The Year in Review – 2018


Two thousand eighteen was a fabulous year full of highlights. More than anything else, though, as I type this, I realize how extraordinarily fortunate I am to do what I love more than anything each and every day for work. I hope readers will enjoy this look back at 2018. If you don’t, it is all Neal Martin’s fault – he pushed me to write about my favorite experiences of the year. 

Wine of the Year – 2014 Produttori del Barbaresco Riservas

Aldo Vacca and his team turned out a superb set of Riservas in 2014. The wines are rich, deeply expressive and full of character. Moreover, at a time when so many of world’s most pedigreed bottles are out of reach for the average consumer, the Produttori continue to make gorgeous wines that deliver superb quality for the money. The nine vineyard-designate Riservas give the wine lover a terrific opportunity to explore the essence of many of Barbaresco’s most important crus. Best of all, the Riservas arguably remain the single greatest relative value in fine, cellarworthy wine. To that, I say: Bravo!

Tasting the 2014 Produttori del Barbaresco Riservas prior to release 

Wines of the Year – Honorable Mentions

These are some of the most memorable wines I tasted in 2018. They aren’t necessarily the rarest or most expensive wines, but rather the bottles that left the deepest impressions on me, often because of context. With older wines, it always comes down to who I drank those bottles with and the beauty of specific moments in time. Wines are listed in chronological and alphabetical order. 

2016 Blankiet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Mythicus Paradise Hills Vineyard – Graeme MacDonald built on the strong base left by Denis and May-Britt Malbec at the time of Denis Malbec’s untimely passing and has now taken Blankiet to the next level.

2016 Colgin Cariad – The component wines from barrel were extraordinary, so it is hardly a surprise the bottled wine is epic.

2016 Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir Bloom's Field – Are the 2016s at Domaine de la Côte freaks of nature or indicative of where these wines are headed in the future? We will soon find out. 

2016 Screaming Eagle – The 2016 is a wine I have followed pretty much over its entire life so far, from sampling the separate lots during fermentation, to tasting the component wines in barrel prior to blending, and most recently seeing that all come together in the finished wine. The 2016 has always been distinguished by its tremendous purity.

2016 The Hilt Pinot Noir Old Guard – Matt Dees and his team The Hilt turn out striking Chardonnays and Pinots that deserve more attention.

2016 Rhys Pinot Noir Horseshoe Vineyard – An absolutely breathtaking, captivating Pinot Noir from proprietor Kevin Harvey, winemaker Jeff Brinkman and the team at Rhys.

2016 Sottimano Barbaresco Pajorè – Sottimano’s 2016 Barbarescos are fabulous. It is hard to wrong with any of the wines, although the Pajorè is especially of note.

2016 VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon –  I have said it before, but it bears repeating. One of the most remarkable things about Vine Hill Ranch is the component wines that aren’t bottled here. One taste of those wines is enough to understand the quality of what goes into the final blend.

2016 Pax Syrah Sonoma-Hillsides – The 2016 made a deep impression on me the first time I tasted it. Every bottle since then has been unforgettable.

2015 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 30th Vintage Sanford & Benedict Vineyard – A simply stunning wine from Jim Clendenen. 

2015 Canon – The 2015 Canon has always been tremendous, but the best bottle was one I drank, rather than tasted, this past spring. Some wines need to be fully experienced to be truly appreciated. The 2015 Canon is one of them.

2015 Castello di Ama L'Apparita – A stellar showing from Castello di Ama’s flagship Merlot.

2015 Ceritas Pinot Noir Trout Gulch – A stunning Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir from John Raytek and Phoebe Bass.

2015 Giacomo Conterno Nebbiolo d’Alba – Roberto Conterno’s one-off Nebbiolo d’Alba from the Arione vineyard is one of the most profound wines he has ever made. The tiny production of one small cask was bottled only in large formats and will be sold only at charity auctions. 

2015 Fèlsina Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia – If Tuscany had a formal vineyard classification Rancia would be a Grand Cru. The 2015 is truly special. 

2015 Miani Sauvignon Saurint – A drop-dead gorgeous bottle from Enzo Pontoni. What a total pleasure it was to indulge in this fabulous white from Friuli's Colli Orientali.

2015 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte – This reference point Sangiovese is every bit as spectacular from bottle as it was from barrel.

2015 Mugneret-Gibourg Vosne-Romanée – An absolutely joyous, delicious Burgundy that shows just how compelling the vintage is, even among the humbler appellations.

2015 Next of Kyn No. 9 Cumulus Vineyard – Elaine and Manfred Krankl will forever be mostly linked with Sine Qua Non, but I absolutely adore the Cumulus wines they are making at their home ranch in Oak View. 

2015 Occidental Pinot Noir Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine – Steve Kistler’s 2015 Occidental Pinots are off the charts.

2015 San Giusto a Renetennano La Ricolma – San Giusto turned out a spectacular edition of their 100% Merlot in 2015. 

2015 Tyler Chardonnay (Santa Barbara) – Tyler’s appellation level Chardonnay shows just how compelling Santa Barbara Chardonnays can be.

2015 Vieux Château Certan – There aren’t too many properties anywhere in the world that are hotter than VCC today. The 2015 is a spectacular, riveting wine of the highest level.

2014 Promontory – Promontory has always been slow to reveal itself. The 2014 is a total stunner from the team led by David Cilli.

2013 Cecilia Monte Barbaresco Serracapelli Dedicato a Paolo – Cecilia Monte, a small grower in Neive, continues to up her game. This is her best wine yet. 

2013 Cédric Bouchard – Rose de Saignée Creux d’Enfer – There is nothing I enjoy more than drinking great wines with my parents. The 2013 Creux d’Enfer was sublime.

2010 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru – An epic wine that is now impossible to find and dizzyingly expensive. I only hope I get a chance to taste it when it has gained the complexity in bottle it needs to be at its best.

2010 Domaine d'Auvenay Mazis Chambertin Grand Cru – The 2010 has never been anything less than profound, as it is once again at a tasting this summer at Domaine Leroy.

2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru – The 2010 remains one of my all-time favorite vintages of DRC’s Montrachet for its focus, energy and crystalline precision. What a wine! 

2010 Kapcsándy Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Vin – An absolutely riveting showing from this wine at my masterclass at 76 Pall Mall in London this past spring.

2010 Le Piane Boca – This gorgeous Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo-based red is just starting to enter its stride.

2010 Raveneau Chablis Valmur Grand Cru – I served the 2010 Valmur recently at a charity dinner. The 2010 is a profound, emotionally moving white Burgundy. There is not much else to add. 

2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru – OK, so the 2008 is not the greatest white Burgundy I have ever tasted, but I guessed the vintage when the wine was served blind at the domaine, so allow me a moment of self-congratulation.

2008 Dom Pérignon – In the vintage that will forever represent the transition between retiring Chef de Caves Richard Geoffroy and his protégé, Vincent Chaperone, Dom Pérignon hit it out of the park.

2008 Roederer Cristal and Cristal Rosé – Chef de Caves Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon and his team crafted not one, but two, Champagnes of historic proportions in 2008.

2007 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Riserva Selezionata Brunata – I was delighted to open this bottle for my mates in London, and thrilled they enjoyed it as much as they did. 

2005 Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot – A real pleasure to drink this bottle with one of my classmates from business school.

1993 Comtes de Vogüé Musigny Grand Cru and Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru – Needless to say, the opportunity to taste the two de Vogüé flagship wines side by side does not come up too often. I have always adored the 1993 vintage for red Burgundy. These two wines are simply spectacular.

1993 Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Bèze Grand Cru – A magnificent wine I have had many times, the 1993 was hauntingly beautiful in London this past spring. Epic.

1989 Cappellano Barolo – One of the great wines in our Cappellano Barolo dinner in London. 

1988 Salon – The 1988 can be inconsistent, but when it is on, it is tremendous. This magnum was simply off the charts.

1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Arione – In 1978 Bruno Giacosa crafted a sublime wine of transcendental beauty from the Arione vineyard. 

1976 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon – Paul Draper and Eric Baugher served me a number of gorgeous older wines on a recent visit, including the stunningly beautiful 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1971 Eisele Cabernet remains a dream… 

1974 Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – I drank this at one of my best friend’s weddings. The 1974 remains an epic Napa Valley Cabernet.

1971 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo – With the news of Beppe Rinaldi’s grave condition making the rounds, Il Professore and I wanted to share a bottle of Rinaldi Barolo. The 1971 was made by Beppe’s father, Battista, and was a real treat to drink.

1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Il Professore asked me what he should bring for dinner. I replied the 1970 Monfortino, never thinking in my wildest dreams he would bring it. And there it was….

1967 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Asili – The 1967 is starting to fade, but it remains a stunning reminder of Bruno Giacosa's brilliant legacy. The 1967 was the first wine Giacosa made from Asili, a vineyard that would inform a number of his most epic wines.

1961 La Mission Haut-Brion – I have been fortunate to drink the 1961 a few times, Its depth, textural richness and persistence are simply jaw-dropping.

1955 Latour – A wine of sophistication, polish and pure sensuality. Unforgettable.

1947 Pontet-Canet – A real treat to taste this from the chateau’s own cellar.

1945 Maison Leroy Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru – How can a white Burgundy of this age be so magnificent?I have no idea, but it was a fitting conclusion to an epic tasting of Leroy wines spanning vintages 2010 to 1937 this summer.

1945 Mouton-Rothschild – The 1945 Mouton was unreal for its complexity, personality and timeless, transcendental beauty.

Good things come in threes: Giacosa's 1967 Barbaresco Riserva Asili, an ungodly amount of white truffles and a spectacular dinner at La Ciau del Tornavento

Value Wine of the Year

2015 Pagliarese Chianti Classico – Pagliarese, a new wine from the team at Fèlsina, is a super classic Chianti Classico that incorporates dollops of Canaiolo, Mammolo and Colorino to complement Sangiovese and is aged cask. The debut 2015 is stellar, and the 2016 is right behind it. 

Meal of the Year

Saison (San Francisco) – Saison and newly arrived Chef Laurent Gras went all out for an intimate charity dinner that we auctioned off at La Festa del Barolo to benefit children’s oncology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. I have had the pleasure of eating at Saison on a few occasions. On this night, everything was elevated into the realm of the truly sublime.

Honorable Mentions: Jean-Georges (New York), SingleThread (Healdsburg), Racine (Reims), The Ledbury (London), Hedone (London), La Ciau del Tornavento (Treiso), San Domenico (Imola), Il Cascinale Nuovo (Isola d’Asti), Il Silene (Seggiano) and All'Androna (Grado).

Raiding the cellar at San Domenico, Imola 

Most Educational Winery Visit of the Year

Vietti (Castiglione Falletto) – Tasting through the core lots in the Barolo Castiglione and the single-vineyard Barolos in cask and bottle across multiple vintages provides an incredible opportunity to understand how the various crus in the range show in different kinds of vintages and how they develop over time.

Tasting through all the single-vineyard Barolos and Barolo Castiglione lots across multiple vintages at Vietti is always a fascinating experience 

Honorable Mentions: Vine Hill Ranch (Oakville), Roederer (Reims)

Most Educational Experience of the Year 

One morning, I was having breakfast with Philip Norfleet, Director of the Napa Valley Reserve. We were discussing a series of events and tastings for 2018 and 2019. I had this crazy idea. I asked Norfleet if I could blend a barrel of wine at the Reserve to auction off for charity. “Let me ask around,” was the reply. “I will get back to you soon.” I could not tell if he thought it was a good idea or not, but I was energized. A few hours later I had my response. When I showed up at the Reserve a few days later, I was astonished to see a huge lineup of 2016 and 2017 component wines. I thought we would do one vintage, but I had two vintages to taste through. I was frankly pretty terrified. Bob Levy, Harlan’s Director of Winegrowing, and Marco Gressi, the Reserve's Winemaker, looked on as I tasted the 2016s blind. I felt so out my element. I worked through the samples and first eliminated wines I thought were not interesting. Then I focused on one or two that I thought could be good building block wines. From there, Levy and Gressi helped me put together a first blend, which we then tweaked a few times. I imagine Levy and Gressi probably enjoyed watching me struggle through this exercise! I would have, too. A few months later, we tasted the blend again and made the final adjustments. The 2017 was far more difficult. I found one wine I absolutely adored. Naturally, the Reserve is very tight-lipped about the sources of some of their vineyards. But this was clearly a great wine. In fact, everything I added to it made it worse. So, in 2017, there is no blend at all! Just one barrel of a tremendous Cabernet Sauvignon from a benchland vineyard on gravel. We have one barrel of each, and all the wine will be sold for charity.

Building the blends for my 2016 and 2017 Napa Valley Cabernets at the Napa Valley Reserve

Tasting of the Year

Two thousand eighteen was full of incredible tastings. The year started with charity tastings I co-hosted of Opus One in Naples and Massetto in Nashville. Both were memorable. February brought another fabulous edition of our La Festa del Barolo. We had our most successful charity auction ever and raised $229,000 for childrens’ oncology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. May started with three events in London: a 1996 Bordeaux retrospective that I led with Neal Martin, a Cappellano vertical back to 1971 and a small private event at 67 Pall Mall. Three nights in Los Angeles later in the month witnessed a Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne vertical, a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet dinner and a DRC birthday party that redefined the entire concept of BYOB. September brought with it back-to-back nights full of historic wines, including some of the most coveted wines on the planet. 

This flight of wines from Luciano Sandrone was one of the highlights from our recent event at Legacy Records

But in all of that, one night in particular stands out, and it is the Piedmont event we hosted at the Legacy Records Test Kitchen. I chose wines from five producers – Bartolo Mascarello, Cappellano, Luciano Sandrone, Giacomo Conterno and Bruno Giacosa. All the wines were phenomenal, but what I remember most about that night is what a great time our guests had. Sharing beautiful wines and creating memories is what our events are all about.

Honorable Mention

My Ten Wines that Changed my Life Masterclass was one our best tastings ever, and the report from that night was one of the most popular articles we have ever published.

Gott's Roadside took top honors for best burger in our article: Best Kids' Meals in Napa Valley. The Burger, Ahi Burger, Fries and Onion Rings are all Gott's classics

Favorite Article I Wrote in 2018

This one is easy: Best Kids’ Meals in Napa Valley, which I wrote with my son, Giulio, was the result of a week eating out in Napa Valley. In reality, I had the idea last year, but it became fully crystallized this past summer. We were both gratified that Vinous readers responded so positively!

Julian Van Winkle and Kerrin Laz watch as I plate blinis with caviar

Favorite Moment of the Year

Inspire Napa Valley – I was thrilled to serve on the Honorary Committee for the inaugural edition of Inspire Napa Valley, along with Brad Grimes, Ray Isle, Samantha Rudd, David & Monica Stevens and Fran Tarkenton. The brainchild of Kerrin Laz, Inspire Napa Valley is a weekend of fabulous tastings, seminars and dinners held to benefit Alzheimers’ research. In its first edition, INV raised over $1 million. The weekend started with an intimate dinner served outdoors in David Abreu’s Las Posadas Vineyard on Howell Mountain. Longtime Abreu Winemaker Brad Grimes, a former professional chef, and his wife, Katherine, a private chef, prepared a fabulous meal. I had a great time helping out in the kitchen with the plating and serving of dinner. It was a classic Napa Valley day, with a warm, sunny afternoon that gently melted into a cool, chilly night. Above all else, though, it was one of those rare magical moments in life where everything feels just perfect.

Brad Grimes working the grill as David Abreu looks on

The following morning I led a VIP seminar at Press with panelists Celia Welch, Mary Maher, Bruce Philipps, Graeme MacDonald and Willi Scherer. Each panelist presented two wines that had been important to them in their personal journey in wine. Guests spent the afternoon at a walk around tasting at the Culinary Institute of America that was probably the single most impressive gathering of estates and wines I have ever seen in one place. Dinner and a charity auction, also at the CIA, were a fabulous opportunity to share numerous gorgeous wines and a delicious dinner, all while raising money for charity. It was a tremendous weekend all around.

A unforgettable dinner at David Abreu’s Las Posadas ranch on Howell Mountain

Honorable Mentions

I am privileged to work alongside a team of super-talented professionals. Spending ten days with Alessandro Masnaghetti visiting vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Valley was an incredible experience. And Alessandro is the only person in the world who can get me to enjoy drinking Coke, but only from a bottle….

A rendering of Monte Rosso, one of Sonoma’s most storied vineyards, from the forthcoming Vinous Map: The Vineyards of Sonoma Valley, scheduled for publication in May 2019

Barolo 2014 – Having this vintage, one I have always believed in, dedicated to me, was a great honor. 

Tasting (I should say drinking) the 2014 Barolo from the Enoteca Regionale with Ferran Adrià at the Castello di Grinzane Cavour

Being nominated an honorary knight of the Order of Knights of the White Truffle and Wines of Alba this past fall was tremendous fun. Roberto Conterno and I were inducted in the same class and took turns interviewing each other in a small ceremony on an appropriately cold and foggy night in Treiso. Special thanks to Alessandro Masnaghetti for nudging me along on this over the years. 

Traditional local pageantry leading to the highly anticipated truffle auction this past fall

Most Difficult Moment of The Year

Driving through Santa Rosa's Coffee Park in January, three months after fires devastated this residential neighborhood in Sonoma.

Santa Rosa’s Coffee Park neighborhood was devasted during the October 2017 fires

Best Gig of the Year

Eric Johnson at Sony Hall with Tommy Taylor and Kyle Brock. What a show. The power trio is the hardest musical format to pull off because there is simply no room to hide. Everything is exposed. On this night, Johnson offered a set of his classics, including a complete performance of his signature album, Ah, Via Musicom. Johnson is revered among guitar fans for his ability to conjure up a vast range of arrestingly beautiful tones. By often changing his pickup configurations and sounds throughout a song, sometimes even from phrase to phrase, Johnson creates a masterful illusion of sound, the impression that there is more than just one guitar player on stage.

Eric Johnson live at Sony Hall

Best Wine and Music Moment

This category was especially rich in 2018. Co-hosting a complete Masseto vertical at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville with Winemaker Axel Heinz and Singer/Songwriter Martina McBride and her husband, Producer John McBride, was a real thrill for this country music fan. Vinous readers may find it hard to believe, but I played electric guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin in Berklee’s Country Music Ensemble for two years. What a fun time that was. Drinking a pristine bottle of the 1955 Latour at a Dead & Company show at Citi Field was an amazing experience. The other wines that night were pretty special too...

A fabulous set of wines at Citi Field

But the award goes to my visit to the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville the day before the Masseto vertical mentioned above. Walking through the shop floor and seeing all of Gibson’s rich history on display was a real thrill. I also had a chance to play a number of instruments. One in particular stood out. There are a few things I look for in electric guitars; volume, resonance, intonation and feel are the most important. A cherry red 1961 SG/Les Paul re-issue had all of those qualities in spades. I didn’t even need to plug it in. As soon as I picked it up, I knew I was going to buy it. 

The moment I picked up this 1961 SG/Les Paul re-issue, I knew I had to have it

In Closing…

As the year draws to a close, I would like to thank our readers around the world for giving us the opportunity to do what we do. I have always believed that companies are ultimately owned by their customers. We remain deeply grateful for your support, and look forward to an even greater 2019!

Inspire Napa Valley photos by Bob McClenahan