2020: The Year in Review 


My Year in Review article is usually a greatest hits of the past twelve months, a write up of fabulous meals, wines and tastings. Obviously, there was not much of that this year. I almost did not write this article at all, but 2020 has its own vibe and story. Ultimately, I thought that should be documented…

State of the Union

We were fortunate to have a fulfilling year at Vinous despite numerous challenges created by COVID-19. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to do what we do. Early on in the pandemic we decided to do everything possible to maintain our typical publishing schedule. That required an extraordinary effort by our critics, who worked around the clock. Homes became warehouses as we received a seemingly endless barrage of samples from all over the world. Just dealing with the opening of boxes and preparing the trash/recycling was (and continues to be) a monumental effort. We were able to publish all major reports on schedule, including some that were earlier than ever, including Neal’s report on the 2019 Burgundies and Eric’s article on the 2016 Brunellos. Other reports were more comprehensive than ever, including Josh’s in-depth look at Oregon.

Our Vinous Learn Napa Valley module consisted of 8 classes, 24 hand-chosen wines, a full set of Vinous maps and a Coravin.

In 2020, we added to our editorial team by bringing on Eric Guido for Italy and Rebecca Gibb MW to cover New Zealand and the Loire. While our critics are the public face of Vinous, there are many people at Vinous whose names you probably don’t know. They are our backbone, they make everything we do possible. Our leadership team, run by Marzia, James and Alex, did a brilliant job under very challenging conditions, juggling the intense professional and personal demands of 2020 with great skill. The same is true of our office team led by Shea, Gabriella and Brenna, the best we have had yet. 

Two thousand twenty was a year of reinvention. I suspect much of that will continue in 2021 and perhaps beyond. We launched Vinous Learn, a series of virtual tastings, including an entire module featuring our maps of Napa Valley. We also introduced Vinous Live, a program of seminars and conversations with the world’s leading personalities. As the restaurant and hospitality industry suffered, we offer complimentary subscriptions to all unemployed wine directors and sommeliers around the world. Given that education is our mission, we did the same thing with students in the MS and MW programs who have moved beyond the first level of their respective programs. Lastly, we redoubled our efforts to encourage diversity. As a person with mixed Latino, Italian and American heritage, and an Immigrant to the United States, diversity has always been important to me. In 2020, we launched our BIPOC Mentorship Program to further that goal. 

Vinous Live is a series of virtual tastings, seminars and conversations with the leading figures in wine.

A Look Back at 2020

My year began pretty much like every year, with a trip to Sonoma. It was a great start. The 2018s in Sonoma were so impressive. Looking back, the best 2018s in California (of the regions I cover) were made in Sonoma. Napa is a close second, while Santa Barbara is less consistent. The tastings were thrilling. On my last day in California, I decided to stop by the Napa Valley Reserve to fine tune the blend of my 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that will be offered only in charitable auctions. That hour or so would turn out to be all the time I spent in Napa Valley the entire year. I snuck in a quick trip to see friends in Los Angeles. That was my last trip to the west coast for 2020. From there, I went to Naples. Florida, where I hosted a Lafite and L'Évangile tasting with Saskia de Rothschild at the Naples Winter Wine Festival featuring a number of reference-point wines from both properties. 

Putting together the final touches on my 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon at the Napa Valley Reserve. A dollop of one component suggested by Bob Levy made all the difference.

By the time Festa del Barolo came around in late January, the news was already spreading about a new virus that had been identified in China. In March, we were lucky to get the annual DRC tasting in. I had a few dinners with friends, and then everything changed.

As I write this in late December, I have yet to get on a plane or take a trip anywhere outside the New York area. I tasted every wine this year in my home or somewhere nearby. The sheer volume of samples has been at times overwhelming, but at the same time, tasting at home has been so illuminating. It’s not something I want to do every year, and of course I very much miss visiting estates and tasting in person with winemakers. But tasting at home provides an opportunity no trip can, and that is the ability to follow wines over several hours and/or days, which is fascinating. I am sure I spent more time with virtually all wines in 2020 than I would have been able to in an ‘ordinary’ year. And that is the positive aspect of 2020.

I am not eager to repeat the experience, and I would very much like to have my house back as a residence at some point, but there were some very good things to come out of this year. At times I wondered how wines would show in New York. Would those Chianti Classicos still be so impressive removed from the stunning hillside vistas of the estates I visit every year? What about Bordeaux? Can barrel samples be shipped across the ocean and still show well? Would Napa Valley wines still be so profound tasted away from the vineyards? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding: Yes! In fact, tasting the wines in a neutral setting is actually provides a great deal of insights, as the best wines really stand out. Moreover, the ability to taste open bottles after a few hours, or even a day later, is so fascinating. I notice that many wines got their most positive notes from me ever in 2020. So, there goes the theory that wines show best when tasted at the properties…

Alessandro Masnaghetti enjoys a few older Barolo with Matteo Sardagna (Einaudi) and Luca Currado (Vietti) at La Festa del Barolo.

Winery of the Year – Bedrock (Sonoma Valley)

It is never easy to choose one winery that stands out above all others, especially with the regions I cover. This year I was especially impressed by Bedrock and the 2018s I tasted with Morgan Twain Peterson MW. One after the other, the wines were just stunning. But it is more than that. The 2018s are so finely cut and so expressive of site. Throughout that tasting, I kept thinking that if I were leading a class on the great vineyards of Sonoma, these are the wines I would use to show the personality of each vineyard.  

Winemaker of the Year – Tony Biagi (Napa Valley)

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to taste with talented winemakers all over the world. This year, one person stands out. Tony Biagi is not only gifted as a winemaker, he also has a talent for mentoring young, emerging winemakers.

Biagi has made a meaningful difference everywhere he has been. An early stint in retail in the mid-1990s provided an opportunity to taste the first generation of cult wines just as they were getting started. Internships at Dry Creek and Hess led to a full-time job at Duckhorn, when it was still a relatively small winery. “That was my first experience working with world-class vineyards,” Biagi told me. “We sourced from Vine Hill Ranch, Spottswoode, Oakville Ranch, J.J. Cohn and other top sites.” Stops at Paraduxx and Neal Family Vineyards followed.

I first met Biagi around 2011 at PlumpJack, where he was making bold, luscious wines. A year later Biagi was looking for a role where he could also make wine on his own, so he went to Hourglass, but not before putting the pieces in place for a smooth transition at the three wineries in the PlumpJack group and staying on as a consultant for several years. Biagi took over Hourglass, which was stylistically adrift at the time, and brought a clear identity to those wines. Biagi then launched his own label, Patria, in 2013 in partnership with Kimberly Jones, one of the most respected distributors in California. The first few vintages have been positively stellar. 

Quietly and very much behind the scenes, Biagi consulted as Clos du Val moved away from an emphasis on volume towards a greater focus on quality under winemaker Ted Henry. The change in the wines was dramatic and sudden. Sinegal was next, where Biagi worked alongside winemaker Ryan Knoth to help the estate get off the ground. Other recent projects include Amici with winemaker Jesse Fox, Lasseter with winemaker Danielle Langlois and Alma Rosa with winemaker Samra Morris. In every one of these cases, Biagi has provided guidance, but always pushed his protégés into the spotlight and given them all the credit. In today’s world, that is exceedingly rare. In a relatively new role as winemaker at The Vineyardist, Biagi has ushered in small but noticeable refinements to wines that were already superb. For all these reasons, Tony Biagi is my Winemaker of the Year for 2020. 

Tony Biagi and Drake, his English Labrador Retriever, at Oakville Ranch. Photo by Leigh-Ann Beverley. Used with permission.

Tasting of the Year – Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino Vertical at La Festa del Barolo

Obviously there weren’t too many events or tastings in 2020. My guess is that even if there had been, our Monfortino magnum vertical at La Festa del Barolo would have still taken the cake. It was a very special evening, to say the least. I can’t say it was truly a once in a lifetime tasting, as we have had the incredible fortune to host this event twice, once in London in 2014 and then in New York earlier this year. But I can say it will almost certainly never be replicated, as I opened my last magnums of the 1970 and 1982.

We had every Monfortino bottled in magnum from 1970 (the first vintage of magnums) to 2013, the latest release. All of the wines came from my personal cellar. At the last minute Roberto Conterno added the 2014, which had not yet been released, along with the 2015 Charity Wine, a one-off wine Conterno made from a parcel of Nebbiolo in Arione that is just outside the Barolo DOCG and therefore can only be bottled as Nebbiolo d’Alba. I added the 1987, a fabulous but under the radar Monfortino that I had kept as a back up for one of the two vintages for which we did not have a second bottle.

From the first to the last, all the wines were truly magnificent. Dinner was exquisite. It was one of those special and rare evenings imbued with conviviality and the appreciation of one of the world’s most historically significant and iconic wines. A few weeks later, the whole world would changed. The memories from that night, though, will last forever.

Wines of the Year

One of the greatest privileges of this job is having the opportunity to taste and drink some pretty amazing wines. These are some of the most memorable bottles of 2020. These are all bottles I enjoyed informally with friends, as opposed to the highest rated wines from my formal tastings. Each of these wines is attached to a person, or people, and a specific moment in time, although these precious moments were far and few between in 2020. Ultimately, for me wine is about people and a moment - the circumstances are every bit as important as the wine itself. Observant readers will note a lack of Bordeaux. Don’t worry, those wines will all appear in a separate article….

1955 Maison Leroy La Romanée Grand Cru

1958 Cappellano Barolo

1959  Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Rioja

1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino (magnum)

1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard

1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda

1978 Domaine Guy Roulot Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru

1990 Chave Hermitage

1990 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino

1993 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru

1997 Marcassin Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

2006 Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella

2009 Domaine Dujac Chambertin Grand Cru

2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée St. Vivant Grand Cru

2010 Domaine Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru

2010 Comtes Lafon Meursault Perrières 1er Cru

2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru

2012 MacDonald Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 Domaine François Raveneau Chablis Blanchot Grand Cru

2013 G.B. Burlotto Barolo Cannubi

2014 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru

2014 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon

2014 VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

2016 Kinsman Eades Rhadamanthus

I enjoyed the 1959 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Rioja over dinner on my way to LAX, distant memories given how the year unfolded after that.

Value Wine of the Year – 2016 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico (Tuscany) 

Proprietress Coralia Pignatelli della Leonessa, known to many simply as “La Principessa” is one of the most reclusive estate owners in the world. She rarely accepts visitors at her Castell’in Villa property in Castelnuovo Berardenga and virtually never sends her wines in for review. At Castell’in Villa she makes some of the most long-lived wines in Chianti Classico and all of Tuscany. But the Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico is more than that, it is the rare wine that is both an archetype and that also transcends the region, occupying a place among the great wines of the world. Over the years I have been fortunate to taste many older vintages, including a stunning vertical in New York some years ago. Her 2016 embodies everything Chianti Classico can and should be. And it was $25 or so on release.

Meal of the Year - CORE by Clare Smyth, London

This dinner actually took place in late 2019, but after last year's Review was published, so I include it here. It was one of the best meals I have had in a very long time. From start to finish, everything was as close to perfect as it could have been. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I did not want to leave a restaurant. Literally. I could have spent the entire evening at CORE and been totally happy. It was that great. 

CORE by Clare Smyth is located in Notting Hill, a part of London that feels distinctly residential and far calmer than the heart of central London. That theme carries through to the restaurant itself. A small bar area leads to a semi-open kitchen with dramatic sliding glass doors. Clare Smyth greets us in the kitchen before we are brought over to our table. Although the dining room is small, tables are set far apart, no doubt a benefit these days. The ambience is magically formal, but relaxed and cozy at the same time. Likewise, service is impeccable. Just the right amount of attention, never too much. We opted for one of the shorter tasting menus. Let's just say I won't make that mistake again.

Pear and Verbena, Poire Williams Sorbet, the last dish of a truly spectacular meal.

Best Non-Wine Moment of the Year – Ski Trip With the Kiddos 

This one is easy. We were very lucky to get in a ski trip just before the world closed down. I’ve often looked back at the photos from that trip to stay focused on a brighter future, and a time when vacations like this will once again be possible. By late February, the world was already pretty nervous. I remember the temperature checks upon landing in Malpensa, a first for me. 

The pristine slopes of the Italian Dolomites.

Our favorite place to go is San Cassiano, in the Italian Dolomites. It is a splurge, to be sure, but also a rare moment to unplug for a bit. I have loved Alto Adige and the Dolomites since the first time I visited Bolzano, the capital city, on a business trip twenty years ago.

Stunning natural beauty and a rich, multi-cultural fabric that is reflected in everything from the various languages you will hear the locals speak to the fabulous cuisine make Alto Adige one of my favorite places in Italy. I am far from a great skier and there are plenty of famous places I have not visited, so I can’t offer an expert opinion, but Alto Adige is a magical place that will make you feel like you are living in a fairy tale.

Best Show of the Year – The Brothers at Madison Square Garden

Well, there aren’t as many choices this year as there are in non-pandemic years. With COVID-19 closings under way, I decided to go to see The Brothers at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2020. Of course, at the time no one really knew how serious the pandemic was and the extent it would change our lives. Few sectors have been as hard hit as the performing arts. Of course, it is not just the performers who have lost their livelihoods, but all the other people who depend on that sector to function, starting with all of the stage personnel and merchandising businesses, (where many artists earn a significant part of their living), as well as ancillary industries that depend on a vibrant, full calendar of events, including restaurants, hotels and transportation.

The Brothers is the name taken by the last lineup of the Allman Brothers. This concert celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Allman Brothers had all the feel of a one-and-done given that the Brothers had last performed together in 2014. It was a brilliant show made all the more remarkable by the fact that these musicians had obviously not played together regularly in some time. Powered by drummers Jaimoe (the sole surviving member in the lineup) and Duane Trucks, percussionist Marc Quinones and bassist Oteil Burbridge, the Brothers offered two blistering sets of classics. The lineup was rounded out by organist Reese Wynans and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Special Guest Chuck Leavell joined on piano for a handful of numbers. As I walked out into the cold Manhattan winter night, I could have never imagined that would be my last show for the year and until who knows when.

The Brothers 50th Anniversary Tribute to the Allman Brothers, Madison Square Garden.

How I Spent (Am Spending) Lockdown

Obviously 2020 was a very stressful year with a lot of uncertainty on all levels. Some of that will continue for at least a part of 2021. My way of dealing with that has been through music, which I have found to be a great outlet, not just this year, but throughout most my life. I was fortunate this year to have two amazing teachers who always inspire me. 

I was in high school the first time I heard Mike Stern. It was one of his early solo albums. Mike was playing heavily chromatic, bebop and saxophone-inspired lines on electric guitar, with a huge modern sound. I had never heard anything like that and was hooked immediately. I must have listened to that recording every day on the way to and from school for months on end.

Mike spent the early part of his career with Billy Cobham and Blood, Sweat & Tears before getting his first big break with Miles Davis in the 1980s. From there, he has gone on to have a very successful solo career and in the process became one of the most influential guitarists of the last several decades. In January I stumbled onto news that Mike was offering private lessons. Before COVID-19 hit, I had weekly lessons. It was an incredible experience. I remember one day grabbing a sandwich on 6th Avenue on my way down to my lesson. I thought “I am studying jazz guitar with Mike Stern…in New York City…are you kidding?” I literally felt like I was living in a dream.

More than just a great player, Mike is an amazing teacher. He is so positive and so encouraging in the way he makes everything feel like it is attainable, within the realm of the possible. That is such a huge deal. He is also incredibly down to earth and peppers his lessons with little anecdotes like “when I was with Miles…” Of course, Miles came up with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and so many other legends. Sitting in that practice room with Mike, I had this feeling of being part of that continuum, which is just incredible. I wanted to soak it all up. It’s the exact same feeling I had when I tasted Napa Cabernets with Bob Parker a decade ago, that feeling that I was receiving something of tremendous value.

With Mike Stern (left) and Brent Mason (right).

As lockdown took hold of our lives, I spent my free time doing all sorts of online courses. The resources that are available to musicians today are just remarkable, as is the range of artists who are accessible through either packaged classes or private instruction, especially now, with live performances pretty much completely gone as a source of income.

I have always loved country music because it is an incredibly fun style to play. Like jazz, country follows a pretty strict adherence to chord changes in improvisation, which is different from say rock or blues, which are more ambiguous. I got my first serious education at Berklee, where I played guitar and mandolin in the school’s country band. 

I started taking lessons from Brent Mason a few months ago, via Skype, a very 2020 experience. One of Nashville’s top session players for the last few decades, Brent is also among the most recorded guitarists in history. His playing has adorned the recordings of some of country music’s biggest stars, including Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain, Blake Shelton and so many more. Although thought of as a country guitar player, Brent is much more than that. His jazz playing alone is tremendous.

Brent is a fabulous teacher as well. A good dose of southern charm runs through our lessons, which are always fun and packed with enough information to last a lifetime. Here, too, there is a feeling of downloading a tremendous amount of knowledge. Brent was first discovered by Chet Akins, who remains a strong influence, but so are players like Lenny Breau and Pat Martino that most people would not associate with the ‘Brent Mason style.’ 

The best part of music is that, unlike some other pursuits, it is something you can do your entire life. You are always a student, and that is a great feeling. As Mike Stern says often with a huge smile  “I just love music. Playing guitar is the greatest, isn’t it?”

So, with that, all of us at Vinous would like to wish you and yours a very Happy New Year. I am confident 2021 is going to be a tremendous year.

Some of the highlights of 2020, starting from top left and moving right, in rows: Our 3D and vineyard block map of Bedrock Vineyard, my Winery of the Year; Winemaker of the Year Tony Biagi; materials for the Vinous Learn Napa Valley seminar focused on Rutherford; this tasting at Radio-Coteau was one of the high points of my trip to Sonoma; a few nice wines enjoyed during lockdown; Conterno Monfortino Magnum Vertical at La Festa del Barolo; the pristine countryside of San Cassiano in Italy's Alto Adige; The Brothers 50th Anniversary Tribute to the Allman Brothers at Madison Square Garden; Festa del Barolo tasting mat signed by all the producers. 

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