2020 In Review: To Next Year

We’re nearing the end of 2020 and that means Good Vitis’ annual year-in-review piece. Every year I sit down to write one of these and I think, ‘how self-indulgent can you be?’ This hesitation has been particularly acute in 2020 because of COVID, the summer of social unrest, and the election that won’t end. My wife and I got a second dog this year, moved from DC to Chicago during COVID so my wife could start a new job, and some of my work touches on the social issues most hotly debated this year, as well as the election itself, so we’ve been in the thick of things. Thankfully we haven’t lost anyone to the pandemic or suffered in any direct way, even as we take our personal responsibility to public health seriously and diligently. Life remains good to us, knock on wood, and we feel deeply for those who haven’t fared as well. So…wine highlights? I’ll tell you why the answer is yes.

During these dark days, wine has been an important part of life because it has contributed some normalcy, and offered opportunities to connect with people and experience other parts of the world while quarantining. I spent considerable time on Zoom and the phone talking to winemakers across the country, helping me stay connected to the outside world as I meet new people who share my passion. Exploring new wineries through samples has been a rare source of adventure. Opening wine from our cellar that has been aging for five or ten or twenty years has given us the opportunity to have something special to look forward to, marvel over, and reminisce about how it was acquired and what was happening that year. And, even though we haven’t seen most of our wine-drinking friends since pre-COVID days, it hasn’t stopped us from making future plans to share our favorite wines together, which gives us hope for the future. None of this is unique to COVID, but all of it has taken on added significance because of it. We all need something to keep us attached to good memories and help us generate new ones, and wine has been there for me this year in that department.

That said, 2020 was not a particularly noteworthy year in wine for us because of COVID. Sure, we drank great wine, but our inability to travel and share bottles with special people meant few exceptional wine experiences. This matters because while wine hits our taste, smell, and sight senses, it’s a story in a bottle that connects us to – and with – place, people, and history. A complete experience incorporates some of those elements in addition to the cork pop and pour that so many of us do frequently at home. Unfortunately, this became collateral damage to COVID.

Nevertheless, on balance wine was an important contribution to the good things that occurred this year. As has become the tradition, every year-in-review piece is done a bit differently from previous years. 2019 was the most revelatory moments, 2018 and 2017 the most memorable wine, and 2016 the best reds, whites, and values. 2020’s theme: The Year Of. I put a lot of thought into whether to include the incredible fires of 2020 that affected wine country, but decided to punt on that until the full impact on the vintage is known.

2020: The Year of Pinot Noir

Pinot noir has a reputation as a wine that can take people a fair amount of time to warm up to. It’s a hard variety to put your finger on: its versatility can be made into many styles and its ability to reflect terroir can produce a multitude of profiles. With infinite style and profile combinations, there are bound to be pinots that pinot lovers dislike, and pinots that pinot haters can tolerate, if not enjoy. It’s also a variety that can be quite transformational with extended aging, meaning the same wine can evolve into multiple versions of itself. And it’s prolific, made nearly everywhere in the world.

With all its permutations, it’s easy to have a few bottles you don’t enjoy and decide that’s enough pinot for you. Plus, if you’re not ready for the more traditional pinot and that’s what you get, it can be a huge turnoff. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I hear that go something like ‘a friend poured me a glass of (insert wine here) and all I could taste was dirt and mushrooms and it was the last pinot I’ll have because it was gross.’

It certainly took me a few years to warm up to pinot (I took a flyer on a Volnay early in my wine days, which I’d probably love now, that didn’t go over well then). Because of the blog, the number and quality of pinot I tasted jumped significantly in 2019, and again in 2020 because of the number of Good Vitis articles that centered on pinot. This year’s pinot posts included a profile on California’s Anderson Valley (a pinot haven); research for a forthcoming profile on California’s Santa Lucia Highlands (another pinot mecca); and profiles of pinot specialists Clarice, Beau Marchais, Siduri, Peake Ranch, Merry Edwards, and a forthcoming profile of The Hilt. Those articles alone “required” tasting over 5 dozen pinots. We put in the hard work so you don’t have to; you’re welcome. And this doesn’t even include the exceptional pinot we drank from our private stash, including Oregon favorites Belle Pente, Cameron, Domaine Serene, Penner-Ash, and Zena Crown, plus some old Burgundy.

Beau Marchais barrel samples

One of the most surprising moments of 2020 involved pinot as well. Normally an expensive wine, the best value I came across in 2020 was actually a pinot noir. Made by Lucky Rock, this killer wine costs just $22 and is a purposeful thorn in the side of upper hoity toity wine society that turns both butt cheeks at such plonk.  

This year’s exploration further confirmed pinot noir’s bona fides as one of wine’s noble varieties for me. Pinot can give one an experience that doesn’t entirely make sense, which makes it quite hard to describe in a medium like this. Pinot flourishes as an a posteriori wine, giving us a lot to experience and learn from. But it’s real value is the a priori experience it can provide, going beyond what we can identify by giving us aromas, flavors, structures, and textures that are without comparison and require some theoretical deduction to wrap our heads around.

This seemingly illogical description is quite reflective of the experience one can have with pinot, able to pinpoint flavors, aromas, textures, and structures while feeling incomplete in one’s ability to describe the experience at hand. The more pinot I experience, the less I know about the variety.

2020: The Year of Zoom

You might have notice that Zoom is a thing. Many of us have spent countless hours on video conference as we work, socialize, or attend school and events from home. The same is true of the wine industry. With the limitation/inability of doing in-person tastings, wineries and public relations firms embraced Zoom tastings. I certainly did my fair share of them with wine glass in hand. I don’t have a ton of poignancy to add on this front other than two interesting anecdotes to share as data points.

Lot of time spent in front of this thing

First, when I profiled brick and mortar-less Clarice Wine Company and its inaugural release (2017 vintage) in 2019, I outlined the unusual business model that owner and winemaker Adam Lee designed to offer multiple touchpoints for customers. This included an online forum for Clarice members to connect with each other, which in its first year turned out to be less used that Adam expected. However, with COVID the forum lit up, and Adam combined that serge of community with another element of his unusual business plan, offering discounts to his members on other wineries owned by friends of his, to schedule an incredible amount of Zoom tastings with other winemakers to discuss their wines and experience. This effort helped his followers and customers expand their palates and knowledge while driving additional business to these partner wineries.

Second, in a very recent discussion with Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year Greg Brewer, Greg told me that while he badly misses the in-person interactions with customers and clients, the ability to pop in on an event via Zoom for five or ten minutes and provide some additional value for the participants is something he’s come to really appreciate, and imagines will continue to be something he does even when he’s Zoomed in on in-person events.

Zoom has been a Godsend for many people for many reasons, including the wine industry. And, it may be the gift that keeps on giving even when COVID is fully in our rearview mirror.

2020: The Year of Champagne

It became clear to my wife and I this year that when there’s something to celebrate, it should be celebrated. We shouldn’t be too picky about it. And when we think celebration, we think Champagne. It’s unfair to limit the use of Champagne to celebrations, although that’s the stereotype the industry has perpetuated in the name of sales and brand ID. It’s also a bit stupid because Champagne is one of the best food-pairing wines out there, full stop. But that’s another discussion.

At some point in 2020 we decided we wanted bubbles to be more of a fixture in our routine, and so I set out to assemble a dozen or so bottles for us to try. I went to social media, getting great recommendations from a number of people. Although we experimented with a number of non-Champagne bubbles, we always came back to three wines that have become our core sparkling wines, all of them from the region of Reims:

NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé: We tried a number of rosé’s, including Billecart-Salmon, considered by many to be the industry standard basic quality rosé, and didn’t find anything we liked nearly as much as Taittinger’s Brut Prestige Rosé. A combination of pinot noir and pinot meunier, it strikes a great balance between lean acidic cut and creamy body; has the kind of lush, fine mousse we love; and drinks equally well alone as it does with food. We rarely drink more than two or three bottles of any vintage of any wine because we prize variety, but we blew through more than a case of this in 2020.

NV Egly-Ouriet Premeir Cru Vignes de Vrigny: This cat’s-out-of-the-bag grower Champagne house was a no-brainer to try, and we fell hard for this rare Premier Cru-level 100% pinot meunier Champagne. It’s 38 months on lees is, according to the winemaker, a modern regional record. The result is a savory, substantive, and succulent Champagne with great minerality and depth that drinks well now, though I’m trying to exercise patience and keep a few in the cellar to open in five or seven years because it has that kind of promise for evolution.

NV Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve: This one came via an Instagram recommendation, and was my favorite new discovery. It’s a full-bodied, dense, cider-y, creamy, yeasty, and brioche-y Champagne that stands out very distinctively – and elegantly – from the far more common profile of what seems to be one of today’s dominant wine trends of strip-your-enamel acid. This is my favorite Champagne to drink on its own for that reason in particular.

2020: The Year of Residual Sugar

We are dedicated lovers of old sweet chenin blanc from Loire Valley, especially Domaine Huet Moelleux (the sweetest Vouvray designation). We fell in love with riesling after spending time in Mosel in 2019 while on our honeymoon, which also served as our introduction to Kabinett. This year, our official love affair with Kabinett and Spätlese rieslings began.

Kabinett and Spätlese are German designations for the amount of sugar content in the grape when it is harvested (note: neither distinction reflects how much residual sugar is left in the wine post-fermentation, meaning there are such things as dry Kabinett and Spätlese wines, which are given the additional distinction of “trocken,” “Grosses Gewächs,” or “Erstes Gewächs”).

The foundations for this love affair were laid by a 2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a 2003 Selbach-Oster Zelting Schlossberg Auslese, and a magnum of Peter Lauer Barrel X riesling that paired well as a BYO bottle with a meal at a Laotian restaurant known for exceptionally authentic and authentically spicy food. Now, about a third of what we’re buying for ourselves are residual sugar wines, especially riesling and chenin blanc. A 1996 Schaefer Kabinett really sealed the deal.

One aspect of the beauty of varieties like riesling and chenin is that, whether dry or sweet, when aged for ten-plus years they take on qualities that make them exceptionally diverse in the food pairing department, an improvement, if possible, upon their distinction as great food wines even when young. Really great, old riesling or chenin goes equally and extraordinarily well with steak au poivre as it does Thai, and are also exceptional to drink on their own. There are no other varieties, I’d argue, that you can say that about. And that’s especially frustrating because the modern trend is dry riesling, even in the most famed areas for residual sugar. This means supply of residual sugar bottlings, both old and new, is shrinking.

The other frustrating thing with these wines is that, at least for us, they are so much better when they reach ten or twenty (or sometimes more) years of age and are worth the wait. This means we have to buy them at auction to support our addiction since we didn’t order cases of them when we were in high school. Our approach is to go mostly to auction, while slowly building a stock of new(ish) releases that we’ll drink when we’re (much) older.

2020: The Year of “Next year”

We were supposed to go to Japan and Belgium in 2020. We were supposed visit family, and celebrate birthdays with friends and good wine. We were supposed to volunteer. We were supposed to…supposed to…supposed to… “Next year” has become a common idea expressed towards the end of many conversations. The yearning for a better and more meaningful next year is a common theme for Jews like myself, which made it a bit easier to swallow each time I said it, though no less consequential.

At the end of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Ne’ila service (two of the most important events in the Jewish year), diaspora Jews sing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” which translates to “Next year in Jerusalem.” An inherent, in-our-DNA connection to Jerusalem, the heart and soul of Israel, is a core part of many Jew’s identities, mine included.

Jerusalem means “the city of peace” and uniquely occupies the intersection of body, soul, heaven, earth, ideal, and reality. Although also biblical, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel has been around for a lot longer than the Jewish religion. It comes from a time of Jewish nationhood, which preceded the Jewish religion by many generations. This is why there are numerous secular Jews for whom Jerusalem and Israel hold a special place in their hearts and souls, and why attacks on the Jewish connection to Israel, and Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel, are attacks on Jewish identity.

A common description of Jerusalem’s Jewish significance is that you can be miles away from it even while living there, yet be on the other side of the world and be only a step away. When Jews left Egypt for the Land of Israel, they were escaping slavery and seeking the freedom of the Promised Land out of a yearning for the ancestral place where they could be free. In Egypt their bodies were owned and controlled by others, imprisoning their souls rather than being a vehicle for their expression. In Israel, and especially Jerusalem, their souls were free to pursue service to humanity, which is a core tenant of Jewish life. This sentiment remains a core value that Jews cherish today. Whether one actually lives there or not, Jerusalem is, in place and spirit, the best opportunity for Jews to live our best lives (in the parlance of our times).

In 2020, the secular “next year” took on a weightier significance then it had previously, at least in its common use. So much of what many of us have given up this year are things we do with and for other people – the things we do in service to humanity.

I’ve been working from home since 2017, so I’d been training for COVID for a few years on the work front. However, that didn’t cover things like having to keep physical distance from family, friends, friends’ COVID babies and dogs, seriously sick friends, and close colleagues. Even Next Year in Jerusalem, always a communal exclamation, became something we said in the solitude of our own homes while watching services on our television. It’s been a hard year to maintain relationships, though the shared experience of COVID at least provides for a universally understood reason (and excuse). It’s been a year where selfishness can be selflessness if done right and for the right reasons, but also a year where selfishness can be masked as selflessness or unmasked for what it is. It’s been an entirely mixed bag.

I’m really hoping that “next year” is prophetic and what we’ve had to postpone in 2020 can happen in 2021. Like you, I have a long list of people and places I want to visit, and things I want to do. I’m eager for a return to normalcy, though I anticipate it will be a new normal, with tweaks to the old normal based on what we’ve learned this year. As the year winds down, we’ll be raising our wine glasses to everyone in our family and yours, and channeling our strong desire and hope for a better 2021 for all, including a renewed focus on how we can serve each other. To next year.

Try this Wine: Contrasting Food & Wine Pairings

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Pairing wine and food can be daunting, even for the well-trained. The most famous guidance, to match red wine with meat and white wine with seafood, actually turns out to be relatively true in theory but also misguided in reality. It’s too unscientific to be universal, and misses the critical factor that how something is seasoned and cooked is as, if not more, important than what it is before it’s cooked.

One of my favorite pairings is steak au poivre with a really well-aged dry or semi-dry riesling, which is a perfect example of why that famous guidance is misleading. In general, wine should be more acidic than the food. This is especially true when the food is fatty, like this steak example, because the acid helps our taste buds and digestion process the fat, allowing more flavors to be detectable while making the meal go down a bit easier. Also, white wine tends to provide more contrast to the food, any food, than does red wine, so if you want the wine to stand up to, and stand out from, the heavy steak, a white is better suited to do that.

This last point on contrasting versus complementary wine and food pairings is really the main point of this post. When people think about pairing food and wine, they often default to finding the complementary pairing. Not only is it easier, but it’s more natural – we tend to look for compatibility in nearly every aspect of life – and can be very satisfying if achieved.

However, what I want to suggest in this post is that successful contrasting wine and food pairings can be both more fun and more satisfying. Here is another example: there’s nothing better than a fried fish sandwich with a good bottle of trousseau to wash it down.

I'm glad we're the kind of people who aren't above pairing wine with nachos.

Source: someecards.com

Pre-planned pairings aside, sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a good pairing. One of my wife’s favorite games to play is getting through dinner and a glass of wine, and then asking if she can have (insert random snack) with another glass. It can drive me crazy, especially when it’s a special bottle of wine and she asks about a poorly fitting snack.

Earlier this week, I opened a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown chardonnay, a nice bottle from a now non-operational winery using grapes from a phenomenal vineyard. I had made a big salad topped with sautéed radishes, roasted acorn squash, tomatoes, apples and shrimp. The wine was a bit too acidic and lean for the salad, so the plan became to enjoy the wine after the meal was over.

When we finished the salad, Kayce began her game. She asked if the wine would go with Goldfish crackers. My instincts kicked in and I nearly defaulted to “no,” but I hesitated as I thought about it. “You know what, that might actually work.” She grabbed the Goldfish, and oh man, it was awesome. We had stumbled on to brilliance.

Let me show you what I mean by comparing the tasting notes of the wine pre and post Goldfish. Here’s a note on the aromas, which don’t change with the food, just to get it out of the way: a high-toned and slightly austere bouquet combining sharp lemon and lime zests, slate and crushed gravel, spring flower petals and honeysuckle.

Pre-Goldfish palate: barely medium-bodied with very crisp, slightly juicy acid that is quite long and precisely linear. Flavors include Meyer lemon, tangerine juice, slate minerality, Kaffir lime leaf and starfruit.

Now, here is the post-Goldfish palate: medium-plus in body with rounder, softer and buoyant acid that cuts through the cheese flavor nicely. The palate broadens, adding just a bit of sweetness and more acidic grip to the texture. It’s a more pleasant version of itself with the Goldfish pairing, and more enjoyable to drink.

I had so much fun with the pairing that I posted the above picture of the bottle with the Goldfish on Instagram and had a back-and-forth with friend and fellow wine blogger Isaac Baker of Terroirist.com. Isaac has done this kind of pairing before, and added that Goldfish go particularly well with Champagne. I’m curious to try that combination, and experiment with other cheesy crackers and bright white wines.

These unexpected wine-food combos that work because they contrast each other, rather than complement each other, are really satisfying because they are surprising and don’t hew to normal comfort zones. Try some contrasting wine-food pairings because no one should live their culinary lives according to what they already know. To provide some motivation, here are a few good places to start:

  • A sharp chardonnay with a cheesy cracker – look for wines that are lightly oaked or made in stainless or concrete. Quality producers in go-to regions make this easy. You can find these wines really anywhere in the world, but for short cuts check out Chablis, Oregon and the following spots in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma.
  • Fried fish sandwich with trousseau – there isn’t a lot of trousseau out there, but from my experience those who make it do it in the traditional fashion (i.e. light to medium bodied with good acid and fine tannin), which is what you want for this. We had a 2017 Arnot-Roberts trousseau from the North Coast of California with our fried fish sandwiches last weekend, and the duo brought the house down with my in-laws. Traditionally most trousseau comes from the Jura region in France, but there are good producers of it elsewhere. For the record, we make our fried fish sandwiches with lightly breaded and pan-fried white fish (catfish, porgy and cod all work well), processed cheese, Portuguese rolls and a sauce made in equal parts of ketchup, whole grain mustard and mayonnaise. Don’t dare use real cheese, I promise you it isn’t nearly as good.
  • Fried chicken and Champagne (or other acidic sparkling wine) – this is one of those under-the-radar classic food pairings. The acid and bubbles cut through the fattiness and crispiness of the chicken beautifully and can help you put down that last drumstick you wouldn’t otherwise consider a smart move. The beauty of this pairing is you can be flexible with the chicken and the wine. For the chicken, even the KFCs and Bojangles deliver in very real ways. For the wine, you need good acid and bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne, but Cremants from Burgundy, Loire and Jura work beautifully as well, as do some of the better sparkling wines made elsewhere.
  • Steak au Poivre and an aged dry or semi-dry riesling – this isn’t easy to pull off, but if done right the fattiness and pepper of the steak goes just perfectly with the acid and nuttiness of an aged riesling. For this, quality matters because cheap beef tastes bad and cheap riesling can’t reach the point of maturation needed. The cut of beef matters less than the quality and preparation, but for my money I go with hanger steak. On the wine side, go for trusted producers with at least ten years of age (15 or more is preferable) that have been properly stored the entire time. Don’t go sweeter than German’s Kabinett classification (maximum 188 grams of sugar per liter).
  • Potato chips and Champagne (optional: and caviar) – late night snack craving meets fine wine meets decadence. In an ideal world, I’d start every dinner party with a plate of potato chips topped with caviar and glasses of Champagne.
  • Dry sparkling wine with mac and cheese – this works best if the cheese is a soft and creamy variety.
  • Full bodied chardonnay and bacon – I’ve not tried this yet, but a friend of mine swears by it. I’m told it’s critical that the chardonnay be rich enough to stand up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, which makes good sense. Just make sure not to lose chardonnay’s acid as it is key to handling the bacon’s fat.