2023: A Wild Rollercoaster Ride


Two thousand twenty-three has been a wild rollercoaster ride. The year started with our colleague Josh Raynolds battling a serious illness. Each week we hoped for a bit of positive news, even the slightest improvement, but that was not to be. Josh passed away on March 24. It was by far the hardest thing I have had to deal with in our ten years of history. More than the intense travel, the thousands of wines I taste each year and the relentless pressure of deadlines, the finality of death is so profoundly sad. One of my favorite memories of Josh was watching him and David Schildknecht converse over dinner in the early days of Vinous. I was blown away by Josh’s deep knowledge of almost every subject and struck by his immense joie de vivre. That’s exactly how I will remember him. We renamed our Young Wine Writers Fellowship in Josh’s honor as a way to honor his legacy.

Josh Raynolds: 1962-2023.

For the first two weeks or so, the messages we received regarding Josh’s passing were condolences. But soon after, the reality set in that readers wanted to know when we planned to publish the next articles for Josh’s regions. It was a stark reminder that the world waits for no one. Eric, Joaquín and Nicolas Greinacher, the newest member of our team, stepped in admirably under difficult conditions and picked up Josh’s regions. In 2023, we also meaningfully expanded coverage in many regions. Anne has brought renewed vitality to Germany and Alsace. Eric has increased our coverage in many regions, while Joaquín, Rebecca and Angus have brought even deeper regional focus in their areas of specialization. Neal continues to be the most prolific critic and writer I have ever met. I don’t know how he does it all. In May, we celebrated our tenth anniversary, and although we were all so busy, I don’t think anyone stopped much to notice.

While 2023 started off in the worst of ways, we will finish the year on a much more positive note, with our strongest team ever and a number of projects in the works. I would like to thank you, our readers, for giving us the opportunity to do what we love most: bringing you in-depth coverage of the world’s most exciting regions, estates, winemakers and wines. Now, onto the fun stuff.

Helen Keplinger (right) with Grace Family Vineyards proprietor Kate Green.

Winemaker of the Year – Helen Keplinger, Napa Valley, California

It’s been quite the ascent for Helen Keplinger over the last decade or so. Keplinger was exposed to wine as a child and later pursued an Enology degree at UC Davis. That was followed by stints working alongside some of California's most highly esteemed winemakers and jobs in Australia and then Spain. I met her about a dozen years ago, give or take, and have followed her wines since then.

The early days weren’t always so easy. Keplinger’s short tenure at Bryant coincided with the challenging 2011 vintage and a difficult time for Don Bryant personally. The Rhône-inspired wines she makes under the Keplinger label that she owns with her husband, D.J. Warner, were often quite good, but they were also variable at times. Over the last few years, though, everything seems to have really clicked, and the wines have rocketed into the stratosphere. 

Today, Keplinger continues to make her own wines and also consults for a small roster of clients. The wines have been superb for a few years now, but I was especially struck by what I tasted this year across all the various projects. The wines were so breathtaking I tasted them again in my office a few weeks later just to be sure. As often happens with great wines when they are taken out of physical context, a more clinical setting actually allows them to shine even more brightly. My initial impressions were confirmed, and then some. Her 2021s are quite simply sensational across the board.

“Il Professore” Rino Fontana, the world's leading authority on the great, traditionally-made wines of Piedmont.

Wine Person of The Year – “Il Professore” Rino Fontana, Piedmont, Italy

Rino Fontana is a living legend in Italy. Loved by all those who know him, Fontana is the world’s foremost expert on the old-school wines of Italy, which is why I started calling him “Il Professore” about a decade ago. In the ensuing years, Il Professore has become an even bigger star, his dinners and tastings followed with great interest by an ever-growing legion of admirers.

Fontana is a retired jeweler who began befriending producers in Italy, mostly in Piedmont, in the 1980s and buying their wines. “My dear friend Luigi and I drank many fabulous wines together, but it was (Chef) Cesare Giaccone who introduced me to all the greats,” Il Professore told me recently. “He gave me a list of names that I began to follow assiduously and never deviated from. It was the mid-1980s. Back then, you could buy anything you wanted. I must have had the 1958 Conterno Monfortino and Gaja Infernot Barbaresco more than 100 times each.”

Il Professore’s focus has always been on traditionally made reds. His interests are Barolo, Barbaresco and a few other artisan estates, such as Soldera and Gravner. That’s about it. Back when no one cared about the bottles people go crazy for today, Il Professore was buying and drinking these wines while also selling some to a small network of friends. I met him at the beginning of my writing career somewhere in Piedmont. Over the years, Il Professore has shared more extraordinary older wines than I can remember. It is in these many lunches, dinners and tastings that I learned what fine, aged, well-stored, classically made Barolo and Barbaresco is supposed to be like. More importantly, Il Professore was a big buyer back in the day when producers struggled to sell their wines, including many of the most sought-after growers in Piedmont today. It was not that long ago. Il Professore believed in them and their wines, maybe more than even they did, which is why he is my Wine Person of the Year for 2023.

Wine of the Year – 2021 DuMOL Pinot Noir MacIntyre Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, United States

As soon as I started tasting the 2021 Pinot Noirs this past January, I knew it was a special vintage. The wines were aromatically intense, deep, layered and beautifully balanced. The 2021 DuMOL Pinot Noir MacIntyre Estate Vineyard embodies all those qualities to the fullest. It emerges from a site in a cool pocket in Green Valley planted in 2016 with Swan and Calera clones propagated from DuMOL’s other estate vineyards. High-density planting and dry farming on a site with a classic mix of Goldridge and sandy soils work very well here. The 2021 MacIntyre Pinot is a sensational, riveting wine that I would be thrilled to own. There’s something absolutely magical about certain sites on the Sonoma Coast, namely an ability to deliver tremendous flavor intensity and textural richness at relatively moderate alcohols. This is a fabulous example.

Winemaker/Co-owner Andy Smith and Associate Winemaker Jenna Davis presented a breathtaking range of 2021s at DuMOL capped by the brilliant 2021 Pinot Noir MacIntyre Estate Vineyard.

Emerging Winemakers to Watch

Alberto Alessandria, Crissante Alessandria, La Morra, Italy

Readers often ask me who the most exciting young winemakers are in Piedmont. Alberto Alessandria has certainly thrown his ring into that hat in a big way. Since taking over for his father, Crissante, some years ago, Alberto Alessandria has shown increasing confidence and direction in giving his family’s wines a new level of sophistication that is evident with each passing vintage. The future is incredibly bright here.

Jaimee Motley, Jaimee Motley Wines, Northern California, United States

I first met Jaimee Motley when she was an assistant winemaker working alongside Pax Mahle and the talented group of young professionals he had back then. I was immediately struck by the purity of her wines, the way they express intensity without heaviness. The Cabernet Sauvignons in particular evoke the wines of a previous generation in their classicism yet display modern polish. Motley took over winemaking at Stony Hill for a brief while, but now she is back to focusing just on her own range. The wines I tasted this year were seriously impressive.

Clockwise, from top left: Vittore Alessandria (Fratelli Alessandria), Mario Andrion (Castello di Verduno) and Fabio Alessandria (G.B. Burlotto) at our Verduno dinner; an array of older wines at the first Festa del Barolo Los Angeles Gala Dinner; Aldo Vacca leading a seminar of the Produttori del Barbaresco's Riserva; a remarkable collection of wines back to 1955 at our Bartolo Mascarello dinner at Legacy Records.

Winery of the Year – Rhys, Santa Cruz Mountains, California

I tasted many memorable wines this year, but one range stands out. The 2021s at Rhys are off the charts. Drought conditions but without excess heat and then cool weather during the final phase of ripening resulted in wines that are captivating for their sheer beauty and expression of site. Most of the attention will go to the Pinots, perhaps rightly so, but the Chardonnays are also tremendous. In recent years, Rhys has also made significant progress with their sparkling wines, which are done with consulting input from none other than Rodolphe Péters.

As is the case with most mountain regions, the Santa Cruz Mountains is not exactly easy when it comes to growing grapes and making wine. Rugged terrain and, at times, extreme weather variability mean low yields, sometimes painfully low, are simply the norm. Proprietor Kevin Harvey has consistently made the necessary investments in his relentless pursuit of quality, always pushing the boundaries. Long-time winemaker Jeff Brinkman has done a terrific job in executing on that vision, as is evident in the 2021s, wines that capture a pinnacle of achievement for the work that has gone into making Rhys one of California’s most highly regarded wineries.

Clockwise, from top left: A stunning collection of wines at the Napa in the City Gala Dinner; Lisa Togni at a remarkable vertical of her wines going back to the early 1980s; Rosemary Cakebread at the Napa in the City 2019 Masterclass; our team of elite sommeliers.

Tasting of the Year – Vinous Soldera Vertical

I participated in many memorable tastings this year, both in the US and Europe, some of them at wineries and some of them hosted by us. This year, we did our first Festa del Barolo in Los Angeles and introduced a series of village-focused dinners, starting with an epic Verduno dinner at Locanda Verde. Napa in the City was a tremendous success. Our Philip Togni vertical with Lisa Togni was quite emotional, as so many people have deep connections with the Togni family and the phenomenal wines they have made over the decades.

But one tasting hovers above them all, and that is the two-day retrospective we hosted of Gianfranco Soldera’s wines this past May. For the occasion, we opened 45 vintages back to the inaugural 1977 Brunello di Montalcino. These were all bottles I acquired from one private cellar over the course of several years. Every bottle was perfect, except one that I am not sure 100% came from the same collection. Not a single bottle was corked or otherwise unsound. Every wine was excellent. Many were profound. Even wines from totally forgotten vintages like 1981, 1986 and 1987 were in pristine shape. And I mean pristine. Quite frankly, I don’t think there is another winery in the world, anywhere, that could match that showing.

Soldera was a difficult man, a man who had zero patience for anyone who could not match his intellectual firepower. That means pretty much everyone else. At times he could be borderline offensive and arrogant, uttering comments like “I have made 35 vintages, and 32 are exceptional.” Then again, in front of these wines, what is there to say, what is there to counter with? The answer is absolutely nothing.

Soldera was a man with deeply held convictions, many of which were way ahead of their time. These include a focus on biodiversity, quite the trend today but something Soldera instituted in the early 1970s, among others. The technical sheets he provided in his original cases provided customers with in-depth information like I have never seen anywhere else, including an analysis of yeast population, an explanation of how and why his bottle is designed as it is, along with the more typical information on subjects like vinification and aging. I will have more to say when we publish my report on this extraordinary weekend, but I know for certain those who were there will never forget the wines they tasted over those two days. Nor will I.

Clockwise, from top left: Glasses arranged for the first night of this tasting at the Grill Room; an array of vintages, both older and more recent, all in great shape; the epic 1990 Riserva; a staggering collection of vintages on day two.

Vinous Maps – All the Latest…

I have always wanted Vinous to about more than reviews and scores alone. With wine education and appreciation as our core mission, in 2015 we launched Vinous Maps. Inspired by existing maps of Burgundy and Piedmont, Vinous Maps are done in collaboration with famed cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti and are designed to show the vineyards of top regions in California with a level of detail that has never been available before.

It was a very busy year for the Vinous Maps team. We published two new maps, Coombsville and the Sta. Rita Hills, both the product of years of meticulous on-the-ground research and countless interviews. We also updated our St. Helena & Conn Valley and Howell Mountain maps. I did numerous events throughout the year to launch and present our maps. Coombsville was first, with events and tastings at Stanford University and then at Copia in Napa. June saw a fabulous Moon Mountain tasting and map presentation at the iconic Monte Rosso Vineyard. In October, I presented our West Sonoma Coast AVA map and also previewed the next regional maps within that collection.

New Vinous Maps for 2023: Coombsville and Sta. Rita Hills, along with second editions of Howell Mountain and St. Helena & Conn Valley. © 2023 Vinous.

Dinner of the Year – Plénitude, Cheval Blanc Hotel, Paris, France

Three-star Michelin restaurants are usually not my cup of tea. Let me get that out of the way first. I often find the ambience at these establishments far too stuffy and formal for my taste, while I tend to enjoy simpler, more ingredient-driven cooking most of the time. But I was intrigued to check out Plénitude after several people I respect highly recommended it.

Plénitude is located in the Cheval Blanc Hotel in Paris, one of the hottest spots in town. Cheval Blanc has several restaurants and a gorgeous bar, but Plénitude is the crown jewel. Chef Arnaud Donckele is one of the brightest young stars in the world of French Haute cuisine. Donckele was introduced to the food at a young age. He started by working alongside his parents in their charcuterie business. Studies in cooking led to positions with several elite chefs, including Michel Guérard and Alain Ducasse. Donckele became chef at La Vague d'Or in the Cheval Blanc Hotel in St. Tropez at age 27. The coveted three Michelin stars followed a few years later.

Dinner at Plénitude is an experience in the best sense of the term. Our evening started with a visit to the wine cellar, suitably impressive for a restaurant at this level. The dining room is bright and very open, with only a few tables and gorgeous city views that are somewhat obscured by the dark, rainy night. Servers’ outfits are equally breezy and elegant but not heavy, a sort of Paris meets the Alps kind of look. Service is attentive and very skilled but never intrusive. The staff is incredibly friendly.

Plénitude offers several tasting menus and á la carte options. There’s a bit more flexibility for substitutions within the tasting menus here, which is not often the case elsewhere. Each dish has a connection to something personal in Donckele’s life. The theme on this night is sauces. Each course is presented with its sauce on the plate and also separately. We are asked to start with the sauce alone and then move to the main dish. At some point throughout the evening, each party is brought into the kitchen for a palate-cleaning sorbet. Donckele says he wants to meet all his customers. It’s a great touch. I will save the full write-up for a forthcoming Vinous Table. For now, let me just say Plénitude is highly recommended. Reservations are a must and are booked 5-6 months in advance.

Chef Arnaud Donckele and his team in action at Plénitude, Paris. 

Restaurant of the Year – Ristorante Il Centro, Priocca, Italy

This award is not for a specific lunch or dinner but rather for a series of fabulous meals over the course of the last year. Il Centro is located in Priocca, in the heart of Roero, very close to Barbaresco, and a bit more of a drive from Barolo and its surrounding villages. Elide Mollo runs the kitchen, her husband Enrico Cordero manages the front of the house and their son Giampiero manages the extensive wine program. The Corderos basically eat, live and breathe their restaurant every day. That’s evident in every detail.

The menu offers a mix of classics and more innovative dishes. Carne cruda, tagliolini and agnolotti al plin are all superb. I also very much enjoyed the agnolotti filled with crabmeat I had several times last summer. No one can eat the Piedmontese diet for too long, not even me, so I often order a salad (not on the menu) that is prepared and served with just as much attention as everything else. Il Centro is a favorite of producers, especially from Burgundy. Come here on the right day, and you will see a who’s who of the wine world at neighboring tables. The wine list is terrific. Like so many restaurants these days, Il Centro grapples with huge demand for a small number of estates and limited bottles to go around, so many wines in the cellar are not on the list. Old-fashioned hospitality is a dying art, but it is alive and thriving at Il Centro.

Clockwise, from top left: Preparing a salad is serious business at Il Centro; agnolotti filled with crabmeat in broth; insalata russa is only on the menu when ingredients are season; carne crude with truffles is a must.

Gig of the Year – Frank Vignola and Mike Stern at Birdland

Jazz guitarist Frank Vignola holds court downstairs on Wednesday evenings at the Birdland Jazz Club in mid-town Manhattan. Vignola’s Guitar Night typically features a special guest or two. On this night, that special guest was none other than Mike Stern, one of the most influential guitarists in the world since the 1980s. The interplay of Vignola’s more straight-ahead style with Stern’s distinctive mix of blues, rock and bebop influences made for a thrilling set. I would be remiss if I did not mention Gary Mazzaroppi on bass and Vince Cherico on drums, both of whom sound and look like something straight out of the 1950s. These guys ooze cool. The essence of jazz. What a night.

From left to right: Vince Cherico, Mike Stern, Gary Mazzaroppi and Frank Vignola.

Favorite Non-Wine Moments of the Year

Family Vacation, Vicenza, Italy

Traveling to Italy has become much more complicated in recent years. So many cities now are packed with tourists, more than these old towns can really handle, and that can really detract from the experience of being in some of the most magical places on earth. Visiting the big three – Rome, Florence and Venice – is a must, but the best experiences will come during slower periods when these cities are not crammed. Even some of the smaller cities have become impossible propositions. Siena was once only really busy around the Palios, now it is crowded much of the time. Lake Como used to be quiet, now it is full of tourists hoping to get a glimpse of Amal and George Clooney. Piedmont once only attracted hardcore wine and food lovers. Today, it is often full of cycling groups and other large tours that are attracted to the region for its natural beauty and UNESCO status. So it goes.

But the real Italy is found in the provinces, in smaller cities that still offer plenty of culture but that remain off the beaten track. Veneto is one of my favorite regions. I got to know it well when I lived in Italy in the early 2000s, as I had many clients there. Veneto is part of northern Italy’s industrial belt. It is home to a wide range of industries, including textiles, glass, food and, of course, wine, in the three main regions of Soave, Valpolicella and Prosecco. Cycling is especially big. Several major manufacturers, including Campagnolo and Pinarello, are based here, as are dozens of smaller boutique firms and component suppliers. Venice and Verona are the two main cities. The curious traveler will find much to explore in smaller towns such as Vicenza, Bassano del Grappa, Asolo and Marostica, among others.

Clockwise, from top left: the main square in Vicenza, Bassano del Grappa, Palladio's Villa La Rotonda and his Teatro Olimpico. 

We spent easter vacation in Vicenza, one of the epicenters of the work of architect Andrea Palladio, who developed many concepts that made him one of the most influential architects in history. Vicenza is a very easy city to visit. One ticket provides entry to the major attractions, all of which are located within a short walking distance from each other and open continuously throughout the day, without a lunch break, all of which makes hitting the main spots easy and stress-free. We saw no lines anywhere. There are plenty of small bars, cafés and good restaurants in which visitors can enjoy a good slice of la dolce vita, that most quintessential of Italian experiences. Some of the peripheral attractions, including many of Palladio’s most important works, are a short drive from the town center and require separate admission.

Pretty much everywhere we ate was full of locals and families. Pizzeria Ristorante X Giugno is a fine choice for pizza, pasta and simple trattoria fare. Al Fiume Ristorante offers a beautiful, fish and seafood-based menu, and is just steps away from the city center. Trattoria Zamboni is a short drive away from the town center. It offers a refined menu in a country home-type setting and an extensive wine list. Matteo Grandi is located right across from the Palladian Basilica. There’s an upscale restaurant and a simpler café, where we enjoyed a relaxed lunch while people-watching. I may have had an Aperol Spritz or two. Vicenza is a great place to visit, very kid-friendly and also a fabulous choice for readers who want a genuine Italian experience without the masses of tourists that now flock to the country.

La Galerie Dior, Paris, France

I can’t really say I am a huge fashion person, although three years of living in Italy surely played a role in my appreciation of the sartorial arts. The shock of going from a corporate office in Boston to an office in Milan was huge. In Milan, everyone looks like they just walked out of a magazine.

The Galerie Dior is located very centrally in Paris, at 11 Rue François, just off the Champs-Élysées, in the 1er Arrondissement. The museum pays homage to the life, career and legacy of Christian Dior. Visitors are guided through a series of rooms that trace Dior’s remarkable rise to the top of the fashion world and the events that followed. I must confess, I knew very little of Dior’s history before visiting the museum, and yet I was captivated. The exhibits are meticulously curated and breathtaking in their visual beauty. I could have spent hours there. Dior died very young, at just 52, in 1957, and yet he influenced scores of designers who followed and built a brand that endures to this day. Of course, Bernard Arnault deserves much of the credit for Dior’s success today, as he revitalized the house after acquiring it in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, Dior built the foundation through designs that created a whole new approach to fashion. The café is a fun place to stop by for a quick snack on the way out.

Striking exhibits at La Galerie Dior and a perfect late-afternoon snack.

Last But Certainly Not Least…

I would like to thank our entire team at Vinous for their incredible work and diligence throughout the year.

© 2023, 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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