Sometime around late February or early March, the biannual Grands Jours de Bourgogne was canceled. It was followed shortly thereafter by postponement, then cancellation of the annual en primeurs tastings hosted in Bordeaux by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux for the wine trade and media.
Other dominoes quickly fell as wineries throughout the United States shut down their tasting rooms and canceled sales visits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has been 10 long months, yet even now, as 2020 draws to a close, restrictions remain in place, and uncertainty clouds the future of many perennial wine events typically geared for consumers and/or trade. While we can't necessarily predict the future, we do know the wine industry demonstrated creativity and resilience through the darkest days of the COVID-19 experience.
Once given the go-ahead to resume public tastings outside while adhering to masking and social distancing protocols, California wineries in particular sprang back to life. When I visited the Napa Valley in October, the entire valley was bustling, including the hotels and restaurants that cater to the significant tourist trade that is the backbone of the Napa Valley economy.
I found the same energy and commitment to getting back up and running during a swing through Paso Robles.
Vintner Gary Eberle, recently named 2020 American Wine Legend by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, expressed optimism.
"I've put $100,000 into expanding our outdoor patio space, including new awnings," he said proudly. "No one is allowed to taste inside, but outside we're packed every weekend."
Of course, California has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases recently and has reverted to its strictest lockdown mode, with even outdoor tastings prohibited, but the availability of two vaccines should hasten a reopening of outdoor tastings in the not-too-distant future.
The Napa Valley had the worst of it in 2020, battling both COVID-19 restrictions and raging wildfires during the September grape harvest. This year's fires were particularly devastating. They began on the east side of the valley near Howell Mountain and jumped to the other side, which is very unusual. Before the last embers died out, Spring Mountain on the west side of the valley ended up suffering the most damage.
And several wineries, including the iconic Cain Cellars and Newton Vineyards, were completely destroyed. Yet spirits were soaring when I arrived in October. I attribute that to the passion residents share for living the wine country experience, even when things aren't going so well.
Most hurt were the small wineries with limited distribution, because they depend upon cellar door sales at the winery more than larger wineries with vast distribution channels. The larger wineries did just fine, because grocery store wine sales soared during the many lockdowns. People had to stay home, and apparently, earlier and longer happy hours made the stay-at-home orders more bearable.
Champagne sales also took a hit because large celebrations that call for Champagne, such as lavish weddings, were verboten through most of 2020.
I will do my part to boost Champagne sales in 2021, for once I've gotten the vaccine, I do plan to celebrate with a bottle of bubbly or two!
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Eponymous 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($60) — This is winemaker Bob Pepi's brand, and it's consistently one of the finest cabs made in the Napa Valley. This vintage is both elegant and powerful, beautifully scented and spicy, showing aromas of blueberry and blackberry with a subtle touch of oak and beautifully integrated tannins. Rating: 95.
Acumen 2016 Peak, Atlas Peak ($115) — This Bordeaux-style blend from Napa's Atlas Peak AVA is predominantly cabernet sauvignon, and it shows. Muscular and dense, with impressive palate weight and rich layers of blackberry and cassis, this is a candidate for extended cellaring. If you open it now, do yourself a favor and decant at least an hour prior to serving. Rating: 94.
Hilary Goldschmidt 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Charming Creek, Oakville ($50) — This is just another masterpiece from ace winemaker Nick Goldschmidt. This cab is sourced from the Napa Valley's Oakville district, which is to cabernet sauvignon what Fort Knox is to gold. Richly layered with aromas of blackberry and currant, the 2017 is beautifully balanced and shows impressive length. Though ready to drink now, it will only get better if cellared and allowed to reach full maturity. Rating: 94.
Eberle 2018 Cotes-du-Robles Rouge, Paso Robles ($34) — This vintage is a typical "GSM" blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, with the emphasis on grenache (63%). The hefty jolt of grenache pushes the red-fruit profile, with the syrah (30%) providing structure and a darker fruit nuance. Winemaker Chris Eberle eschews the high-alcohol fruit bombs for which Paso is famous, crafting instead a balanced, complex red that mirrors the beautiful red blends from France's Rhone Valley. Rating: 93.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Email Robert at [email protected]
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