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Thoughts on Our Wine of the Year

A Washington wine makes a statement about quality and price
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 17, 2009 3:20pm ET

To my mind, this year's Top 100 demonstrates the amazing range of quality now found throughout the world of wine.

When it came to the 2009 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year, I voted with the majority.

I tried the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet from Washington's Columbia Valley on several occasions and in every tasting it showed tremendous depth, richness, complexity and balance. In terms of value, it was, it turned out, impossible to beat. This wine makes a huge statement that you don't have to spend a lot of money to drink great wine.

In some years, though, I'm in the minority. The truth is that just about every year, all of the final 15 or so candidates for Wine of the Year are tremendous wines.

I also believe in emphasizing the "X" factor (meaning "excitement") in the spirit of spreading the accolades around, giving it more weight than score or price. That's why I voted for Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta Colchagua Valley (96, $75) in 2008, giving a deserved nod to Chile and the New World, and Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2005 (98, $80) in 2007, honoring a great appellation, tradition and grape, Grenache. I was out-voted when I called for Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Washington (95, $85) in 2005, and Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta Colchagua Valley (95, $55) in 2004. But I was in the majority again in 2003 with the Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District 2001 (95, $45) in 2003; great value and, hey, it's Merlot.

My favorites among this year's candidates, based on quality alone, were 2006 Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio, 2006 Numanthia-Termes Toro Termes and the 2006 Kathryn Hall Napa Valley Cabernet. Columbia Crest, the 2006 Chappellet Napa Cabernet and 2007 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ran close seconds.

Our editors mostly review a mix of traditional wines vs. modern styles. James Molesworth covers the Rhône as well as Argentina and Chile, Old and New World, along with the Loire and South Africa. Thomas Matthews covers Spain, a vastly diverse country undergoing a huge transition from traditional to modern styles. James Suckling reviews Bordeaux and Italy, both a mix of tradition and modern. Some of us tend to vote consistently on one side or the other. I'm often closest in voting to Harvey Steiman; we've tasted together for more than 20 years and I used to cover some of the same beats he has, Australia, Oregon and Washington.

Choosing a wine of the year brings together tasters with diverse backgrounds and personal preferences and experiences. Each of the final candidates are exciting wines and our process allows for individual thought and then agreement on a wine that personifies greatness and relevance every year.

Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  November 17, 2009 6:03pm ET
I appreciate the emphasis on value this year, as we're all examining our spending patterns and tightening our belts. You've done a fine job preserving quality, however, proving you don't have to spend more than $100 for a memorable bottle of wine. I am particularly impressed with the number of wines from Washington State on the Top 100 list.

I made my own Washington State discoveries about three or four years ago and have been touting the quality/value of those wines to anyone who will listen.

My only problem with your wine of the year is that any remaining bottles sold within minutes of your initial review several months ago, so anyone wanting to try the Columbia Crest effort will have to purchase it in the secondary market.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  November 17, 2009 7:13pm ET
Jim: I tried the 05 Col. Crest Reserve Cab last December and felt Dan Einberger had produced a real winner, especially in terms of Quality/Price ratio. I immediately joined their Summit Wine Club which enabled me to latch onto a case of that nectar. I feel elated to have finally acquired a #1 Wine of the Year before its extinction. Bravo to you, Dan Einberger & the WS editors.
PS: This October I spent two weeks touring Washington's Columbia Valley and Walla Walla County's wineries and I can truly report that many of the wines are now rivaling Napa & Sonoma and at about half the price.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  November 17, 2009 9:00pm ET
I was glad to see Carlisle 2007 Papa's Block in the top 20. For me, that and the '06 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley were without a doubt WOTY.

The Columbia Crest Reserve 2005 (not '06) is a great wine and like David and Mark, I too am excited to see Washington in the number 1 position. For me personally, it's not WOTY, however, it deserves any adulation that comes it's way.

The Novelty Hill Cabernet 2006 is also a great wine, I like it just a tad more than the Columbia Crest and is a tremendous value. Glad to see it in the top 100 pantheon as well.


Mondavi Reserve '06 could have at least been in the top 100. What a wine and the amount made, makes it a pretty easy find too. Oh well...
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 17, 2009 9:13pm ET
Matt, I'm with you on Papa's and Mondavi Reserve...deserving as are many other wines that didn't make this list. Washington is making (and has made) fantastic wines...It is hugely under appreciated...Betz is another of my favorites from Washington...
Michael Shanahan
Oregon —  November 17, 2009 9:37pm ET
Do you mean the 2005 Termes or the 2006 Termes?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 17, 2009 9:42pm ET
Michael, both vintages are great. I believe they were both released this year. I caught the 2006 at a great peak a few weeks ago. So either way I think you'll be excited. I know Tom Matthews was, as he reviewed both.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  November 17, 2009 9:56pm ET
Gotta love Betz! Cheers James!
mace d howell III
fremont,ca,usa —  November 18, 2009 10:52am ET
I really hate to be negative but to me the 2005 columbia crest res. cab. is a good wine for the money but 95pts. and wine of the year. For me it tastes like a $27 bottle of wine because it does not have that extra richness and pedigree. I also must have tasted 10 cabernets from 2005 and 2006 that are better than the Chappellet for around the same price. I understand that you guys have to consider volume of cases produced, but it seems this is going to far. Where is the 2006 Coho Headwaters $40. While it is not a cabernet it is far more complex than the two wines here. This wine has that Napa wow factor. I just feel a Napa red wine should have something close to a black fruit profile. Also, when talking Washington state it seems Cayuse and K Vintners should always be in the conversation.
Fernando Gerena
PR —  November 18, 2009 12:17pm ET
What about Marchesi di Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo brunello 2004? rating... # of cases.... price?? x factor?
I think that maintaining quality in such a great production is a great accomplishment. The rating is great ... it is under a 100$ and has cellar potential. Price wise the Columbia Crest is and will be the best wine for your money.However, there has to be a balance between price and aging potential. If you add those two with a good rating , you get a great wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 18, 2009 12:47pm ET
Mace, agree with Cayuse and K Vintners. Excellent wines. Ditto for Frescobaldi, Fernando. Coho was great but one more plus for Chappellet; It's a winery that's been making mostly excellent Cabernet since 1969.
Costa, Renato Martins
Sao Paulo/Brazil —  November 18, 2009 3:09pm ET
James: did you consider, for the next years, to make diferent lists of 100 wines, separating the bottles by value and quality and excitement and even price, in terms of giving us a broader approuch to select our purchases? Thank you so much for the good work.
Renato - Sao Paulo/Brazil
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 18, 2009 3:42pm ET
Renato, in the upcoming Dec. 31 issue of the magazine, along with the Top 100 list and profiles of the wine of the year and the 99 other wines, we are providing breakdowns by region and variety, highest scoring new releases of the year (which many people like to see), a breakout of the values, the wines of the year for every year from 1988 to present and 10 years of top 10s.
Dan Alban
Arlington, VA —  November 18, 2009 4:38pm ET
How many wines were in the final tasting of top contenders this year? Is the final tasting still done with all of the editors tasting each wine blind?

I also would like to see separate lists for quality and value. It is hard to understand why so many highly rated wines do not appear on the list, while many 90-92 pt wines do make the list. I understand that availability/quantity produced is a factor, but there were a lot of 2007 wines from the Southern Rhone out there with high scores and relatively high production that didn't make the list, for example.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 18, 2009 4:48pm ET
Dan, each year the number of contenders varies, but usually about 15 to 17 wines end up on the table, this after all the editors have had several chances to look over the candidates by the criteria. Clearly the emphasis is on value as the excitement factor (along with the list of the top-rated wines by scores). There is also a cut-off date, so indeed some of the wines that appear in later issues may end up in consideration for next year. It's a juggling act, as any of the eds would tell you. Is the Top 100 a shopping list or honor roll?
Kerry Powers
Indiana —  November 18, 2009 6:53pm ET
I was somewhat surprised at the selection this year. Especially in light of the fact that 2007 was publicised as maybe the best vintage ever for CA pinot. Fortunately, I have the Kosta Browne.
What is disappointing to me is the selection was a wine that has already been sold out. They (the Winery and retailers) are selling the 06 vintage at this point.

It would have been better to have it selected last year when it was still available (without going to the auction sites). I have not been able to taste the Columbia Crest yet, and I am sure it is very good.

Is any thought given to the timing of the selection? I thought one of the criteria was the availablity of the wine. 6000 cases is not a large production, especially when it was the previous years wine.

James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 18, 2009 8:35pm ET
Kerry, timing is always tricky and new vintages come to market as soon as old ones sell out and Columbia Crest had to be one of this year's fastest movers. We'd like to have all of the Top 100 wines available, and it's our hope that would be the case in choosing a wine with decent case production. But finding a great wine with great production is often difficult. We'd love it if we could find a 97-point wine for $25 and 50,000 cases released in November.
Reed Rinehart
Ukiah, CA, USA —  November 19, 2009 12:07am ET

I've been reading your magazine and articles for about 2 years now and I have noticed there aren't many or in most issues any mention of Mendocino County wines. Aside from the Anderson Valley Pinots there are some incredible Zins, Petites and even Cabs in our growing region. It would be great to see some recognition for the great wines and values hear just a short drive north of Napa and Sonoma. Thank you for your insight.

Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  November 19, 2009 12:35pm ET
As a subscriber, I already knew that the Columbia Crest had been named WOTY, thanks to the sneak peek at the Top 100 list. I do think it's funny, however, that this blog appears today, the day before WS is making the "official" WOTY announcement to non-subscribers. Kind of takes the shine off of tomorrow's big revelation, no?
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  November 19, 2009 12:42pm ET
Dear Whit,

This blog is also accessible only to members so we're not revealing anything about the Wine of the Year to anyone who doesn't already know.

Dana Nigro, WineSpectator.com managing editor
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  November 19, 2009 12:56pm ET
I stand humbly corrected. Thanks, Dana!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 19, 2009 1:20pm ET
Reed, agree about the quality of Mendo Zins and Cabs, and wineries are encouraged to submit their wines for review.

See also Tim Fish's pieces:


Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  November 19, 2009 2:34pm ET
I have been a huge fan of Columbia Crest wines for some time because they consistently deliver on the QPR, year after year, and the 2005 reserve cabernet is no exception. I do question, however, the inclusion of Kosta Browne wines as, to the best of my knowledge, they are only available through subscription. Thus, they do not meet what should be a key requirement for inclusion.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  November 19, 2009 6:59pm ET
I am pleased with the WS WOTY selection. It is a real credit to Columbia Crest to show they can produce 6000 cases of a classic cabernet and price it under $30 a bottle. I was able to obtain this wine shortly after its initial review. I have 10 bottles left and am looking forward to enjoying it during the holidays and for several years to come.
Khaled Haram
Florida —  November 19, 2009 9:01pm ET
I may be going out on a limb here and may be in the minority, but I was both excited and disappointed to see the entire list revealed at once for members I have been a loyal subscriber to WS for over 10 years and I have always enjoyed the anticipation of counting down the days to find out the WOTY. I always tried to guess the WOTY based on the other nine wines. I have recently started discovering Washington state and I have been pleased with QPR of the region. I can see why you picked during these difficult times. However, I personlly think it lacks that X factor one covets in a WOTY. Kudos to the team for keeping us on our toes and constantly guessing what the "gem of the year" is going to be. Cheers for great work all year long
Larry Baker
Weston, Florida —  November 19, 2009 10:43pm ET
As a Sommelier, Nicknamed The Mayor Of Washington by a Regional Manager For Ste Michelle Estates for Years. I Tout and Sell More Washington State Wines Than Any Other Sommelier In The State Of Florida. I Think Ray Einberger Is A Genius. I Tasted The WOTY 3 Times. I Actually Preferred The Syrah Reserve From Col Crest Than The 2005 Cabernet Reserve And I Do Agree The Winery Was Sold Out In February Of This Year...So No One Has A Chance To Even Buy This Wine On Line..Everyone Is on 2006. Your Magazine Is Calling 2007 A PERFECT Vintage in WA State. Many Releases Of 2007 Rating High Were Not On Your List. BTW, How Can A Wine From Ste Michelle Like Col Solare That Is Readily Available Everywhere 2005 or 2006 Which Drinks Better Than Opus By Far And Compares To Left Bank Bordeaux At $400 Less Than Lafite....Not Even Make The List??
Michael C Thompson
Destin, FL —  November 20, 2009 6:22am ET

I have to say the Kathryn Hall Napa is really drinking beautifully. Craig and Kathryn have thrown everything but the kitchen sink in pursuit to make the best new world wines. Of course KB is a no brainer. Dan & Michael have created something special there. Thanks for all the great information you provide.
mace d howell III
fremont,ca,usa —  November 20, 2009 9:45am ET

I wrote on this subject already, but I am perplexed at the inclusion of the 2006 Chappellet, and I am truly miffed by the WOTY selection of Col. Crest. I hate to beat a dead horse, but I was at the Winespectator California Wine Experience when the 2002 Insignia won WOTY, and I can say that is one of the finest wines I have ever had. How can these two wines possibly compare to that one!!! To take this one step further, I challenge all the readers of this blog to blind taste the 2005 Phelps reg. cab against the chappellet and the Col. Crest and see which wins. I have not actually done this, but I did drink the 2004 Chappellet and the 2005 Phelps reg cab, and the Phelps is simply a better drink. It seems silly to even attach ratings to these wines when it is hard to deny which tastes better. However, I do want to say James you do as good a job at rating wines as anyone in the industry, and I always turn to you first when deciding on purchases. I am totally appalled at other services that rate new world wines on how they will taste 25 years from now. My only gripe is the top 100 because it simply does not represent the best wines from Cal. and Washington. My god I thought the 2002 Insignia was the best wine in the cult cab. tasting!

James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 20, 2009 12:45pm ET
Mace, understand the disagreement, and thanx for the kind words, but wondering if you've tried the '06 Chappellet or CC '05? As for the best wines by ratings, we'll have that list included in the magazine article. I'll see if I can find another Phelps '05, which I did think was outstanding.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 20, 2009 1:07pm ET
Larry, I can understand your title of "Mayor." Agree with most of what you have to say, and believe that Washington makes fabulous wines across the board. Anytime a wine such as the CC gets a high rating (and at that price) it's going to move fast. We do wrestle with the shopping list/honor roll issue. But it's not fair to penalize a wine that's great, well priced and sells briskly. One way to use the Top 100 is for looking ahead to next year, knowing that most of these wines will soon be sold out.
Joe Canals Liquor Outle
Hammonton, NJ —  November 20, 2009 3:38pm ET
James, I frankly don't get it. Columbia Crest Cab Res is a great wine, but has'nt been availble in NJ since March '09. That's 8 months!
Our customers want wines that they can find, not told that the past vintage received #1.
Why do we always see this happen?

James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  November 20, 2009 4:51pm ET
James, I'm curious about the Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico. The tasting notes say that is has some cabernet and merlot in the mix. How can they label it "chianti classico"? I don't see a DOCG label on the neck. This sounds more like a super tuscan to me. Please comment.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  November 20, 2009 7:02pm ET
James, The Chianti Classico DOCG specifies a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese, allowing for an additional 20 percent of several permitted grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. One source of the regulations can be found here: http://www.tuscany-wine.com/chianti_classico_docg.htm
Charles Curtis
Chicago —  November 20, 2009 11:06pm ET
James -

Can you ask Tom Matthews how the 2005 Termes - which was released in 2008 - makes the list? Seems unfair to consumers to list a wine that was released well over a year ago. Not much hope of finding a bottle. Is there criteria regarding the release date?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 20, 2009 11:19pm ET
Charles, as I recall, both vintages were made available to us in 2009 (and it sounds like earlier in Chicago). Wines are released and distributed differently to each market, which accounts for why you can buy some vintages in some markets, but not in others.
Kevin Smith
Sunshine State —  November 21, 2009 2:13am ET
Tip of the Week:

As a big fan of WS, I use the monthly "Insider" and "Advanced" newsletters to try and acquire wines that rate high for a fair value during the first rating period. It is that simple! Waiting until year end to source the TOP 10 wines is nearly impossible or you'll pay a big premium.

Applying the buy early practice scored me a nice stash of #1 and #6 for a great price.

BTW, both wines need a few years of cellar time and the '02 Insignia tops them both.

Thanks WS!

Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  November 21, 2009 3:31pm ET
I agree with Kevin's comments. Check the ratings as soon as they are released. It's why I have #1, #6 & #9 of the top 10. I have found that wines scoring in the 90's at an attractive price are likely to sell out after a few weeks unless the cases produced are in the 10,000+ range.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  November 22, 2009 6:32am ET
It would be interesting to see how the top five stacked up to each other in Wine Spectator's final scoring matrix. I like the CC Reserve as #1 because of four key criteria: 1. Pure Value: 2. Deserved Recognition to brand: 3. Deserved Recognition to the region; 4. Recognition of methodology and style. The first three speak for themselves, the last is intrinsic. This is not an Estate Wine, it was made with grapes from six independent vineyards in several different AVA's - typical of the region's methodology. This cab includes 5% Merlot and 4% Cab Franc, resulting in unbelieveable style. My only regret with this selection is that Columbia Valley wines will now start to creep up in price as demand for their wines grow due to Wine Spectator's burning spot light on the region.
mace d howell III
fremont,ca,usa —  November 23, 2009 11:58am ET

Thanks for responding to my previous post. I did by six bottles of the 2006 Chappellet, and I have consumed three of them. The color is my favorite thing about the wine-super dark and dense. The nose is very restrained as is the palate. The wine seems to have a bit of elegance, but not the power and concentration I am looking for. I am certainly not an expert as to what this will do in a year or two, but the concentration just is not there. Examples of wines that have elegance with the needed concentration are 2005 Drinkward Peschon Cab, 2004 Rocca Cab or 2006 Clare Luce Abbey. These are just off the top of my head. In regards to the 2005 Columbia Crest Res. Cab. I have tried this twice, and both times I found the wine to be good but overtly fruity. This is something for me that is typical in lower priced cabernet. It does however have depth, concentration and richness that one would expect. It is for me slightly out of balance because of the cheap and somewhat candied fruit that outshines the rest of the wine. From Washington, I would rather have a Five Star Cabernet which seems better balanced even if you give up a bit of complexity.

James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 23, 2009 1:27pm ET
Mace, well, you've at least done your homework! Three bottles of Chappellet is impressive. I liked the other wines you mentioned, too; the 2006 vintage has many wines that are perhaps better structured and less opulent than 2004s, which is why we all follow wines to see how they show and evolve.
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  November 24, 2009 1:22pm ET
To the WS Team,
I think you did a fabulous job this year (as in 12 months, people!) of selecting high quality-to-price wines that most people can find fairly easily. Yes, ones like Kosta B and even now Carlisle are increasingly hard to get as direct-ship wineries with little left over for retail stores. But that just means I have to start weaseling my way onto the mailing lists. These were all exceptional choices and I applaud the tasters' choices and sensitivity to price points in this economy. Everyone who is a member can already find the top-flight, high priced, wines. Finding the good value gems is the real key, and these are always helpful to have highlighted.
It also puts the expensive estates ($$$) on notice that charging a lot of money will not be immediately or directly recompensed with top 10 honors.
Again, Kudos. Eric
Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  November 24, 2009 2:40pm ET
Just to echo Kevin's comment and Dave's agreement, I purchased seven bottles of #1, six of #9, and four of #10 many months ago thanks to tips from WS Advance, Insider, and James' blog, which if memory serves was where I first heard about the extraordinary quality of #9.

The fact that these wines are snatched up after making the top 10 list doesn't bother me in the least - they deserve recognition, and anybody who follows WS will have a pretty good idea for what at least some of these wines will be. You snooze, you lose.

What really bothers me, though, is when a wine lands in the top 10 or achieves WOTY in part because it represents a tremendous value, and wineries, distributors, retailers, or whoever then jack the price of the wine way up. I still get mad when I compare the price of Clos St Jean Cinq Cepages before and after the '96 won WOTY in 1999 - the '97 was released at double the price of the '96, and the '98 at nearly triple the price of the '96. Grrrr....
Jerrold A Grecu
Granite Bay, CA USA —  December 10, 2009 4:25pm ET
Hi Jim,

Talking to a friend of mine who is a huge California cult cab fan and recently bought a 2005 St. Supery Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon. I opened up a discussion by wondering when CA cab producers would come down in price because I can't fathom why I should buy an $85 bottle of Cab that's rated below 90 points when I can buy a three bottles of 92 point Malbec or perhaps one bottle of 96 point Malbec for the same price as his cab. His response: "That said, I think the point system is not always accurate and wines tend to be scored against their peers, not absolutely. In other words, a 92 point $80 Napa Cab will almost always be far superior to a 96 point $14 Malbec, despite the difference in points. But, that Malbec may very well indeed be better than a 92 point $30 Zin or Merlot." Its the part about the 92 point Napa Cab almost alwasy being far superior to a 96 point Malbec that gets me. This isn't correct is it? I know when you're tasting blind they let you know the general varietal...but when YOU rate one wine a 96...isn't it a better wine, in your opinion, than a different varietal you've tasted and rated a 92??


Jerrold Grecu
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 14, 2009 1:20pm ET
Jerrold, the ratings apply across the board irrespective of the varietal, wine or vintage, so a 95-point Zin is on the same quality level as a 95-point Malbec. So, yes, if I understand your question, the 96 is better than the 92.
Stanley Sherman Md
atlanta, ga —  December 18, 2009 2:25pm ET
james-have you tried the available '06 columbia crest reserve, comments? As expected, price is higher than '05.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 18, 2009 3:06pm ET
I reviewed the Crest '06 Reserve Cab recently. Look for the note in an upcoming Insider, but in general it's in the same range as most of the CC vintages of this decade: outstanding, and an impressive value, even if the price is up a tad.
Stanley Sherman Md
atlanta, ga —  December 18, 2009 4:12pm ET
thank you-stan sherman

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