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Top Wine Stories of 2016

Fraud, more fraud and alleged fraud, plus big dollars spent on big reds, stellar vintages and a ruby anniversary … 2016 was one for the ages
Photo by: Courtesy of the Guardia di Finanza
In yet another case of wine crime in 2016, officers of Italy's Guardia di Finanza inspect counterfeit bottles confiscated during a raid.

Emma Balter
Posted: January 3, 2017

What a year. Wine crime was still rampant in 2016, with a prominent U.S. retailer, John Fox of Premier Cru, sentenced to jail time, and a scheme of fake Champagne uncovered in Italy, keeping the spirit of counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan alive. Meanwhile, a major winery investor is facing a federal trial for allegedly defrauding an NBA star—a case that doesn't actually involve wine but throws the future ownership of some major wineries into question.

And speaking of prison sentences, one of the world's largest wine companies locked up The Prisoner Wine Company's five brands in a whopping $285 million deal. Constellation Brands went on quite the shopping spree, also picking up five of Charles Smith's Washington brands for $120 million. If 2015 was the year of Pinot Noir, 2016 favored big reds: Other high-profile sales included Orin Swift and Barolo icon Vietti.

Amid this year's tough news were also celebrations—for Wine Spectator's 40th anniversary and our new crop of Grand Award winners—and we managed to blow off some steam with columnist Matt Kramer, who brought us his five essential wine rules. Give it another read before you next entertain.

Once again, we can't go without mentioning our U.S. Wine Shipping Laws, State by State, which crushed it this year after a new update; this reference guide, which debuted in 2014, was again our most-read article. The holidays brought another big spike in interest, and we hope our readers have made good use of the guide in shipping gifts to friends and family—as well as to themselves.

Here are the most-read WineSpectator.com news and features stories, as well as your favorite tasting reports, published in 2016.

Top News and Features

1. Winery Owner Charles Banks Is Indicted in Federal Court

James Carriere
Charles Banks stands accused of duping one of his clients out of more than $10 million.

This shocking turn of events, involving a former rising star in the wine industry, made our top story of the year. Back in February 2015, Wine Spectator reported that former NBA star Tim Duncan was suing Charles Banks—founder of Terroir Capital, which owns and manages more than a dozen wineries in California, New Zealand, South Africa and Burgundy, including prominent names such as Mayacamas and Qupé—relating to investments Duncan had made in sports merchandising projects, as well as Terroir's hotel and restaurant projects. The now-retired San Antonio Spur claimed that Banks had lost $20 million of his money. In September of this year, after the FBI did a little digging, a federal grand jury indicted Banks on two counts of wire fraud, each of which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. The indictment charges that Banks did mislead the former athlete in a deal involving Gameday Entertainment (though there are no allegations connected to the wineries). Banks is out on bail, and we'll be staying tuned in 2017 to let you know what happens next. Meanwhile, dig into the details of the charges.

2. Constellation Buys The Prisoner Wine Company for $285 Million

Courtesy of Constellation Brands
The Prisoner, with its distinctive Francisco de Goya etching label, has been a runaway success since its 2000 debut.

This was the top business news in a year of big deals. The enormously popular Prisoner brand caught the eye of many readers when it changed hands for a second time. In April, Constellation Brands, one of the world's largest wine companies, paid around $285 million to acquire the brands of The Prisoner Wine Company from Huneeus Vintners, including The Prisoner itself, as well as Saldo, Cuttings, Blindfold and Thorn. Winemaker Dave Phinney of Orin Swift originally created The Prisoner, a Zinfandel blend from California, in 2000, selling it to Huneeus Vintners in 2010. Find out why Constellation wanted to lock another red blend into its portfolio.

3. E. & J. Gallo Purchases Wine Brand Orin Swift Cellars

Katrine Naleid
Dave Phinney will remain with Orin Swift as Gallo gives him new resources to tap.

Another of Dave Phinney's babies (props to him!) was sold later in 2016: E. & J. Gallo acquired Orin Swift Cellars in June for an undisclosed price. Phinney still heads the winemaking, while Gallo provides greater sales support and access to vineyards and top winemaking facilities. The brand includes several bottlings: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons Mercury Head, Papillon and Palermo, Chardonnay-based blend Mannequin, Grenache-based blend Abstract and Petite Sirah–based Machete, whose 2014 vintage earned the No. 6 spot in Wine Spectator's Top 100 of 2016. Phinney and the Gallo family have known each other for years. "I'm in the wine business—like so many people—because of the Gallos," he explained. "Together, we're going to make it better. This is going to be Orin Swift, no holds barred."

4. Blackberry Farm Proprietor Sam Beall Dies at 39

Beall and Thomas
Sam Beall loved great food and wine, and turned his family's country resort into a culinary destination.

The tragic news of Sam Beall's death in a February skiing accident in Colorado evidently hit home for a lot of our readers who are fans of the Tennessee resort Blackberry Farm. Beall was born on the farm, originally purchased as a family home by his parents in 1976 and converted into a six-bedroom country inn soon after. In the early 2000s, Beall started working full-time at Blackberry, turning the now 9,200-acre property into a world-class food-and-wine destination. The restaurant's wine list first earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2006 with 4,200 selections, but he and wine director Andy Chabot kept growing it to 7,500 selections and 180,000 bottles in 2016. Beall's wife, Mary Celeste, has since assumed the role of president and proprietor. Learn more about his life.

5. 2015 Bordeaux: Wine Futures Prices and Analysis

Lafite Rothschild's prices have exceeded other first-growths' in recent vintages, but demand may not be as high.

Bordeaux lovers flocked to our 2015 futures coverage. The question on everyone's mind: to buy or not to buy? For a vintage that showed great potential, we provided you with live updates on initial futures prices for top châteaus at U.S. retail, along with detailed analysis of the market and a comparative price chart. We hope our readers locked down some good finds by the end of the en primeur campaign! Our 2015 Bordeaux barrel tasting package was also our No. 2 tasting report this year; you can read more about further coverage below.

6. Barolo's Vietti Winery Sold to American Businessman

Courtesy Vietti
New and old at Vietti (left to right): Mario Cordero, Tanner Krause, Sharon Krause, Kyle Krause, Elena Penna Currado and Luca Currado.

California wineries weren't the only ones changing hands in 2016. In July, Kyle Krause and his family, who own the Kum & Go convenience-store chain in the United States, purchased Barolo legend Vietti for an undisclosed price. The deal for the family-owned Vietti, founded in 1873, includes the brand name, the winery and 84 acres of vineyards, to which the new owners are adding around 30 acres of vines previously acquired by Krause in some of the region's top sites. Luca Currado, the current Vietti family member managing the estate, remains as the CEO of the new company, overseeing the viticulture and winemaking, and Mario Cordero continues as director of marketing and sales. Get more details on the future plans.

7. Italian Police Uncover Counterfeit Champagne Scheme

Even with master counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan put away in 2015, fake wine still managed to get into our newsfeeds in 2016. The Italian finance police discovered 9,200 bottles of fake Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial in a building near the town of Selvazzano in Padua province. The lack of serial numbers on the bottles had caught their eye; as it turned out, the bottles were filled with cheap wine from the nearby Prosecco-producing area. If real, those bottles of Moët would have been worth around $380,000 retail; the police found a labeling machine and labels for 40,000 bottles, which would have been worth around $1.9 million. Eight people were arrested in connection with the fraudulent operation.

8. Constellation Buys Five of Charles Smith's Washington Wine Brands for $120 Million

John Valls
Charles Smith will consult for Constellation and continue working on his other wines.

Constellation struck again in October, this time with a $120 million deal acquiring the five core brands of Charles Smith Wines in Washington: Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Eve Chardonnay, Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot and Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon. Vintner Charles Smith launched Kung Fu Girl in 2006, the rest in 2007, and they add up to nearly 500,000 cases per year, selling mostly at $12 to $15 a bottle. Smith is keeping his stake in his original K Vintners, Sixto, the Charles Smith label and several other brands. With the purchase, Constellation said it would become the second-largest supplier of Washington state wines. Learn more about the reasons behind the deal.

9. 5 Wine Rules That Really Matter

Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says it's usually the host on the hook for making a wine experience memorable.

Sometimes we tell you to throw the rules out the window; here, contributing editor Matt Kramer tells you the ones that truly matter when entertaining. Serving temperature is key, of course, but a tad too cool is better than a tad too warm. Introduce some fun rituals, like an Italian toasting game that will have your guests cheer each other in a chain, and maybe compel them to say a few words about the wine. According to Kramer, size matters, and magnums are a surefire way to impress! It's also important to surprise your guests and jolt them out of wine complacency. Decanting sparkling wine? A dessert wine aperitif? Rosé in winter? Yes to all of the above! And finally: Know your audience. If your guests have no interest in wine, no point in serving the really good stuff. Get Kramer's advice in his own, always colorful, words.

10. Owner of Bankrupt Wine Store Premier Cru Will Plead Guilty to Fraud

Tim Pinault
The now-shuttered Premier Cru shop in Berkeley, Calif., often offered rare and fine wines at prices well below those of its competitors.

Wine Spectator was on the case of an alleged Ponzi scheme and bankruptcy at a prominent California retailer from the beginning, and this scoop got a lot of attention from readers who had eagerly been following every step of the way: John Fox, co-owner of Berkeley-based Premier Cru, was to change his plea from not guilty to guilty. Fox, who had been accused of selling millions of dollars' worth of "pre-arrival" wine that was never delivered to his customers, was charged on one count of wire fraud. A week after our story broke, Fox pleaded guilty in an Oakland, Calif., courtroom, admitting he had conducted a massive Ponzi scheme for two decades. In December, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, reduced from a possible maximum of 20 years, and agreed to pay back $45 million to 9,000 customers. The wine that Premier Cru did have in its warehouse was auctioned off in September. Auction firm Spectrum won the bid, buying 79,000 bottles for $3.6 million, with the proceeds to be divided up among wronged customers—at essentially pennies on the dollar.

Restaurant Awards

1. Grand Awards Class of 2016

Marie Hennechart
The dining room at Epicure affords a view of the hotel’s manicured garden.

We were pleased to announce that, in 2016, seven restaurants joined the ranks of our Grand Award winners, the highest level in our Restaurant Awards program: Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.; Epicure in Paris; Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark; Jean-Georges in New York; the Modern in New York; Murray Circle in Sausalito, Calif.; and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif. Our readers delved into the profiles of each of these restaurants, which have worked hard to create extraordinary wine lists and experiences to satisfy any wine lover. Applications for the 2017 awards are now open through Feb. 1, 2017..

This announcement coincided with the launch of our new Restaurant Awards site, where you can search for award winners around the world by location, name, cuisine and wine strength—as well as read restaurant news, guides to great dining spots and interviews with top sommeliers, chefs and restaurateurs. You can also download our free Restaurant Awards iOS app to search for a great wine list near you.

2. 13 World-Class Restaurants in Napa and Sonoma Wine Country

Alex Farnum
Sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards are the icing on the cake at Best of Award of Excellence winner Auberge du Soleil.

Our restaurant guides have become some of our most popular articles—who doesn't want to hear about great places to eat?—and this one clocked in at No. 1 among the group. When visiting California wine country, it's important to make time to eat great meals, as well as drink great wine. Among all the excellent options in Napa and Sonoma, across all award levels, our guide picks out a baker's dozen that stand out, whether it's for their stunning views or their creative cuisine. If you don't want to miss out on these round-ups—or any other news and features involving our award winners—subscribe to our free email newsletter, Wine Spectator's Private Guide to Dining.

Wine Spectator's 40th Anniversary

Wine Spectator marked a major milestone in 2016, celebrating 40 years since its founding in California as a small-circulation tabloid newspaper. Our Nov. 15 issue, along with our companion website, looked back at Four Decades of Wine, tracing the news and trends that shaped the beverage in the United States, and looked forward to The Future of Wine and where America's wine culture may go from here. Editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken shared the story of how he came to own Wine Spectator and grew it into the glossy lifestyle publication of today, complete with a video interview. And don't miss our historic video archive and our photo galleries of the Leaders of Wine, more than 40 luminaries who have made a difference, and the Wine Experience, the now-annual event that has brought the wine world together since 1981.

Tasting Reports

1. Top 100 of 2016

The announcement of our Top 100 Wines of the Year is always the most exciting time for our readers, consistently clocking in as our best-read tasting report of the year. Lewis got top honors as Wine of the Year for 2016 with its Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013. Bordeaux was well-represented in the Top 10—but with a dessert and a white wine—and so was Oregon, claiming the Nos. 2 and 3 positions. Overall, the average score of the Top 100 was 93 points and the average price was $46.

If you wanted even more value, you were served: For the second 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 2016. Choose what fits your palate, from light whites, rich whites, elegant reds, big reds, rosé and sparkling. We promise they’ll deliver!

2. 2015 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting

Mathieu Anglada
The 2015 vintage is sitting in barrel at Clerc Milon in Pauillac.

The Bordelais caught a break this year when they revealed their 2015s—by far the best vintage since the classic 2010. The 2015 growing season brought a warm, dry summer with a sprinkling of rain in August and September, making it ideal across the board, although rains were a little heavier in the northern Médoc. Senior editor James Molesworth reviewed the region's reds, whites and dessert wines in barrel back in March 2016. In case you missed his 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. Between tastings, Molesworth also blogged from his visits to more than 20 châteaus—including a catch-up with famed consultant Denis Dubourdieu, who passed away later in the year.

3. 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau

Alex DeToth
The 2016 releases from some of the region's top producers show elegance and fresh red-fruit profiles.

Our readers were eager to celebrate the incoming harvest this year! Our annual tasting of Beaujolais Nouveau—the food-friendly, fruity, Gamay-based reds released promptly on the third Thursday of November—was a hit from just before Thanksgiving through the holiday season. The 2016 vintage was quite the sprint, as a late growing season pushed harvest back three weeks later than 2015. Torrential rain and hail in late spring and early summer complicated matters, but the vintage was saved by the hottest September the region has had in 50 years. Though meant to be drunk young, these wines are also a good hint at the expected quality of the more esteemed crus of Beaujolais released later on. Read tasting coordinator Gillian Sciaretta's scores and tasting notes for nine Nouveau picks, and watch her in conversation with Franck Duboeuf of Vins Georges Duboeuf.

4. 10 Napa Cabernet Sauvignons Sans Sticker Shock

Jim Sullivan
Castello di Amorosa's 2013 Napa Cabernet offers earthy, graphite-laced berry flavors.

The Tasting Highlights series brings the best wines from our editors' most recent tastings to WineSpectator.com members each week. Quality Napa Cab for $65 and under, you say? Yes, we managed to bring that to you too. Regular 2013 cuvées from big names such as Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug and Vine Cliff are widely available and have wallet-friendly appeal. These estates keep costs down by casting a wider net when sourcing fruit—but don't be fooled, these wines are serious. A quarter of the grapes in Mondavi's Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013, for example, hail from the famous To Kalon Vineyard.

5. 15 Enticing Tuscan Values

Sandro Michahelles
Il Palagio's Sting and Trudie Styler blend Sangiovese, Syrah and Merlot into Message in a Bottle.

We never cease to bring you value, and these Tuscan gems hit the sweet spot. All priced at $20 or less, this great mix of bottlings covers Sangiovese, blends with international varieties and even a white wine to choose from. Montecucco is an obscure appellation worth seeking out, and at 93 points and just $18, you'd be well off to buy a whole case of the Casal di Pari Tenuta L'Impostino 2011. For good measure, Sting and Trudie Styler brought some star power with their Il Palagio Toscana Message in a Bottle 2013—a vibrant, aromatic blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Merlot.

6. 10 Sumptuous Sonoma Pinot Noirs

Courtesy of Landmark
Sonoma's Landmark winery sits in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.

Don't worry, we weren't going to leave you without your fix of Pinot Noir! (The variety regularly dukes it out with Cabernet for the title of most popular grape among our readers.) This set hails from Sonoma, where the 2014 growing season was moderately warm all year, with continued drought conditions. This produced quite showy Pinots, making fans of the rich, seductive style very happy. The Whetstone Pleasant Hill Vineyard cuvée—from Pinot veteran Jamey Whetstone, who worked at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy before creating his namesake label with his wife, Michelle, in 2002—headlines this selection at 92 points. Other reliable Pinot Noir producers such as Siduri, Landmark and MacMurray Ranch filled out the list.

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