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Top 10 Wine Experiences of 2009

Beth Ribblett

Like it or not, New Year's Eve tends to be a day of reflection. As many news publications like to write about the biggest news stories or the best movies of the year, I started reminiscing yesterday about my top 10 wine moments of the past 12 months. This isn't a buying guide nor does it have anything to do with ratings, I'm not even sure if all of these wines are still available, and some of the experiences are not even about a particular wine. These are really just 10 specific, very special moments in time when everything came together and made me pause and say to myself "hmmm! this is why I do what I do..." I've listed them in order of experience, not rating, so they start with our visit to New York last year in January and end with an evening in our home right before Christmas.

1. The first time I tasted an Etna Rosso was in New York for the Italian Trade Commission Wine Conference in January. Invited to a party by our friend Lisa, we needed quick bottle and walked into a little wine shop in the East Village on our way there. To my delight we found a small section of Sicilian wines with an inexpensive 2006 Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso. We popped it open immediately at the party to have with some pizza and I knew I had just found my new favorite grape varietal. A beautiful introduction to the Nerello Mascalese grape, it was lush and easy drinking, with a purity of fruit and hints of dark cherries, tobacco and wild herbs, and an earthiness and texture reminiscent of Burgundy, but is distinctly Sicilian. I was hooked.

2. More of a complete sensory overload of wonderful wine, food and people was our 2009 Tre Bicchiere Wine Dinner at Ristorante del Porto with our friend Antonio Molesini leading the way. Each year we hold this dinner with Antonio that features six of the highest award winning wines of the Italian wine guide, Gambero Rosso, at a top notch Italian restaurant. The combination of amazing wines, delicious food, delightful people and Antonio's humorous presentations made the entire evening a truly unforgettable experience. I can't wait to see what the 2010 dinner will bring!

3. Our introduction to skin fermented white wines came by way of some of our favorite people in the wine world. When our friends Neal and Monica brought us Abe Schoener's 2007 Scholium Project Prince in His Caves to taste for the first time, we were blown away, as we are every time we have had it since then. What we began to call, in very technical industry lingo, the "crazy wine", Abe's wines are known for pushing the envelope and this one is an enigma in itself. An unfiltered, skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc that is aged in new oak fills your glass with a cloudy yellow, viscous juice that looks more like a Belgian beer than wine. It opens with aromas of pink grapefruit juice, but as it hits your palate there are complex notes of honey, minerals and spice with a dry and "tannin-like" astringency at the back end and a finish that never ends. A true wine geeks wine and the start of our love for Abe and his wines.

4. Every once in awhile you come across a truly exquisite wine, one that you can't stop thinking about, whose memory haunts your olfactories and taste buds until you finally have it again. Even in this business where tasting 75 wines a week is the norm, I rarely run across a wine that makes me salivate like this. But knowing my love for Italian wines, our friend Matt Lirette nonchalantly popped the 2004 Cigliuti Barbaresco Serraboella at his house one evening for dinner and I've been thinking about it ever since. In the glass, the first thing that throws you is the color, a rich ruby tone that tells you this is not a typical Nebbiolo. A true "meditation" wine, the aromas are so intoxicating you never want to take your nose out of the glass, but know you need to start drinking or your wine loving friends will finish the bottle before you even have a sip! But the earthy, leather, cherry and tar perfume keep hinting at the treasures that await your palate. And once you do actually take a drink of this exquisitely elegant yet rich and complex wine that coats your mouth with its velvety texture and flavors of violets, spice box, sweet tobacco and dark fruit, you find that somehow it tastes even better than it smells!

5. We were given a very special bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir one day by our new friend James Moises, and wanted to share it with people who we thought would appreciate it. So with a huge piece of freshly caught tuna to grill, we invited our friends Lisa and Karoline over for dinner and popped a stunning 1999 Yamhill Carlton Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir given to use by James Moises and made by his partner Mark Wahle. It was eye opening to me how amazingly, fresh and elegant yet powerful this wine was with 10 years of age! This particular bottle and my experiences with the Moises Wines from the same vineyard marked the start of my deep appreciation for OregonPinot Noir!

6. Researching wineries our Wine and Culinary Tour of Sicily, I came across a very small producer on the northern slopes of Mount Etna that really got me excited. Frank Cornelissen , who I now affectionately call the "Mad Man of Etna", is doing some really amazing stuff with indigenous varietals and I knew he had to be part of our trip. Cynthia Nicholson, our partner in the wine and food trip visited Frank in the spring and brought back a few of his wines to share with us. I made a very Sicilian dish called Pasta Trapanese and we had Frank's skin fermented white, the 2008 Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco and his amazing Magma with the meal . The pairings, Cynthia's company, the conversation and of course the sensory introduction to Frank's wines (which have become somewhat of an obsession with me...)made it a truly unforgettable experience that we all talked about for months.

7. Kerry and I had the privilege of meeting Clovis Taittinger about a year ago and made an instant connection with the quirky, humble, funny and somewhat shy French aristocrat. So when we found out he was coming back in October, we teamed up with Commander's Palace for a Taittinger Champagne dinner hosted by the man himself. Eating fabulous food in one of the world's most prestigious restaurants, drinking the amazing 1998 Comtes de Champagne with Clovis, surrounded by customers who have all become our friends, it couldn't have been a more wonderful evening.

8. Our Wine and Culinary tour of Sicily could encompass 10 top moments on its own, but if I had to narrow it down, I would pick the beautifully stunning morning we drank wine with Frank Cornelissen on his black lava rock courtyard in the little town of Solicchiata on the northern slopes of Mount Etna. The wines, Frank's passion, and the entire group's appreciation for both made it a really magical moment. Through his practice of extreme non-intervention Frank allows the wines to take a natural course and through taking that course a very distinct quality comes through each and every wine. I can only describe it as an essence of purity and an expression of the grape from a very particular time and place that you taste in every sip and each one of his creations. That particular place is the Etna and is like no other on earth. And Frank's wines are alive with the spirit of this amazing place.

9. Our friend Rachel's mother had just passed away and a group of friends gathered at her house that evening to reminisce and bring closure to the amazing story her life had been. We nibbled on cheese, chorizo, olives and fresh bread as we laughed, cried and hugged each other. I wanted to bring something special to celebrate Patsy, so I chose the 2007 Jean Louis Tribouley Carginan. It was elegant and fresh, a beautiful, soft richness on the palate, yet with a little spicy kick, reminiscent of the woman we came there to honor. It was the perfect wine for the moment and it will forever remind me of Patsy.

10. One Sunday evening recently I decided to cook up some Esses Foods fresh pasta with a little pancetta and tomato sauce I had just made. Our friend Matt Lirette had given me a bottle of a new Etna Rosso (Matt has come to share my love for Nerello Mascalese), that he thought I would like. So we invited our friend Lisa over and popped the 2007 Pietradolce Archineri with the meal. Again, another wine that reinforced for me the amazing things that can come from this grape! A heady perfume of red fruits, baking spices and caramel literally jump from the glass, with lush, almost jammy flavors of plum, raspberries and oranges coat your palate. I called Matt the next day and said that I had to have that wine in the shop! He assures me it's coming....
I find it only fitting that my top wine moments of the year started and ended with Kerry, Lisa and a glass of Nerello Mascalese...

So, while there were times throughout the past year where life was challenging and difficult, it is nice to think back on these moments of joy spent with people I care about and sharing my passion for food and wine. Because a great wine is nothing without someone special to share it with and I am thankful to have a partner and friends who appreciate these wonderful moments just as much as I. I can't wait to see what 2010 will bring! Happy New Year!