“I’m sort of a nervous wreck,” said Barbara Banke on Saturday morning. The chairman of the board at Jackson Family Wines, Banke was on stage at the New York Wine Experience, representing a proud, family-owned company with more than 40 wine brands around the world. She was scheduled to receive Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award that night.
But no one was surprised by Banke’s statement. Her company is headquartered in Sonoma County, where some of the most devastating of the October wildfires in Northern California raged. For the past two weeks, she had been helping her team house employees who lost everything and feed displaced members of the community, while wondering about the fate of several vineyards they could not reach. Banke personally evacuated her own home twice. Yet, despite the exhaustion and the sorrow, Banke said she felt fortunate and optimistic about the future.
The 37th-annual Wine Experience arrived at a time of grief, but also of relief, gratitude and even optimism. After a devastating year of fires in California, Spain and Portugal, frost in France and Italy, hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, you could excuse people for needing a drink.
More than 5,000 people who love wine—including consumers, winemakers, winery owners, wine merchants, chefs and sommeliers—flocked to the New York Marriott Marquis in the heart of Times Square, from Oct. 19 to 21, and they found plenty to drink. They also found hope in companionship and celebrated their shared passion for wine.
The event packed in two evenings of Grand Tastings, 18 seminars, two multicourse lunches paired with the wines of Australia and Chianti Classico, and a black-tie Champagne reception and banquet recognizing the world’s greatest restaurant wine programs. Nearly 350 wines were poured from more than 25,000 bottles into almost 62,000 glasses.
All net proceeds from the Wine Experience go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $20 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries, including Washington State University’s enology and viticulture program, Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute, the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's hospitality school. Those donations would not be possible without the continued generosity of the countless vintners who share their wines and time, as well as the Wine Experience attendees.
The event kicked off Thursday night at the first Grand Tasting, where more than 2,400 people came to sample wines from 267 of the world’s finest wineries. Terroirs on display ranged from Champagne to Argentina to Oregon to Israel to China. “It’s a great event,” said Mike Officer, owner of Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, who was attending his fourth Wine Experience. “There are great attendees who are serious about wine. It’s kind of the who’s who of the wine world, so it’s a real honor to be here.”
The exploration continued the next morning with the first of two packed days of wine-filled seminars. Veuve Clicquot helped start things off right with four glasses of its prestige Champagne, La Grande Dame. That was followed over the weekend by an exploration of the grand cru Clos Vougeot, one of Burgundy’s quintessential terroirs; a tour of American Pinot Noir with four single-vineyard wines from Siduri; and a raucous master class on food-and-wine pairing by some of the world’s most talented chefs and restaurateurs.
Some of the world’s wine stars offered a taste of what makes their wines special. And the vintners who produced the 10 wines that topped Wine Spectator’s Top 100 in 2016 showcased their stories. There were history lessons too—the best kind, with well-aged wines. Four Port houses offered their 1977 Vintage Ports, still remarkably alive and in charge at 40 years old. Wine star Victor Urrutia of Rioja presented the likewise-vibrant Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1976. To top it all off, Corinne Mentzelopoulos presented six wines from her first-growth Bordeaux estate, Château Margaux, including the 2009, 1995, 1989 and 1986.
Amidst the education and the hedonism, there was also poignancy. As Mentzelopoulos presented her wines, she mentioned how each one had been shaped by winemaker Paul Pontallier, who passed away last year at 59.
At the Chef's Challenge, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken asked, “José, when was the last time you slept?” Chef José Andrés had flown in from Puerto Rico just two hours earlier, after spending weeks organizing meals for nearly a million people impacted by Hurricane Maria. Andrés was teary-eyed as the crowd gave him a standing ovation for his heroic efforts.
Several California vintners looked bleary-eyed too as they spoke of the devastation in their regions. And Randy Lewis, as he discussed his Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Wine Spectator’s 2016 Wine of the Year, broke down as he talked about his late wife, Debbie, who managed the winery with him until she passed away in January.
Wildfires can be devastating, incinerating homes and dreams. Ironically, they are also how nature renews itself. Old brush and scrub that crowds the forest floor is burned away, and new green shoots can emerge. And vines are resilient. As long as the flames don’t burn too hot, within months new buds will turn into shoots, leaves, flowers and eventually grapes.
Beaux Frères owner Mike Etzel, whose Oregon Pinot Noir was the No. 3 wine of 2016, broke down in tears of joy as pictures of his son appeared on screen at a seminar. The images showed him as a boy and now as a grown man, a winemaker beside his father.
Italian legend Angelo Gaja spoke with pride about his daughter Gaia a few hours after they had shared the stage to discuss their Barbarescos. Gaia, her sister Rosana and brother Giovanni took over daily management of the winery in 2013. “Wasn’t Gaia wonderful?” said Angelo. “She doesn’t need me up there. It's so wonderful to see a new generation lead.”
The new generation was there throughout the weekend. Piedmont vintner Daniela Tibaldi accepted the 2017 Wine Spectator Video Contest prize. She and her sister Monica made the video to show how they, like so many young Italian women, are taking their places at family wineries once run exclusively by men.
At several booths at the Grand Tastings, vintners poured with their grown children. Marco Palanti of Tuscany’s Castello di Ama was joined by his son Arturo. At Mollydooker, owner Sarah Marquis was pouring her 2014 McLaren Vale Shiraz Carnival of Love with her son Luke, for whom their cuvée Blue Eyed Boy is named. Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, son of the late Philippine de Rothschild, was representing Château Mouton-Rothschild over the weekend.
On one floor, Pierre-Henry Gagey was pouring at the Grand Tasting booth for his wine company, Burgundy’s Maison Louis Jadot. “I’ve been coming to the Wine Experience since it was at Windows on the World,” he remarked. “I went with my father.” One floor down, Pierre-Henry’s son Thibault was pouring their new Oregon wine, Résonance.
Some vintages are remembered for frost and fires. But vines renew themselves each spring. People renew themselves too. At this year’s Wine Experience, among great wine and companionship, it was possible to see green shoots of hope for the future.