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Top Wine Stories of 2015

Arsenic in wine?! A $315 million bet on a Pinot Noir brand. Wildfires, theft, fraud, lawsuits … it all made for a dramatic year
Photo by: Randy Pench/The Sacramento Bee/AP Images
Joe Wagner sold Meiomi; fires plagued California; Tim Duncan sues; and thieves hit Château d'Yquem.

Posted: January 5, 2016

If you had to sum up wine in 2015 in one word, it would be Pinot Noir. OK, technically that's two words to most people. To be more specific, California Pinot Noir, which continues its meteoric rise. (Speaking of meteors, an alcohol-spewing comet was another hot topic in the fall.) Over the course of the year, several well-known Pinot wineries—including Kosta Browne, Siduri and Brewer-Clifton—brought on new investors or sold to bigger companies, culminating in the $315 million sale of the rapidly growing Meiomi brand. Pinot from other parts of the world got plenty of attention too, as Oregon's phenomenal 2012 vintage reached the market and New Zealand claimed its first spot in Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of the year, with a single-vineyard Pinot.

Many of the rest of the year's top stories weren't quite so positive for the wine industry. A much-hyped lawsuit over alleged arsenic levels in wine startled and frightened many consumers. Wildfires, in the midst of a prolonged drought, threatened California vineyards. Business disputes turned nasty. Theft and counterfeiting continued, as criminals sought easier ways to make money from a luxury good than spending a decade or more planting and carefully tending vines to showcase a special terroir.

Purely by the numbers, our 2015 update to our handy U.S. Wine Shipping Laws, State by State reference guide was our top article of the year, but we originally posted that in 2014, when it claimed the No. 2 spot in that year's Top Wine Stories. Lots of consumers want to know whether they can have wine delivered to their homes—and there's a big spike in interest around holiday gift-giving time—so we hope this will be a popular resource for many years to come.

Here are the other most-read WineSpectator.com news and features stories of 2015, as well as your favorite tasting reports published this year.

Top News and Features

1. Lawsuit Claims California Wines Contain Dangerous Arsenic Levels

Are some California wineries "secretly poisoning wine consumers"? That was one of the incendiary charges leveled in a class-action lawsuit against several of the biggest companies in American wine, filed March 19 in a California state court. At the heart of the suit is the claim that a Denver laboratory found "inorganic arsenic in amounts far in excess of what is allowed in drinking water" in 83 big-name, $10-or-less brands. Wineries denied the allegations, insisting that their products are safe and arguing that the lawsuit is based on misinformation. Should levels in wine even be compared to water? After all, you'd have to drink far more than the federal dietary guideline of a glass or two of wine a day to reach the amount of arsenic an adult would consume daily in water. Wine Spectator investigated.

2. What Does the Meiomi Sale Say About the American Way of Wine?

Joe Wagner parted with his fast-growing label so he can buy more vineyards and expand other wine brands.

After Joe Wagner, son of Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, sold his Meiomi Pinot Noir brand on July 1 to drinks giant Constellation Brands for $315 million, Wine Spectator columnist-provocateur Matt Kramer weighed in, calling the deal all the more impressive considering Meiomi didn't exist a decade earlier: "Really, there aren't too many countries where you can find the market size, sufficiently deep pockets and sheer marketing muscle to boost a $22 bottle of Pinot Noir into such a stratospheric orbit at such sales velocity in so short a time." The only way Meiomi could have experienced that kind of success was by being some kind of sweet, Kramer claimed, citing hot brands from decades past. Just two weeks later, he countered with "The World's Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 Edition"—superb wines from Australia, France and Spain that he feels have slipped past the net in today's wine world.

3. Eight Restaurants Earn New Grand Awards in 2015

Photo by Andrew Meade
Bleu Provence sommelier Clement Cariot helps guests navigate the riches in the Grand Award–winning cellar.

Which of the following appeals to you most: 800 wine gems under $100; 100 California Chardonnays, 70 from vintages earlier than 2010 or a Sassicaia vertical back to 1985? Those are the sorts of assets you can find in the cellars of Wine Spectator's Grand Award winners, those who hold the magazine's highest honor for excellence in a restaurant wine list. Based on a strong showing of contenders, the 2015 Restaurant Awards program promoted eight restaurants to Grand Award status, the largest class since 1993. Those new winners, who joined 73 other Grand Award holders, are Aux Beaux Arts in Macao; Bleu Provence in Naples, Fla.; Capo in Santa Monica, Calif.; Marcello’s La Sirena in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Pearl & Ash in New York; the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Calif.; Print Hall in Perth, Australia; and Spruce in San Francisco. Check out the winners' photo gallery.

4. Kendall-Jackson Owners Buy California Pinot Powerhouse Siduri

Photo courtesy of Siduri
Dianna and Adam Lee sold the winery they cofounded in 1994.

The high-end Pinot Noir winery frenzy got off to an early start in 2015, including the Jan. 29 news that Jackson Family Wines—whose portfolio includes Kendall-Jackson—had purchased Siduri, a Sonoma-based producer that helped define the style of bold, modern California Pinot with its numerous single-vineyard wines. The sale, for an undisclosed price, included the Siduri and Novy brands, winery equipment and inventory. Adam Lee, who cofounded the winery in 1994, will continue as lead winemaker for at least three years, while his wife and cofounder, Dianna, stepped back from her duties at the winery. “We certainly have mixed feelings, but there’s a lot of excitement for us, too,” Lee told Wine Spectator. “This is going to allow us to focus on making wine, which is why we got into the business in the first place.” Get more details on the sale.

5. Basketball's Tim Duncan Suing Terroir Founder Charles Banks

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
NBA All-Star Tim Duncan wanted out of his winery investments.

Legal disputes in the wine business don't often garner national attention, but this one involved a high-profile sports star who wanted out of the wine business: 15-time NBA All-Star Tim Duncan. On Jan. 29, he sued Charles Banks, whose Terroir Capital owns or manages wineries around the world, including legendary Napa winery Mayacamas and Santa Barbara pioneer Qupé. The San Antonio Spur alleged that he was misled about investments in Terroir's winery and hotel projects, as well as a sports merchandising company, and that Banks lost $20 million of his money. Banks—a financial advisor for pro athletes before getting into the wine business—denied the allegations and said that Duncan is using the lawsuit as leverage to cash out early on investments. Banks told Wine Spectator, "They're suing to push me to buy him out." Get the play-by-play on the suit.

6. Napa Winery Owner Involved in Suspected Murder-Suicide

Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat/AP Photo
The Napa sheriff's office investigates two deaths after a business dispute.

One of the grimmest bits of news to come out of wine country involved another legal dispute. A Napa Valley vineyard became a crime scene on March 16, as a business meeting ended with two men dead in an apparent murder-suicide over a $1.2 million loan gone bad. Vintner Robert Dahl allegedly shot an investor, Silicon Valley businessman Emad Tawfilis, in the head and then fled his Yountville winery with Napa sheriff’s deputies in pursuit. The chase began just before noon and continued for 10 miles, north on busy Highway 29 and then west up Oakville Grade to a remote country road where, according to the Napa sheriff's office, Dahl apparently killed himself. Learn what went wrong.

7. Investment Group Buys Majority Ownership of Kosta Browne

Photo by Sara Sanger
Dan Kosta, Michael Browne and Chris Costello brought on a new investor.

From the first week of January, Pinot was big in the news. Even before Siduri sold, Boston equity firm J.W. Childs Associates bought control of famed California Pinot Noir producer Kosta Browne. The deal simply replaced one equity firm (Vincraft) with another, and Michael Browne, Dan Kosta and Chris Costello—who built one of California’s most successful brands in the past decade—still own 40 percent of the Sonoma winery. However, the cofounders felt the new investors strengthened their plans to expand their mix of single-vineyard and appellation series Pinots. Terms were not disclosed, but industry sources said the price tag was substantially more than the nearly $40 million Vincraft reportedly paid five years ago. Find out why.

8. Explosive Wildfire Devastates Lake County

Randy Pench/The Sacramento Bee/AP Images
Wildfires plagued drought-stricken California before and during harvest; here, a firefighter battles the huge, rapid Valley Fire in Lake County.

Drought-stricken California faced a string of wildfires over the summer, with the most destructive blaze erupting in Lake County on Sept. 12—the county’s fourth that year. The "Valley Fire" quickly spread to the borders of Napa and Sonoma counties, charring a 40-square-mile swath—nearly the size of San Francisco—in just six hours. Dozens of wineries and vineyards were inaccessible due to the fire, and more than 5,000 buildings were without power, bringing harvest to a halt in the emerging wine region due north of Napa, where Howell Mountain and its prized Cabernet vineyards were also evacuated as a precaution.

By Sept. 16, in a follow-up story that also covered a new fire in the Sierra Foothills, the Valley Fire had burned roughly 70,000 acres, destroyed nearly 600 homes and hundreds of other buildings, forced the evacuation of some 20,000 people, and required the resources of 2,793 firefighters, who had it 30 percent contained. An elderly woman unable to escape her home had died in the fire, and a retired journalist was reported missing, later found dead. The full impact on communities and Lake County's $60 million wine industry—encompassing 35 wineries and 8,700 acres of vineyards, plus numerous Napa and Sonoma wineries that buy Lake County grapes—had yet to be assessed.

9. 12 Don't-Miss Chicago Restaurants for Wine Lovers

Photo courtesy of Del Frisco's Chicago
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House in Chicago features a 1,200-bottle selection, showcased in a three-story wine tower.

In recent decades, the Second City has ascended to the top tier of innovation and excellence in American dining, with imagination in the kitchen from chefs like Grant Achatz, Paul Kahan, Michael Kornick and, of course, the late Charlie Trotter. Today's scene is as vibrant as ever, with world-class wine lists and cuisine, both fine and fun, from steak to Italian to the less conventional. In April, just before Wine Spectator's Grand Tour came to Chicago, we highlighted some food-and-drink establishments most worth trying. But Chicago is just one of the many U.S. cities known for beef, and later in the year, we followed up with a nationwide list of 14 Steak Houses With Must-Try Wine Lists, where the stellar wine programs have the chops to complement the top-notch steaks.

10. Bordeaux Wine-Crime Ring Found Guilty

Château d'Yquem was the thieves' first target, robbed in 2013.

“Get me a unit of Cheval, a good chunk of Cheval,” said the voice on the recording, the accused mastermind of a daring scheme to rob elite châteaus and sell stolen wines, speaking to a partner who allegedly fenced the wines for him. The eight-month crime spree, conducted with 13 accomplices, netted more than $1.1 million of Bordeaux’s best wines. The 15 men were tried in Bordeaux’s criminal court, accused of robbing 18 wineries and négociants, including châteaus d’Yquem, Haut-Bailly and Palmer, and selling the wine through a diverse network. “It was theft à la carte,” said defense attorney Alexandre Novion. The court found all 15 men guilty on June 25, handing down sentences ranging from $67,000 fines to four years in prison. Who were they and how did they get caught?

Close enough behind to earn a dishonorable mention was another June crime story, in which a fraud sting netted prominent figures in the Canadian wine industry, allegedly members of a counterfeiting ring accused of faking 20 brands over four years and evading $11 million in taxes.

Tasting Reports

1. 100 Top Values for 2015

It goes without saying that the Top 100 Wines of the Year is always our biggest draw. But this year, just in time for holiday parties, we added a new article to our online package: an additional set of 100 top values, with a price ceiling of $20 or less. Wine doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, but you have to know where to look to find the best values. That was our focus in choosing this diverse selection of wines from around the globe, all rated 88 points or higher during 2015. We broke it into 6 lists: light whites, rich whites, elegant reds, bold reds, rosé and sparkling. Some wines are out of reach for many of us, but not these great values—easily found and ready to be opened. Discover them now!

2. 2014 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting

Left Bank estates, such as Château Mouton-Rothschild, had a good showing with Cabernet.

Senior editor James Molesworth spent two weeks in March tasting barrel samples in Bordeaux to get a first glimpse of the 2014 vintage, likely better than any of the past three vintages in the famed French region. Although Cabernet Sauvignon put in a strong performance on the Left Bank, the crop size was down and quality won't match that of the classic-rated 2009 and 2010 vintages. Molesworth provided tasting notes on hundreds of wines to help buyers decide which, if any, they wanted to purchase en primeur, or as futures. (See his list of Top-Scoring Bordeaux Reds.) He also blogged about his visits to top châteaus. Would there be enough demand combined with decreased quantity to see energetic sales? Or could overzealous château owners price themselves out of a good campaign? Wine Spectator's 2014 Futures Price Chart tracked prices from leading American retailers for some of Bordeaux's top estates, comparing them to the past two vintages.

3. 10 Hot California Wines for $32 or Less

Tasting Highlights bring the best wines from our editors’ most recent tastings to WineSpectator.com members. They're even better when we can bring you great values, which is how we started off January 2015. This selection of reds and whites, mainly from Sonoma, hits the sweet spot for quality and affordability, and includes grapes that typically carry heftier price tags, such as Pinot Noir. We found appealingly priced Merlot from Kendall-Jackson and Sebastiani as well as good examples of Chardonnay from the strong 2012 vintage. As an added bonus, many of these wines were widely available, making them a good option for restocking the cellar after the holidays.

4. 8 Hot Napa Cabernet Sauvignons

The 2012 vintage was a classic one for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, with a record-size crop, ample tannins and substantial aging potential. Even more exciting for fans of the grape, the abundance of high-quality California Cabernet was evident in this February set of reviews of bottlings that wouldn't break the bank. For a category that routinely breaks the $100 mark, we found eight for $65 or less, with half of them at $40 or less, from familiar names such as Hess Collection and négociant Cameron Hughes.

5. 13 Exciting Oregon Pinot Noirs

The 2012 Pinot Noirs are some of the most compelling wines to come out of Oregon, rivaling the 2008s for overall quality. The vintage began with a cool spring that reduced yields, and temperatures remained consistently warm throughout the summer, producing Pinots that are dark in color, with rich fruit flavors. The ripeness of the grapes was balanced by ample natural acidity, giving the wines depth and presence without losing Pinot’s characteristic finesse. This selection of reviews from January includes Pinots from multiple subappellations in the Willamette Valley, showing how successful the vintage was across the board.

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