The Wines That Helped Me Survive 2020

I am not a fan of journalism-by-list. We can thank Buzzfeed, SEO fanaticism, and the shortening attention span of America for a world where articles with titles that include the words “The 10 Best” are some of the most rabidly consumed content on the internet. Especially when followed by subheads that begin with “You won’t believe….”

The wine world has also long been over-saturated with Top-100-Best lists that do little more than drive prestige-based consumerism and fuel wine producer egos. Such lists, like the endless pages of tasting notes and scores from which they are derived, do little service to most wine consumers.

But here I am making a list for you anyway. Why? Because as I reflected on a year that began with tasting the most recent vintage from Piedmont in New York (with a few thousand wine industry colleagues) and shortly thereafter became 9 months of me sitting at my breakfast table opening samples, I realized just how much pleasure wine has brought to this dumpster fire of a year.

In 2020, wine has done its normal job of smoothing out life’s rough edges and providing a pleasurable font of favorable relaxation. It has also done something else that only wine can do: it has brought a bit of the wide world into my kitchen, giving me the opportunity to travel through space and time via flavor, aroma, and story. Both of these qualities of wine have made the relative isolation and dramatic upheaval of this past year not only tolerable but pleasurable, at least relative to the strangeness of our circumstances.

Of course, I am acutely aware of just how lucky I am. My immediate family’s quarantine has been marked with little worse than an undelivered Thanksgiving bird, a shortage of all-purpose flour, and our shame and disappointment at the state of our country. We have been safe, healthy, insured, and well-fed while so many others have not.

So while perhaps we needed less succor and easement than most, here are a few bottles that shine brilliantly in my memory of a year with more than a few dark clouds obscuring the 12 months through which we have trudged together. These are not necessarily the absolute best wines I had in 2020, but they are certainly the most meaningful.

Happy New Year!

2017 Giovanni Sordo Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy

One of the last “normal” things I can remember doing in 2020 was taking a trip to New York for a production that the Italians dubbed the BBWO – Barolo & Barbaresco World Opening. With a program featuring several days of events and tastings, this was a big-budget affair designed to garner attention for the widely acclaimed 2016 vintage.

One of the activities involved in the event consisted of a set of blind tastings done by panels of wine writers, critics, and industry folks in an attempt to calibrate the vintage and assemble an “overall score” for the vintage. Our panel quickly agreed that the wines they chose to serve blind for this purpose were not particularly stellar examples of the form, and therefore didn’t do the overall vintage quality much justice. However, midway through this tasting, a wine was poured that felt, at the time, like a parting of the heavens.

Finally, after a number of rather prosaic glasses of Nebbiolo, here was a wine that wafted out of the glass and commanded my attention, seducing with charm and beguiling with grace.

Light to medium ruby in the glass, with the barest hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of dried flowers and strawberries. In the mouth, intensely bright, juicy strawberry and dried herb flavors have a wonderful dynamism and brightness with gorgeous balance and length. Supple, powdery-fine tannins dust the edges of the mouth as the wine lingers with great length on the palate.

Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

Located in Castiglione Falletto, Azienda Agricola Giovanni Sordo is a third-generation, traditionalist producer of Barolo. Established in 1912, the estate farms 130 acres of vineyards across eight different crus and five different communes in Barolo.

This wine comes from vineyards in Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso. The grapes are destemmed, and fermented slowly using the submerged-cap method (where a weighted mesh is used to keep the floating skins and seeds under the juice surface) in stainless vats where it stays for 6 months before spending a year in huge Slavonian oak casks.

Even though it isn’t from the storied 2016 vintage, this wine was a high point in the hazy memory of a pre-COVID beginning to the year.

2015 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy

Quite literally the last public wine tasting I attended before the lockdown was the annual tour of Brunello producers through the US, put on by The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group representing the appellation. It had been some time since I had done a comprehensive tasting of Brunello, and it proved immensely comforting to taste through scores of wines that I know and love so much.

While the true superstars of Brunello weren’t in attendance (the most renowned producers have little need for such publicity events) a few reliable favorites were there, including Il Poggione.

A medium, cloudy garnet color in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, flowers and sour cherry aromas. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously bright and juicy with flavors of cherry, sour cherry, and dusty herbal notes all draped in gauzy tannins. Wonderful length and balance with fantastic acidity. Long, persistent finish. 16,600 cases made.

Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

Tenuta Il Poggione is one of the largest estates surrounding the little hill town of Montalcino in central Tuscany. According to familial legend, it was purchased by Lavino Franceschi, a successful Florentine businessman who visited the area in the late 1800s on the advice of a shepherd who wintered his flocks there. As the story goes, Franceschi was so taken by the beauty of the landscape, he bought great swaths of it and transformed himself from a man of the city to a man of the country. In the process, the Franceschi family became one of the founding families of Brunello, helping to establish the region’s modern reputation for wine and pioneering some of its high-quality vineyard management and winemaking techniques.

Brunello has always been a “comfort wine” for me, and one associated with special memories, as it is the first wine region I visited with the woman who would become my wife. Like the Barbaresco, this wine in some ways represents my wine life before the pandemic, something I look back on with more than a little wistfulness these days.

1998 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, Sonoma, California

Eileen Crane has rightfully earned the title of doyenne of California Sparkling Wine. After 42 vintages, 30 of which were spent as the founding CEO and winemaker at Domaine Carneros, she decided to step down, leaving an incredible legacy to her successor Remi Cohen. In an industry that still has far too few female leaders, Crane has quietly been running an extraordinarily tight ship at Domaine Carneros and personally overseeing the production of one of California’s top sparkling wines.

In celebration of her pending retirement, I had the opportunity to sit down with Eileen, as well as to taste through several vintages of Le Rêve, the oldest of which was this 1998, which was showing quite beautifully, especially considering most consider 1998 to be one of the worst vintages in California history.

Medium gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and butterscotch with hints of sea air. In the mouth, dried lemon rind, pineapple, and toasted sourdough have a wonderful kelpy saline quality that along with still-bright acidity keeps the mouth-watering for a long while. Lovely balance, soft mousse, and rich complexity. 12% alcohol.

Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a

In addition to being a gorgeous reminder of the charms that well-aged sparkling wines have to offer, it’s a remarkable wine on several merits. First, that it sees no oak, which is a relative rarity amongst the top sparkling cuvées in California. Second, that it is so generous in a year that most considered a disaster. And third, that it represents one of California’s leading ladies of wine operating at the top of her game.

2001 Marcel Deiss “Engelgarten” White Blend, Bergheim, Alsace, France

This wine qualifies as my best wine purchase of 2020. I don’t precisely remember how I stumbled across these back-vintage bottles from one of my favorite producers in the world, but I was browsing the e-commerce site for one of my local wine retailers and I nearly did a spit take when I saw some 20+year-old Domaine Marcel Deiss bottles available for a song. They had been apparently acquired from a private collector and were being sold for roughly $30 apiece.

Needless to say, I bought just about every bottle they had.

It’s always a little risky to buy previously owned wines, even from a reputable retailer who does their due diligence on provenance, but sometimes you can get lucky, as I did with these gems.

A bright Halloween-orange in color, this wine smells of orange peel, dark honey, and exotic flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet notes of orange blossom syrup, citrus peel, wet pavement, and autumn leaves make for a gorgeous silky concoction. The acidity is filigreed and softening, but still very much a part of the wine. Exotic and alluring. A one-of-a-kind field blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Beurot, Muscat, and Pinot Noir. 12% alcohol.

Score: around 9.5.Cost: $50.

Jean-Michel Deiss is one of the wine world’s old-school mad geniuses. Defiantly labeling his wines with their vineyard names in the only region of France that requires them to be labeled with grape variety, Deiss decided early on that he needed to return his vineyards to what he describes as their traditional state: field blends of many varieties. And he thinks God agreed with him. Why? Because they all ripen at the same time, he says.

A staunch proponent of biodynamic agriculture and low-interventionalist winemaking, Deiss’ wines are simply some of the most individualistic and pleasurable expressions of terroir anywhere on the planet. I pretty much love everything Domaine Marcel Deiss (now run by Deiss and his son Mathieu) produces, and the Engelgarten, in particular, has long been one of my favorite of their wines.

To have an easy chance to drink this wine 20 years on in its life was a singular pleasure in this year where the inclination to stash away treasures like this lost out to the simple desire to drink the good stuff.

2011 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California

I had the opportunity to taste through a number of back vintages from one of my favorite producers in Napa early in the year, and one bottle in particular both stood out in the crowd and stuck with me long after that tasting.

After the 1998 vintage I referenced above, 2011 was perhaps the second most miserable, cold, and wet vintages in decades. Napa, so used to its famously mild summers and relatively uneventful harvests (recent fire seasons notwithstanding) was sent scrambling as mildew and botrytis blossomed in the damp vineyards, that were muddy enough to swallow tractor wheels whole.

It’s the tough years that truly demonstrate which winemakers know what they’re doing, and 2011 was a perfect opportunity to test this maxim. It didn’t hurt that Spottswoode typically harvests their grapes several weeks earlier than many of their neighbors as they aim for slightly fresher wines with lower alcohol levels.

Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, pencil lead, and a touch of green bell pepper. In the mouth, juicy flavors of sour cherry, graphite, and green herbs have a wonderful, silky lightness to them. Very fine-grained, supple tannins wrap around the core of fruit and herbs. Fantastic acidity. A hint of dusty road and dried herbs lingers in the long, floral finish. This wine is aging beautifully. 13.9% alcohol.

Score: around 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.

Spottswoode was founded by Mary Weber Novak, who purchased the historic estate on the edge of St. Helena in 1972 with her husband Jack Novak, who would pass away only a few years later. Mary would go on to single-handedly establish the winery, which is now run by two of her children, CEO Beth Novak Milliken and Marketing Ambassador Lindy Novak.

Farmed organically since 1985, and certified in 1992, Spottswoode is one of Napa’s pioneers when it comes to sustainable viticulture, and has long been one of those estates that simply spares no expense to do things right when it comes to wine quality, while keeping a relatively low profile in a valley full of flashy wines and even flashier architecture. Understated elegance is a phrase that comes to mind, and yet despite such understatement this wine lingered long in my memory of this year’s tastings.

2018 Syncline “Heart of the Hill” Mourvedre, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington

As many of you know, I’ve been writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson’s website for almost 10 years now. Those columns have been editorial in nature, focusing on news and current events in the world of American wine. But since I’ve stepped into wine writing a bit more fully now, having decided to take a break from the corporate world, I have begun to do some wine criticism for Jancis in the form of some regional tasting articles.

The first was a rather comprehensive look at Red Mountain AVA in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. This little hill and the slopes below it play host to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon outside of Napa, yet the wines command only a fraction of the prices that Napa now demands.

While Red Mountain made its reputation on the Cabernet grown there, increasingly Rhône varieties have been successful, as several of the wines I tasted from the region showed.

Perhaps my favorite wine of the tasting was a Mourvedre made by one of my favorite producers in Washington, the little family-run label Syncline Winery.

Medium garnet in color this wine smells of mulberries and forest herbs. In the mouth, incredibly juicy mulberry, blackberry, and chopped herb flavors dance across the palate thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins dust the edge of the mouth as citrusy, and even slightly saline flavors just end up making the mouth water. Delicious. Fermented in open-top fermenters and then aged in neutral 500-liter French oak puncheons for 15 months. Contains 5% Syrah. 14.3% alcohol. 200 cases made.

Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

Syncline is the life’s work of James and Poppie Mentone, a husband and wife who fell in love working a harvest together at a custom crush facility and now own a small farm near the Columbia River that employs biodynamic practices. They make small lots of exquisitely tended wines from their own estate fruit as well as from vineyards around Washington State. Their wines are foot-trodden, fermented with ambient yeasts, and aged in concrete or large-format barrels. I love pretty much everything they make, but this Mourvedre is particularly special, and stood out, even in a remarkably strong field of wines from Red Mountain.

2019 Parés Baltà “Cosmic” Xarel-lo, Penedes, Spain

Certainly one of the great pleasures of being a wine writer and critic remains the fact that very interesting wines sometimes show up on the doorstep. Perhaps one of the most memorable sets of wines that arrived this year were the wines from Parés Baltà, a producer in the Penedes region of Spain.

Run by two brothers and their enologist wives (who collaborate on the winemaking), Parès Baltà has been farming biodynamically since 2012, and makes both Cava as well as number of very interesting still wines.

Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melting snow, white flowers, and green apple. In the mouth, green apple and white floral flavors are welded to a deeply mineral, wet chalkboard quality that extends to a faint drying, tannic texture as the wine finishes with hints of pomelo pith and chamomile. Gorgeous. Includes 15% Sauvignon Blanc. 14.1% alcohol.

Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

My favorite of the wines they sent me was this blend of the traditional Cava grape Xarel-lo and Sauvignon Blanc grown in some of their highest elevation vineyards. The grapes are picked and then macerated on the skins for a few hours before pressing into steel tanks to ferment with ambient yeasts.

I loved this wine, and several others in their portfolio for their sheer mineral expression. And at 10€ a bottle, it’s perhaps one of the best values I tasted this year, even after the markup to $20 when imported to the US.

2017 Edmunds St. John “El Jaleo – Shake Ridge Ranch” Red Blend, Amador County, Sierra Foothills, California

In June I wrote a profile of a Bay Area legend, winemaker Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John winery. Steve has been plying his craft in Berkeley and Oakland for decades, and is rightfully recognized as being one of the original Rhône Rangers for making Mourvedre in California before most people had even heard of that grape variety.

Edmunds hasn’t ever changed his European-inspired winemaking style, despite the ups and downs of stylistic preferences that have characterized California winemaking for the past 25 years. Indeed, he’s largely been making the same few wines every year without fail (a lovely Gamay, a rosé, a white wine, a red blend, and a couple of Syrahs), changing only a vineyard source or two when circumstances required it.

Recently, however, he introduced a couple of new wines to his portfolio, including what I consider to be a complete showstopper of a wine, one which interestingly deviates from his primarily Rhône-inspired lineup.

Edmunds found himself inspired by a fellow winemaker’s efforts with Tempranillo, and having already worked with fruit from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County, Edmunds persuaded the vineyard owner to give him some Tempranillo and Graciano to play with. He blended it with his beloved Mourvedre and Grenache, ending up with a wine that I simply find thrilling.

Medium ruby in the glass with a touch of purple remaining, this wine has a slightly shy nose of plum and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy notes of plum and boysenberry mix with the zingy brightness of alpine strawberry. Floated on top of this frothy fruit concoction are notes of dried flower petals and herbs. Faint tannins buff the edges of the mouth, as the wine kicks the salivary glands into overdrive. A blend of 14% Tempranillo, 26% Graciano, 32% Mourvedre, and 28% Grenache. 13% alcohol. 270 cases made.

Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

Somehow the Tempranillo and Graciano add an electricity to deeper tones of Mourvedre and the sweet fruit of Grenache making the whole package zing to a sum that is more than its parts. Edmunds named the wine after the painting by Jean Singer Sargent that he selected for the label. Jaleo literally translates as “a ruckus” but also references a famous historical dance known as Jaleo de Jerez.

Delicious, reasonably priced, and a wonderful testament to an accomplished winemaker who isn’t content resting on his laurels.

Suigei “5 Mann” Junmai Daiginjo Sake, Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan

A couple of years ago I took a press trip to the island of Shikoku to explore the sake culture of this little island that dangles below the main part of Japan like an appendix. Shikoku has four prefectures, and we spent most of our time in Ehime and Kochi prefectures.

The weather wasn’t fantastic—it being January, that was hardly expected—but traipsing around sake breweries for a week was positively delightful. Sake brewing generally requires cold temperatures, which reduce the amount of airborne bacteria and yeasts that might end up adversely affecting the delicate open-air fermentation of sake. So we bundled up and trundled around to see what was brewing in Shikoku

One of my favorite stops on this trip was the family-run Suigei Brewery in Kochi Prefecture. Unlike many sake breweries that can have 400 or even 600 years of history, Suigei is a mere 50 years old, having been started by the grandfather of the current president, Matsumoto Okura, the second son who came back to take over the family business after the first son decided it wasn’t for him. I found Okura-san remarkable for his ability to, on the one hand, maintain a strict commitment to the highest standards of traditional sake brewing techniques including the use of locally grown rice strains (a rarity in the world of sake), while at the same time having an incredibly progressive and savvy grasp of marketing and sales.

This sake smells of white flowers like tuberose and gardenia and has a slippery, faint malted-milk character with notes of sweet cream. Gorgeous, refined, perfectly balanced, and pure, like sunlight filtering through winter trees newly covered in snowfall. It is made with the fairly ubiquitous yamada nishiki sake rice, but the winery selects only the top-grade selections of the new crop and polishes each grain down to 30% of its former mass, significantly more than the 50% minimum required for the daiginjo grade.

Score: around 9.5. Cost: $129. CLICK TO BUY.

Suigei literally means “drunken whale,” hence the stunning bottle design with the whale’s tail (not to mention lots of other fun whale stuff at the winery), a clear indication that Okura-san has a firm grasp on the value of branding (again, not something commonly found in the sake industry).

To make a long story short, while at the brewery, I purchased a bottle of their top sake, the “5 Mann” (literally translated to the number 50,000) Junmai Daiginjo, and carried it back with me in my suitcase. This seemed like the year to bust it out, which I did for my wedding anniversary in April.

While not made with the local strain of rice, this was still a distinctive expression of the refined subtlety for which this brewery is known, and a fabulous example of what Shikoku sake does at its best.

1984 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California

There are great wines, and then there are epic wines. Wines that give you whiplash as they grab you by the ears and drag you back to the glass and your existence narrows to a tunnel of flavors and aromas and textures that carry you away someplace sensational.

I was lucky enough to spend a little bit of time on the hillside that hosts the Ridge winery and the Monte Bello estate during harvest this year. It was something of a surreal experience given that the normally spectacular views were occluded with smoke from the wildfires and the normally busy tasting room was only doing contactless wine pickups for those willing to brave the long, winding road in pursuit of a few bottles.

COO and Monte Bello winemaker Eric Baugher was generous enough to sit down with me for a few hours to talk about the hazards of the vintage, and to share some bottles from the library, of which this was the shining star.

I’ve had my share of older vintages of Monte Bello, all of which have been excellent, and many of which have been stellar. The 1995 vintage, also from the library at Ridge a number of years ago, stands out as a particularly memorable bottle.

But none have been the equal of this particular bottle in its perfect expression of everything Monte Bello has to offer.

Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells alluringly of bacon fat and forest floor with intense, deep aromas of garrigue and pencil lead or shaved graphite. In the mouth, beautifully variegated dried herbs, forest floor, dried cherry and cedar flavors swirl across the palate in a savory, ethereal stream. Fantastic acidity, along with a faint saline quality, kicks the saliva glands into overdrive as billowing velvety tannins cushion the whole sumptuous feast of flavor in a warm embrace. Simply stunning. 93% Cabernet, 7% Merlot. 12.9% alcohol.

Score: a perfect 10 if there ever was one. Cost $570. CLICK TO BUY.

Ridge Vineyards, and its flagship wine the Monte Bello Cabernet, need little introduction for most lovers of California wine. The 1971 vintage was the red that bested the Bordeaux First Growths in the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976 (as well as in all subsequent recreations).

Started at the site of an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a group of engineers from the Stanford Research Institute in 1962, Ridge Vineyards has been making some of California’s most distinctive wines for decades. Under the winemaking leadership of Paul Draper, the winery practices what Draper likes to call pre-industrial winemaking. Ambient yeasts, low sulfur additions, no filtration, and only occasional fining with egg whites are the primary tools of the trade at Ridge, other than gentle handling of the fruit and careful temperature control at key stages of the winemaking process.

Ridge was purchased in 1987 by the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company of Japan, which somewhat miraculously, has done nothing to steer the course of the winery but request that it continue to make good wine and not lose money.

The winery keeps producing three of what I consider to be California’s greatest wines every year: the Monte Bello Cabernet, and the two field blends Geyserville and Lytton Springs, which continue to be a living testament to California’s winemaking history.

Monte Bello, though, is truly one-of-a-kind, and it’s not hard to say that this ’84 was easily the best single thing I had in my glass this year.

May the year to come offer many more such delicious things for us all, along with the opportunity to do the one thing that would have made all this wine even better: share it with a wider group of friends and family.

Here’s to a new and better year of flavors!