2021 - The Year In Review


As 2021 draws to a close, it's time to reflect on the year behind and take a look at what lies ahead. There were certainly plenty of ups and downs, but as I write this I am incredibly energized about the future. 

State of the Union

While many people have described 2021 as a horrible year or some version of that, I just can’t share that view. That’s not to say the year was easy. It certainly was not. Our personal and professional lives were a rollercoaster that alternated times of great uncertainty with brighter moments where things seemed to be getting back to something resembling normal, only to feel once again quite up in the air as the year comes to a close. A number of us lost family members and dealt with other significant personal life events. 

It was a year full of challenges, but those challenges were also tremendous learning opportunities from a Vinous perspective. In my opinion, the world is getting more, not less, complex. Our lives – both personal and professional – are likely to experience disruptions at a faster pace than ever before. We might as well get used to it. It’s no different than making wine. Every producer can make a good or great wine in a strong vintage, but in more difficult years, that’s when the cream rises to the top. Similarly, the challenges presented by a pandemic that is still very much at the center of our lives presents opportunities to learn, innovate and be well-positioned for the future, a future that is likely to be far less certain than the past.

The year started with La Festa del Piemonte, with an expanded program of tastings featuring the wines of Barolo, Barbaresco and Alto Piemonte that was entirely virtual. Obviously the camaraderie of live events was missing, but in exchange, the virtual format allowed us to reach a global audience. The same was very much true of the 2018 Bordeaux seminars Neal and I hosted later in the spring. I did each of the four sessions in a different place, which pretty much sums of what that part of the year was like.

This year's Festa del Piemonte offered an expanded program of tastings that included the wines of Alto Piemonte and Barbaresco to complement an unreal masterclass featuring the 2016 Barolos. It was a smashing success.

Our editorial team tasted and wrote at an impressive pace. Late spring brought the first window for travel. It was a hectic time. My feeling was that everyone wanted to cram in everything we weren’t able to do for the last 15 or so months into the last six months of 2021! 

We were heavily engaged on the charitable front as well, something that has always been important to me personally as well as to our company. In February I hosted a number of educational tasting and sessions around the Napa Valley Library Wine Auction, a charitable auction that supports a variety of local initiatives designed to promote and protect Napa Valley. In April, I co-hosted the Conscious Collection Auction, which raised funds to help those in the hospitality industry affected by Covid-19. October brought the first ever Barolo En Primeur Charity Auction, which I hosted in New York with a live stream from Piedmont. All three events were terrific.

Over the course of summer and into the fall we continued work on the new Vinous website, which is viewable here in Beta format. The new site will launch in early 2022. We added Owen Bargreen to our editorial team to cover the wines of Washington State. Our Vinous Maps program grew significantly, as we finished numerous projects and began several new maps. More on that below. 

None of this would have been possible without your support. For that, we remain extremely grateful. I would also like to thank our team behind the scenes, the people who run Vinous day to day but don’t get the recognition our writers do. So, for Marzia, James, Alex, Shea, Brenna, Gabriella and Merrie Louise –  a big thank you!

A fabulous tasting at Sine Qua Non - the first winery I visited after the lockdown. It was such a great feeling to be on the road again.

Winemaker of the Year – Françoise Peschon, Napa Valley, United States

Each and every year I have the immense privilege – and it is a privilege – to visit leading wineries all over the world and to taste with many talented winemakers. It’s a long list. The Winemaker of the Year award is meant to recognize someone whose achievements transcend craft, someone who stands apart from the crowd. This year’s winner is Françoise Peschon. 

Trained at UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux, Peschon first gained prominence at Araujo Estate, which is where I first met her more than a decade ago. Following the sale of Araujo Estate in 2013, Peschon began working on smaller projects with a very simple philosophy of focusing only on estate wineries. First up was VHR – Vine Hill Ranch, today widely recognized as one of the elite Cabernets in Napa Valley. Peschon then led a massive turnaround at Cornell, taking those wines from not at all interesting to world class in just a handful of years.

Today, Peschon is the winemaker at VHR, Heimark and Matt Morris Wines. She also makes the whites for Bart and Daphne Araujo’s Accendo winery. Visit at harvest and you will meet someone whose purplish, stained hands are those of someone who is physically making wine and showing up for 4am picks rather than delegating to assistants. In addition, Peschon is the consultant at Cornell and Almacerro, where she works alongside day-to-day winemakers Elizabeth Tangney and Matilda Scott, respectively, serving as mentor, consigliere and a mother of sorts, all in one.

Unassuming and always generous in giving credit to her colleagues, Peschon has mentored a number of other winemakers, including Graham Wehmeier who was first at Cornell, then at Futo and is now at Diamond Creek, and Rebecca George, who was previously at Kelly Fleming, where the VHR wines were made up until recently. When she is not working on one of those projects, Peschon finds time to make wine under the Drinkward-Peschon label she shares with Lisa Drinkward.

The world of consulting in Napa Valley is big, big business. Consulting winemakers regularly pull in large checks from their clients. Peschon could easily have a larger roster if she desired, but instead she chooses to focus only on clients who meet her strict criteria, not afraid to let those go who don’t. It’s an admirable approach that has very quietly made her one of the most influential and highly respected winemakers in Napa Valley, and my Winemaker of the Year.

Françoise Peschon (far right), with Vine Hill Ranch owner Bruce Phillips (far left) and Vineyard Manager Mike Wolf (center) after a complete vertical of the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon. Article to follow in 2022. 

Winery of the Year – Nervi-Conterno, Gattinara, Italy

Visitors could be forgiven for driving through Gattinara and not noticing much. On the surface, Gattinara looks like many small cities in Italy’s industrial north. Except that a few times a year, the strong aromas of wine are a clue that this is one of Italy’s most historic wine producing towns, something that is not easy to see because all of the vineyards are tucked away outside the city proper.

It’s pretty easy to drive past Nervi and not see much either. The entrance is the same narrow entrance as before. Until you enter the courtyard and see the new Nervi, the Nervi Roberto Conterno has envisioned for the future. The large glass walls and open architecture are immediately arresting.

Conterno bought Nervi in 2018, although he had been serving in an advisory capacity for a few years before that. One of the major developments in the wine business with Conterno’s generation has been the desire of winemakers to expand into other regions with new projects, often in far away locales. I have always found it of note that Conterno’s investments have not been in another region, country or continent, they have been investments far closer to home. That’s a strong statement of pure and total conviction in the value of Piedmont and Nebbiolo.

I visited Nervi in the summer of 2018, just after Conterno had completed his acquisition. He had already added temperature control to the cellar. But that was clearly intended to be temporary, as it was replaced by the new winery’s new cooling system less than three years later, as I saw when I visited again in August 2021 and toured the premises with Conterno and architect Giancarlo Primatesta.

The present-day Nervi, now known as Nervi-Conterno, has been given a brand new winery with an open layout that allows visitors to see all work in progress. It’s a visually stunning set of spaces outfitted with the most modern winemaking technology and a state of the art GAI bottling line that is in and of itself a sight to see.

But that was not enough. Conterno then opened Cucine Nervi, an intimate restaurant with an open kitchen and sleek appointments tucked into a corner on the other end of the courtyard. The menu is very much on the creative side of things, much more London, Milan or New York City than provincial Italy. Diners will find a jaw-dropping selection of wines, both international and local, culminating with deep selection of Nervi and Conterno offerings. Prices are pretty much market, but if your heart desires the 1990 Monfortino, you will find it here. During the week, a reservation at Cucine Nervi includes a visit and tasting at the winery, which makes a stop here pretty much a must for any serious wine lover. As I have written before, Alto Piemonte has something most wine regions can only dream of, and that is close proximity to one of the world’s busiest international airports, in this case Milan Malpensa, which is less than an hour away. 

None of the above would matter if the wines weren’t good. But they are that and so much more. In just a few years Conterno has elevated the Nervi wines into the stratosphere. He has also given this sleepy town and its wineries a swift kick in the pants by showing what is possible here, in Gattinara, which was a famous appellation long before the world appreciated the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.

For all of these reasons, Nervi-Conterno is my Winery of the Year.

The stunning new winery at Nervi-Conterno is designed as a series of open spaces, where visitors can watch all winemaking operations as they are carried out.

Visit of the Year – Sanford Winery, Sta. Rita Hills

Santa Barbara was my first work trip post lockdown. It was so great to be back in the vineyards. The transformation at Sanford in the last two years has been nothing short of remarkable. That may actually be an understatement. For years, I tasted the Sanford wines and was consistently disappointed. The wines weren’t even interesting enough to merit inclusion in my Santa Barbara report. I was often perplexed. After all, Sanford and the Terlato family own Sanford & Benedict, one of the most historic vineyards in all of the United States, and the neighboring La Rinconada. 

In 2019, John Terlato brought Trey Fletcher on board. Fletcher had previously been at the winemaker Bien Nacido/Solomon Hills estates, and worked with Ted Lemon at Littorai before that. In 2019, his first vintage, Fletcher turned out a stellar set of wines at both Sanford and Domaine Jean François, Terlato’s joint venture with François Labet. From start to finish, I was simply blown away by what I tasted. Today’s wines are marked by extraordinary purity and expression of place, everything great wines from Santa Barbara should aspire to show.

The original Sanford Winery barn, where Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict made their first wines, remains in remarkably good shape.

Meal of The Year – Ristorante Trattoria Al Cacciatore (La Subida), Cormòns, Italy

My first international trip post-vaccination and the two-week waiting period was to Italy. It was mostly a personal trip to visit relatives I had not seen in over a year. At the time, the steps needed to get on a plane were less automated than they are now. In addition to testing prior to departure, testing was also required upon entering Italy to avoid the quarantine, as it is once again today. After receiving my negative test, the first thing I did was have a coffee at the airport bar. I thought it was the best coffee I had ever had! Of course it was not, but just the feeling of being able to enjoy one of life’s simplest pleasures was so uplifting.

The first restaurant I went to on that trip was La Subida, in Friuli’s Collio district. It was the first time I had eaten in a restaurant since lockdown. It was a perfect day for a leisurely spring lunch. We ate outside, and for a few minutes every now and then, enjoyed a mental break away from the stresses of COVID. The food was amazing, as were the wines and the setting. As perfect as one could have hoped for.

Friuli is a fabulous region for the curious wine lover, as it is very much off the beaten track. There are no masses of tourists to contend, no cellars that are impossible to visit, and yet plenty to explore in the wines of Carso, the Collio, Isonzo and the Colli Orientali. Beyond the wine-producing areas, Trieste offers an intriguing mix of urban bustle, a rich, maritime history and a gorgeous coastline. Udine is a charming mid-size university town brimming with life, while smaller towns like Grado offer all of the charm of the Italian beach life. 

La Subida is one of the few elite restaurants in Friuli, yet retains the feel of a country inn. It’s the perfect place to explore a cuisine that draws heavily from Slovenian and Austro-Hungarian influences. Josko and Loredana Sirk embody the values of old-school hospitality. Their son, Mitja, curates a cellar with an astonishing range of both local and international wines, all of them exceedingly fairly priced. 

The cuisine at La Subida is definitely on the richer side, but when it is this good, who cares? We ordered a number of dishes off the menu, including the famed Prosciutto d’Osvaldo, cured right here in Cormòns and the Zlikrofi, small tortelli filled with potatoes and herbs, then finished with a classic sauce of pan drippings and shaved Montasio, both of them sublime. In winter, one of my favorite things to order at La Subida is the stinco di maiale (roast pork shank), another signature dish. I was not expecting to see it on the spring menu, but was overjoyed when Mrs. Sirk informed us it was available. It was fabulous.

When it comes to the wine list, the first thing diners will be asking themselves is: When can we come back? Pretty much every local producer of note is represented, making the cellar at La Subida a great place to get an education on Friulian wine. Readers will also find a smattering of bottles from around the world at prices that are too good to pass up. We simply had to have the 2017 Raveneau Chablis Montée de Tonnerre. Alongside it, we tasted Mitja Sirk’s 2019 Ca’ Savorgnan, a tiny production old-vine Friulano from 70 year-old vines in Cormòns.

Dessert was simple, mostly fresh fruit and the small assortment of custards and pastries that are served at the end of a meal. It was a magnificent lunch all around, and easily my meal of the year in 2021.

Starting top left and moving clockwise: Prosciutto d’Osvaldo, Zlikrofi, Stinco di Vitello, Lunch Wines.

(Very) Honorable Mentions

Kane’s Donuts, Boston, United States

Kane’s Donuts Are Love, the sign says. Who am I to disagree? The tiny Kane’s store in Boston’s Financial District has become a sort of family tradition with the kids. My favorite is “Cookies & Cream,” accurately described as a Cake Donut. Don’t miss it. 

Il Centro – Priocca, Italy

Truffles were not exactly in abundance in Alba this year. It was just too warm and too dry. “Let me just say this, none of the people offering to sell us truffles for this year speak Italian,” a local restaurateur told me, confirming what many know – that white truffles are often brought in from other regions. I mostly passed on truffles this past fall, but I made an exception, and I am glad I did. My most recent lunch at Il Centro was off the charts. Every dish was covered with truffles, including the salad! But my favorite was the poached eggs, a Langhe classic.

Enrico and Elide Cordero, along with their son, Giampiero, run one of the finest restaurants in all of Piedmont. Il Centro is old-school in the very best sense of the word. As I was walking out the door after lunch, late for a tasting appointment, I popped my head in the kitchen to thank the chefs. Elide Cordero was there to greet me, completely surround by nests of her famed tagliolini being prepared for the next service. At Il Centro, as in most traditional restaurants, only the yolks are used, three per serving, if you really want to know. Many thanks to our hosts for this unforgettable lunch and very pleasant few hours away from work.

TORC – Napa, United States

This last minute lunch in Napa was a real treat. It was great to catch up with a dear friend and mentor, someone who was one of my very first subscribers when I started Piedmont Report years ago. It’s very hard to actually drink many of the world’s great wines today. Prices are astronomical and there is just no availability, even if you can actually afford the wines. As a result, many of the reference points are no longer actually drunk, rather they are doled out in tiny servings at ‘tastings’ with many other wines to be oohed and aahed at. That’s fine. But sometimes you need to drink. Not a small taste, but a glass. And then another glass, and then another after that. TORC’s sublime roast chicken and fries was the highlight of this lunch. The 2001 Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet was especially tremendous, but the company was even better. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Les Belles Perdrix –Saint-Émilion, France

As it turns out, on one fine day in December I had both lunch and dinner at Les Belles Perdrix, the restaurant at Troplong Mondot. Les Belles Perdrix recently re-opened after having been closed for three years for an extensive makeover. It was worth the wait. Dinner was with none other than Neal Martin, or Monsieur Martin, as he is known here. It was great to see him after two years. Neal was just wrapping up his tastings of the 2019s, while I was in the middle of my trip. We talked about everything, except those wines! One of my favorite dishes was the Pumpkin Ravioli, which were full of deep, earthy, wintery flavors, and a good smattering of chestnut chips and black truffles to finish things off.

Starting top left and moving clockwise: Donuts at Kane’s, Lunch wines at TORC, Poached Eggs and White Truffles at Il Centro, Pumpkin Ravioli at Les Belles Perdrix. 

Vinous Maps

We were extremely busy on the maps front in 2021. Our Sonoma Valley project – a collection of six maps – is now nearly complete. We have spent three years painstakingly researching the region and will be ready to share the results of our work in early 2022. The Sonoma Valley Collection consists of a large poster-sized map of the entire AVA, plus smaller maps of the Moon Mountain District, Sonoma Mountain, Los Carneros (Sonoma) and Bennett Valley AVAs. A map of Sonoma Valley’s Central Corridor, a distinct strip of vineyards within Sonoma Valley that, in our view, merits a separate discussion but is not itself an AVA, rounds out the Collection.

Our map of the Santa Lucia Highlands is the next project nearing completion. In 2021, we also began work on maps of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County and Coombsville AVA in Napa Valley. Those projects consist of AVA maps plus a range of single-vineyard maps that will show these regions and properties in unprecedented topographical detail. The map of Hirsch, in the West Sonoma Coast, in the image below, will give readers a good idea of what these single ranch maps look like, as well as a clue to what is coming next from Vinous.

Clockwise from top left: The Vinous Maps of the Moon Mountain District, the Sta. Rita Hills, Coombsville and Hirsch Vineyard.

None of this would be possible without the invaluable work of our esteemed colleague Alessandro Masnaghetti. It was only six years ago that I showed up at Alessandro’s home in Emilia-Romagna and pitched him on the idea of doing maps of Napa Valley. A few months later, without telling me, Alessandro showed me his first drafts of what became our Oakville and Pritchard Hill maps. Vinous readers are surely familiar with Alessandro’s groundbreaking maps and books of Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico and other regions. Alessandro is a brilliant cartographer, but an even better person. I miss our trips to California and working from dawn to dusk on these maps.

Alessandro, if you are reading this: you are the only person in the world who can make me want to drink Coke and follow your steady diet of salami, cheese, sushi and chocolate!

Visiting vineyards in Sonoma Valley with Alessandro Masnaghetti a few years ago, before COVID-19 made travel very difficult.

Sunday Night Supper Club

I would like to thank two of my closest friends (you know who you are) for their amazing friendship throughout the darkest days of the pandemic. Each Sunday we would gather, socially distanced in an open space, with all the necessary precautions, for take out and some great wines. It was the highlight of each week. While I would never want to go back to that life, those were some pretty amazing Sundays!

Some of the wines enjoyed this past year by my very small, very 2021 3-person tasting group.

Best Gig of the Year – None…

For the first time since as long as I can remember, I did not attend a single live musical or theatrical performance in 2021. I thought I would do so after getting my booster, but the rapid spread of Omicron quickly put an end to those thoughts. I am hoping for a more favorable 2022.

Best Non-Wine Experience of the Year

Easy. Taking the kids on a Jet Ski ride in Florida this past summer. Few things are more exhilarating than going as fast as possible on the open water. 

Jet Skis...the faster the better...

Italy Wins the 2021 Euros

With apologies to James, Neal, Rebecca and all of our British readers, watching Italy win the Euros this year was thrilling. Italy football fans have had their share of heartbreaks. Those I remember most vividly are losing the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup to Argentina, in Naples no less, a city that was just as in love with Diego Maradona as the Italy team. Then there was the brutal loss to Brazil on penalties at the 1994 World Cup final. Penalties doomed Italy four years later, when they lost to host nation France at the 1998 World Cup. France tormented Italy again with a last second win at the finals of Euro 2000. The less said about Italy’s exit at the 2002 World Cup the better. Italy got close at Euro 2012, but was thrashed by Spain in the final. I remember being in Beaune for that one. 

Of course, there have been triumphs along the way. I remember watching the final of the 1982 World Cup with my dad when I was a kid and that feeling of elation in beating powerhouses Brazil, Poland and West Germany, in succession, to claim the title. And then there was the massive win at the World Cup in 2006, with a stunning defeat of Germany in the semifinal and then France in the final. From the beginning, Roberto Mancini’s Euro 21 side was a team of destiny. They played with aggression, abandoning the traditional defensive style that defined Italian football for generations and that, in my view, was responsible for some of those brutal losses of the past. There was a sort of feeling of inevitability this year at the Euros. In the end, Italy raised the trophy. Now, just a few months later, things don’t look so rosy for the World Cup qualifiers. Then again, this is Italy. There has to be some drama. A lot of drama. And Italy always plays best when their back is against the wall. Vediamo…. 

Value Wine of the Year

2019 Giacomo Mori Chianti – Made from vineyards just outside Chianti Classico, the Mori Chianti is a consistently gorgeous wine that captures the extraordinary purity and translucent finesse of Sangiovese. It’s also a steal.

Wines of the Year

These are some of my most memorable wines from 2021. In each case there is a memory attached to every bottle. The people I enjoyed these wines with are every bit as important as the wines themselves.

2017 Domaine Leflaive Montrachet Grand Cru

2017 Littorai Pinot Noir Wendling Block E

2016 VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

2015 Domaine François Raveneau Chablis Valmur Grand Cru

2014 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 

2014 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino

2014 Domaine François Raveneau Chablis Clos Grand Cru

2011 Kongsgaard Chardonnay The Judge 

2011 Occidental Pinot Noir Cuvée Elizabeth Bodega Headlands Vineyard

2011 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon

2010 Domaine Coche Dury Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru

2010 Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru 

2010 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru

2010 Domaine de La Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru

2010 Tenute Sella Lessona Omaggio an Quintino Sella 

2009 Domaine Dujac Chambertin Grand Cru 

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

2006 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino

2006 Le Piane Boca

2006 Vatan Sancerre Clos La Néore

2006 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Petrus

2005 L’Église Clinet

2001 Kunin Syrah Alisos Vineyards

2001 Domaine Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru

2001 Léoville Las Cases

2001 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon

1998 Cheval Blanc 

1991 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Landonne

1990 Soldera Brunelllo di Montalcino Riserva

1988 Petrus 

1985 Castello dei Rampolla Sammarco

1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda

1977 Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Glen Ellen Vineyards

1971 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Bèze Grand Cru

1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo 

1969 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Il Poggio

1962 Haut-Brion

1962 Troplong Mondot

1961 Dom Pérignon ‘Wedding Cuvée’ Disgorged 1980, Magnum 

1961 Haut-Brion

1917 Château des Carmes Haut-Brion

My first look at the 2021s at Bedrock. The wines are incredibly promising, but yields are painfully small.

Coming in 2022...

We will have a number of exciting developments to share with you in 2022. These include the launch the new version of the Vinous website, which readers can access here, the addition of the newest member of our editorial team, our first Vinous maps outside the United States, several major partnerships, and of course a large number of articles covering both new releases and past vintages.

All of us at Vinous wish you and yours a very Happy Holidays and a healthy, prosperous 2022.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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