2019 – The Year in Review


Two thousand nineteen was up and down, with a ton of highlights and some challenges, too. In the end, though, tasting wine for a living and running Vinous are two enormous privileges. While I could give readers a long list of super-rare wines I had in 2019, this list is all about Moments. Specific events that were about much more than just wine….

The Best Wines of 2019

I was fortunate to taste many extraordinary wines in 2019. These are a few current releases that stand out because they really enter the realm of the sublime and truly profound.

Red – San Giusto a Rentennano 2016 Merlot La Ricolma. The Martini di Cigala family has done an extraordinary job with their 100% Merlot La Ricolma over the last handful of years, culminating with the stunning 2016 that is every bit as monumental as the 2015. The story behind La Ricolma and how it came to be, really by accident, is covered in this recent retrospective

White – Vincent Dauvissat 2017 Chablis Les Preuses Grand Cru. Dauvissat’s 2017 Preuses is the archetype of contemporary Chablis – rich, sumptuous and dazzling in its stature, and yet it so Chablis, so Dauvissat and so Preuses.

Champagne – 2008 Salon. All the purity and crystalline beauty of Chardonnay from Mesnil reaches dizzying heights in the 2008 Salon. Sadly, the entire production is just 8,000 magnums. The decision to bundle the 2008 with other vintages in a special wood box priced in the stratosphere displeased a great many Champagne collectors. As for the wine, though, there is no denying its greatness.

Under the Radar Find Château de Millery. This small Saint-Émilion property owned by the Manoncourt family of Figeac has dazzled since 2016, the first vintage the Manoncourts began commercially distributing in earnest. Exquisitely refined, Millery represents the height of sophistication in Saint-Émilion.

Best Value Under $25 – 2017 Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah Coast To Foothills. In 2017, Bedrock bottled only one vineyard-designate Syrah (a superb Bien Nacido); all the rest of the juice went into the 2017 Syrah Coast To Foothills, which is the former North Coast Syrah bottling with a new name, as it now includes a bit of fruit from Shake Ridge, which is in Amador County.

Best Value Under $50 – 2017 Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). Peter Heitz has done a superb job at Turnbull in elevating the wines into the stratosphere in recent years. The estate’s Napa Valley Cabernet is a stunning wine for the money.

Winery of the Year – Au Bon Climat. Jim Clendenen showed me a range of breathtaking wines this past summer. Over the years, Clendenen has inspired or directly mentored many of the new generation of winemakers in Santa Barbara. Ironically, Clendenen’s wines come across as quite flamboyant next to those of his disciples. To me they represent the very essence of Santa Barbara.

Emerging Winemaker of the Year – Rebecca George, Kelly Fleming Wines. The aim with this award is to recognize a winemaker who is doing fabulous work, but who is not yet well known. Rebecca George embodies those qualities perfectly. Her resume includes stints at Marcassin, Méo-Camuzet, Schramsberg and Williams Selyem. Since taking over as winemaker at Kelly Fleming in 2013, George has elevate this small Calistoga estate to a whole new level. George has the benefit of working alongside Vineyard Manager Mike Wolf and Consulting Winemaker Françoise Peschon, but the Kelly Fleming Cabernet is her wine. It has been one of Napa Valley’s under the radar gems since the 2015 vintage. George also makes a small amount of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir under her own label, Mojave. She is without question one of the most talented winemakers of her generation.

Winemaker Rebecca George. Photo courtesy of Emma K. Morris.

Tasting of the Year (Tie)

I tasted a lot of superb wines in 2019 and attended more than my fair share of ridiculous tastings, most of them chronicled here on Vinous. But a few tastings stand out because of their deep personal significance. These are two nights I will never forget.

A stunning array of Rinaldi Barolos from magnum lined up at NoMad rooftop.

Giuseppe Rinaldi Retrospective at NoMad. Many of Piedmont’s older guard have passed away over the last 10-15 years, but Beppe Rinaldi’s death in 2018 was especially hard to deal with because of the way he embodied the deep culture of Piedmont and all of its multifaceted strands of nuance. I was thrilled to host a comprehensive vertical with wines back to 1978 as part of La Festa del Barolo. For the occasion, I served the super-rare pure Barolo Brunate, a wine that is not sold commercially, all from magnum. Daughters Marta and Carlotta Rinaldi added immeasurably to the evening with their commentary and family anecdotes. Best of all, the wines were just magnificent.

This remarkable tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's Montrachet was one of the highlights of 2019.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Dinner at the Pool. This tasting and dinner, held to benefit children's’ oncology at The Mount Sinai Hospital, was off the charts. When all was said and done, we tasted through a mind-boggling 22 vintages of the domaine’s iconic Montrachet. More than the wine and the superb food, the night was all about bringing people together for a great cause, one of the things I love most about wine.

Meal of the Year – Mãos. It’s a tough call this year, but Mãos gets my vote for the most memorable meal of 2019. This small 16-seat restaurant makes guests feel like they are part of the dining experience rather than just diners. Executive Chef Edoardo Pellicano is creative and brilliantly talented well beyond his years. For readers visiting or living in London, dinner at Mãos is a must.

Beef fat aged lobster, gooseberries and cherry tomatoes at Mãos.

Honorary Mentions

Saison. Saison might suffer a bit only because I have been there quite a few times. Even so, my last dinner, a charity dinner held to benefit children's oncology at The Mount Sinai Hospital, with wines from my cellar, was off the charts. It will be interesting to see how Saison reinvents itself now that Executive Chef Laurent Gras has announced he is moving to New York.

La Ferme de La Ruchotte. Located about 20 minutes outside of Beaune, La Ferme de la Ruchotte is a small, fully working, organic farm nestled in a rustic, bucolic corner of Burgundy that makes for a nice break from the town center and its surrounding wine villages. Chef Frédéric Ménager specializes in raising his own animals, especially birds, which are sublime here.

Best Events of the Year

Festa del Barolo. Yes, I am biased. Naturally. But La Festa del Barolo was truly fabulous this year. Fifteen reference point growers, the world’s most passionate Barolo lovers, a rock-star team of sommeliers and a stunning setting at Del Posto made for an unforgettable weekend.

Festa del Barolo growers gather just before the 2014 Masterclass.

Inspire Napa Valley.
 In its second edition, Inspire Napa Valley raised over $1.3m for Alzheimer’s research. We kicked off the weekend with a small dinner at Rudd Estate in Oakville prepared by Katherine and Brad Grimes, along with a team of all-star winemakers, and a bit of help from yours truly. On Saturday morning I had the privilege of leading a seminar at the Napa Valley Reserve with panelists Ray Isle, Andy Erickson, Robin Lail and Remi Cohen. Later that evening we gathered for the Main Event dinner and charity auction, which saw a mouthwatering array of lots auctioned off for charity. It was an incredible weekend.

Brad Grimes cooking ducks over the rotisserie at Rudd Estate on the opening night of Inspire Napa Valley.

Grand Cru. Once again I had the great honor of participating in Grand Cru, which raised over $30m for Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation. The open bar on the first night of the weekend saw an astonishing range of First Growth Bordeaux and Burgundies offered to guests. Working that bar is always a highlight. This year was certainly no exception. We had such a blast. I moderated a lunch the next day featuring a selection of 
2005 Hermitage followed by a Jaboulet La Chapelle vertical that was off the charts. Saturday's headline dinner, prepared by an all-star team of chefs led by Daniel Boulud, Gilles Goujon, Jason Bangerter, Léo Troisgros and César Troisgros, was magnificent. The after party in the kitchen was a beautifully spontaneous moment that captured the essence of what food and wine at its best inspires.

Late-night snacks in the kitchen with Chefs Scott Bangerter, Daniel Boulud and César Troisgros at Grand Cru.

Best Non-Wine Moment of the Year (It’s a Tie)

Waverunning with Isabella. Taking my nine-year-old for a ride on a waverunner is always a highlight of the trip to see the grandparents in Florida. “Daddy, I have a need for speed,” she told me recently. “Let’s see how fast we can go.” And so, we did. Oh yeah, the kid’s got a great palate, a ton of intellectual curiosity and an outgoing personality. Meet the future CEO of Vinous.

Isabella has her pick of waverunners.

Building a pedalboard with Giulio. I have always had a passion for electronics. As a kid, I loved taking things apart and putting them back together. Well, most of the time I was able to put them back together. When I was in my teens, most guitar pedals were made by big companies. The 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of small, artisan shops creating all sorts of innovative pedals, in a similar vein to what we saw in wine with the emergence of high-quality, domaine bottlers. So, that’s mostly what’s on this board. A bunch of my favorites, mostly from boutique shops. We had a great time putting the board together and making everything fit. (For guitar geeks: The board itself is Templeboard. It is run by two Strymon power supplies that are mounted underneath. The signal chain is: Dunlop Wah, Keeley Compressor Plus, Ikon Archer, Klon KTR, Hermida Zen Drive, Hermida Zen Drive Gold, Keeley Darkside, Keeley MS-30 Double Tracker, Hermida EPH-3 Analog Delay, Catalinbread Echorec, Boss DD-7 Digital Delay).

There is nothing better than a father/son project.

Honorable Mentions

A few years ago, in 2016, I was tasting at Sine Qua Non when Manfred Krankl turned to me and said matter of factly: “Antonio, you have no life. You are working way too much and need to have other interests outside wine.” The funny thing is I had been thinking the same thing for a while, but there is nothing like hearing a statement like that from another person. It energized me to do something I had wanted to do for a while, which was to get back to playing music. In my early 20s, after four non-stop years at Berklee College of Music, I was completely burned out and wanted nothing to do with the instrument I had played since the age of 12. But around 2015/2016 I started tinkering, and that moment at Sine Qua Non was a turning point. I bought myself a new Fender Stratocaster and Marshall amp and started playing every day. Since then, I have had many opportunities to put my two greatest passions together. These are some memorable moments from 2019.

Playing Soundcheck with Gavin DeGraw’s Band. It was a brutal week. I spent most of it watching a team of professional cleaners throw out everything in my basement and rip out most of the hardwood floors in the ground floor of my house following severe water damage while I was away on a tasting trip this past summer. More on that below. Anyway, that Monday, DeGraw’s Musical Director/Guitarist Billy Norris, a huge wine fan, sent me a board mix from a recent show. I took turns watching the intense cleaning while living off take out and decompressing from that stress by learning as much of the set as I could in three days. When I got to the theater, Billy quickly showed me his gear, and then asked me if I wanted to play with the band. He handed me his guitar and said “you’re on” before leaving to check sound levels in the hall.

The thump of the bass drum, the crack of the snare, the huge resonance of the electric bass and the sizzle of the keyboards, with the slightly overdriven sound of my guitar pulsing through the mix. I could feel it all ringing through my body as we played through a few numbers. I hadn’t played on a stage with professional musicians, much less of this caliber, in 20-plus years. It felt great and so natural.

Watching the show from stage left.

Once soundcheck wrapped up we walked to dinner, where we enjoyed a number of tremendous wines, including the 2015 Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo, 2001 Masseto and 1996 Pira Barolo Riserva. I watched the show from stage left, which was a great way to experience it. After the concert, we gathered everyone in the tour bus and quickly polished off a bottle of 2017 Rivers Marie Pinot. It was a fabulous night and a great escape. Billy…I will be your stand-in anytime.

Talking Bass Guitars with Rush’s Geddy Lee. Rush was one of my biggest musical influences growing up. The originality, complexity and cutting-edge creativity of the music was so inspiring. I took advantage of a trip to Toronto to catch up with Geddy Lee, whom I first met a few years earlier at one of our events. Of course, I knew the music inside out, but I was also deeply intrigued by Geddy’s new book Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, a compendium that threads together basses of historical significance along with the instruments that played such an integral role in his work with Rush.

We started with a tour of the many instruments that are scattered throughout the living room. “These are good enough to be really intriguing, but not good enough to record with,” Geddy told me as he showed me a number of wild, eccentric basses built by Italian luthier Antonio Vandrè Pioli. "I would show you the wine cellar, but I am sure you have seen it all," he said as we headed down to the studio. "This is where (Rush guitarist) Alex (Lifeson) and I do lot of composing."

“Here, try this one,” Geddy said, handing me rare vintage guitar after guitar. I sat there playing snippets of Rush songs and other favorites during a conversation that wove together threads of music, wine and life. Occasionally, Lee would grab one of his favorite basses and demonstrate. “I love this 1962 Fender Jazz,” he told me. “I played it with Yes at their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction and it’s become one of my favorite instruments since then,” he added. (Original Yes bassist Chris Squire passed away in 2015).

Rush was known for a unique approach that included a heavy use of complex time signatures and lush synthesizer-rich arrangements that quite frankly showed the world what those instruments, relatively new at the time, could do in terms of unlocking artists’ creativity. “Did you know you were writing in odd time signatures, or was it more intuitive?” I asked. “Oh, no, we knew exactly what we were doing,” Geddy told me. “We loved writing in 7/4, but it’s pretty hard to rock out in 5/4,” he added with a laugh.

Left: with Geddy Lee in his studio, Right: Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, a compendium that threads together basses of historical significance along with the instruments that played such an integral role in his work with Rush.

Playing David Gilmour’s Guitars at Christie's. David Gilmour and Pink Floyd were a big part of my early musical education. I wore out my copies of “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” (it was vinyl back then) in high school learning how to play all the guitar parts note for note. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, much of the guitar scene was dominated by players who emphasized technical dexterity and speed. In that context, Gilmour stood out for his brilliant songwriting and melodic, emotionally charged guitar work. The opportunity to play some of these instruments before the auction was an incredible treat.

Playing David Gilmour's 1987 Steinberger GM 3T.

Rust Guitars. “Hey Antonio, you’ve got to check this out, it just came in,” Chris told me as I walked into 30th Street Guitars in New York City one summer morning. It was a Stratocaster ash body with a gorgeous sunburst finish. I knew I wanted it right away. Owner Matt Brewster makes just a few of his superb vintage-inspired Rust guitars in his small shop in the Fashion District each year. There are a handful of concessions to modern preferences, such as 12-inch radius necks and tall 6100 frets. Otherwise, these are decidedly vintage-feeling guitars. I have two, and I love them. Matt assembles his instruments from premium components. “Try these pickups out. If you don’t like them, we’ll switch them out,” he told when he built my first instrument, a Telecaster-style guitar with Lollar pickups. It’s that kind of service that makes Brewster one of the go-to techs for pro musicians in town. 

The day I got this guitar I ran into Saturday Night Live’s Jared Scharff. He was picking up a rare Pelham Blue Gibson Melody Maker that Matt had done some work on. "I bought this on Ebay, just took a chance on it really, and it's been great," Jared told me, beaming like a kid. I think we were both like little boys that day. We went into the soundproof room, played through a few amps, and swapped guitars. "You've got to try this Fender Champ," he said. "It sounds amazing." He was right, it did. "Play something sweet," he asked. I replied with a few snippets from Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" on my new Strat. "I actually got to play the guitar that was recorded on," he recounted. A few hours later, I turned on the television and saw Jared playing his refurbished Melody Maker on SNL. And I ended up buying that Fender Champ.

A gorgeous Rust Stratocaster-style guitar assembled by Matt Brewster; components on the left and the finished guitar on the right, next to a Fiesta Red model that was pretty enticing.

Gig of the Year: Pat Metheny at Sony Theater. Pat Metheny at Sony Theater was an outrageous show. On this tour, Metheny is performing with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Marcus Gilmore as part of a project he calls Side-Eye, which is all about showcasing younger musicians. The trio format is incredibly exciting live. The musicians have so much space to play off each other, and yet there is a certain amount of risk, because there is nowhere to hide in a trio. Metheny offered a selection of his best-known compositions and a good bit of newer music as well. It was a riveting performance from start to finish. Hearing Metheny play a number of the stunning custom guitars he has commissioned over the years was a real sonic treat. I have always loved Metheny’s guitar synth work too, as I feel it brings out a rawer side of his musicianship. For the lone encore, Metheny came out and played solo, a tremendous display of his prodigious talent. What a night.

Pat Metheny flanked by James Francis and Marcus Gilmore.

Aida at the Arena di Verona. I happened to have a free night in Italy this past summer, so I couldn’t resist Giuseppe Verdi's Aida at the Arena di Verona conducted by Placido Domingo. It’s opera, so there’s got to be a little drama, right? For starters, in the days leading up to this performance, the final Aida of the season, Soprano Tamara Wilson was all over the news for her refusal to wear the dark makeup singers have traditionally worn for roles like Aida, Otello and others. In the end, Wilson became ill and was forced to cancel, so I did not get a chance to hear her. The performance started two hours late because of bad weather and was interrupted numerous times. Even a few drops of rain can damage instruments and create unsafe conditions on stage, so as soon as rain started to fall, the stage manager took everyone off. By the time the fourth act started it was past 1am. As I looked over at the soldiers flanking the stage, a cool summer breeze passed over the arena and for a brief moment I felt I was in the opera and not just watching. It was a truly magical moment.

Aida at the Arena di Verona in a stunning, grand production.

‘There Must be a Silver Lining, Right?’ Moment

Well, it’s nothing like Neal’s heart surgery, but hearing about massive water damage at the house while tasting in Italy over the summer was not fun. I am now an expert on a wide range of subjects I was perfectly happy being blissfully ignorant about before this event. So, every single thing in the basement got thrown out, including a bunch of our Napa Valley vineyard maps. Most of the hardwood floors on the ground floor have now been ripped out. The others will be sanded and re-stained. I have not been able to live in my house since August and won’t be able to return for at least another month. It’s certainly not the end of the world. My only real regret is that this incident has severely delayed the publication of several articles. As for the basement, I am sure it has never been so perfectly clean…

My home office after severe water damage.

And Then For The Future...

Sonoma Maps with Alessandro Masnaghetti

Left: Spending time with Alessandro visiting vineyard in Sonoma, Right: The launch of our Sonoma Valley maps at Buena Vista.

Alessandro and I had a great time this past May showing the first drafts of our Sonoma Valley maps, a four-map set that depicts these vineyards in unprecedented detail. We have a ton of new things on the horizon for 2020, including a map of the Santa Lucia Highlands and the launch of our new digital licensing program.

A look at some of the maps that are coming in 2020...

In Closing...

In closing, I would like to thank our readers in over 100 countries around the world for giving us the opportunity to do what we do. I am also immensely proud of our team: Marzia, James, Alex, Steve, Neal, Josh, David, Ian, Jason, Joaquin, Christine, Ellen, Merrie-Louise, Nikki, Alessandro, Kedar, Julia, Shea, Matt B., Claire, Emily, Matt M., Jason, Kevin, Rocco, Ivan and Dini, for their tremendous accomplishments this year. 

Wishing you a very happy and prosperous 2020.