Direct Shipping Disasters Frost Obituaries Red Wines France Beaujolais United States California Cabernet Sauvignon Gamay Pinot Noir Best of 2018