Our Most-Read Articles of 2020

From being Black in the white wine industry, to drinks pros who lost their sense of smell, and microbial terroir in the vineyard, here’s a look back at the stories that resonated most

This year we devoted tremendous energy and coverage to contextualizing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our industry. Many of these features were reader favorites—including the crisis small wineries are facing, stories of wine pros who lost their sense of smell to COVID-19, and why retailers are confronting shortages on major spirits and wine brands.

Readers were inspired by insights from Black wine professionals, including Shakera Jones who wrote about what being an ally really means, and Dorothy J. Gaiter, whose essay on being Black in the white world of wine was our #2 most-read piece of the year.

Yet our #1 story of the year—Unraveling the Master Sommelier Exam Cheating Scandal—was Courtney Schiessl’s investigation into the fall-out one year after it occurred. A lot has happened since we reported that story, and the piece helped set the stage for many events that followed.

10. How Small American Wineries are Fighting to Survive the Crisis

Testarossa’s Tasting room. Photo courtesy of Testarossa.

Winemakers talk about their new reality and the lasting mark the coronavirus pandemic could leave on producers across the country

When word came on March 17 that California’s tasting rooms must shutter, Dan Panella, co-owner and winemaker at Oak Farm Vineyards in Lodi, California, considered his numbers. Sixty percent of his 30,000-case business was through wholesalers, but as restaurants closed, that melted by half. Nearly all his direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales had been in his tasting room. Online amounted to a fraction of revenue.

Panella reacted quickly. For cars still bumping up his driveway, he sold wine to-go. He emailed his entire mailing list—4,000 strong, including 2,500 wine club members—and offered free shipping on orders of three wines or more. His efforts paid off, and his online sales shot up. [Read more]

9. What Being an Ally Really Means

Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

How the drinks industry can move from words to actions when it comes to supporting POC drinks professionals 

Since George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, my inbox has been flooded with messages of solidarity from people all across the drinks industry. “I see you and hear you” is easy to believe right now, while everyone has a front-row seat in the theater to view how Black people are treated in America.

But neither seeing nor hearing involves action. The collective industry response, which ranged from silence, awkward responses, and black squares on Instagram feeds to some genuine pledges of support and action-backed commitments to change, made one thing painfully clear: Though there is a huge difference between being an ally in word and an ally in deed, few people are aware of which one they are. [Read more]

8. Understanding Microbial Terroir in Wine

Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Ongoing studies suggest that vineyard-specific microorganisms affect wine character. But does that mean natural wine is more expressive of terroir?

Terroir has long been a hot topic in wine, but now the lens is zooming in even further. Microbial terroir—or the effects of bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms in a vineyard—has become central to the conversation about overall terroir, particularly to the debate over natural wine and how we define it. The idea behind microbial terroir is that the microorganisms of a vineyard are unique and affect wine character in distinct ways, making them essential components of the expression of a site. [Read more]

7. Retailers Confront Worsening Shortages of Major Spirit and Wine Brands

Photo credit: iStock / ArtMarie.

Demand surges combined with supply chain disruptions result in out-of-stocks in tequila, Cognac, and Champagne

Craig Maske can’t seem to keep his shelves stocked. And he’s not alone.

Like many retailers across the country, Maske, partner and general manager of the three Sherlock’s retail shops in Atlanta, Georgia, has been struggling with frequent outages of major, top 20 spirit brands. It’s predominantly with Crown Royal, Patrón, and Hennessy, he reports, but impacts wine, too, especially early on with bag-in-box wine brands like Bota and Black Box.

The shortages began at the start of the pandemic last spring, improved somewhat over the summer, but have accelerated this fall and holiday season, and now increasingly impact major Champagne brands as well. [Read more]

6. How Winemakers Craft Clean Natural Wines

Photo credit: Radiokukka / iStock.

Why are some natural wines marked by volatile acidity, Brett, and mousiness, while others aren’t? Alex Russan investigates

The natural wine category is often associated with characteristics that are considered defects. Yet many natural wines are as clean and stable as conventionally produced wine.

Conventional winemakers can use a range of additives, including yeast nutrients, selected yeasts, acidity, microbial inhibitors, and sterilizers, to protect their wines. They can also filter their wines to remove unwanted microbes. Natural winemakers, however, must rely solely on their understanding of winemaking and grapes—and perhaps a small amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2). [Read more]

5. When Wine Pros Lose Smell and Taste to COVID-19

Photo credit: iStock.

After being temporarily robbed of career-essential senses, sommeliers and wine journalists reflect on how the experience changed them

A week after restaurants in Portland, Oregon, were allowed to reopen for on-site dinner service in June, Arden Wine Bar owner and sommelier Kelsey Glasser tested positive for COVID-19. Glasser was lucky; unlike Wesley Brown, one of the wine bar’s servers who also tested positive, she had barely any symptoms. But the one that terrified her was the one that threatened to undermine her career as a wine professional: the loss of smell and taste.

“It was scary,” says Glasser. “I would blow my nose and stick it up to vanilla, cinnamon, or a lemon. And it was like: nothing.” Although she could feel the temperature and texture of food while eating, it had zero flavor. At one point, Glasser put a spoonful of fermented habanero hot sauce on her tongue, but she couldn’t sense any tingling or flavor. [Read more]

4. The Evolution of Premium Canned Wine

From left to right: Lubanzi (photo by Jules Davis), Underwood (photo courtesy of Underwood), and Lila (photo courtesy of Lila).

How a growing number of boutique, sustainably-minded wine producers are carving an upscale niche in the canned category

Canned wine isn’t just found on grocery store shelves and at outdoor festivals these days. Fine wine producers are taking the category seriously today, and an increasing amount of high-end juice is making its way into cans, creating a luxury niche in the fast-growing format. [Read more]

3. Could Timorasso Be Italy’s Most Exciting, Age-Worthy White Wine?

Timorasso vineyard in Tortona, Piedmont. Photo credit: iStock.

A once-obscure Piemontese grape is on the rise, and it’s being embraced by Italian producers and American sommeliers

While Piedmont boasts an enormous range of unique grapes, much of the world’s attention has been centered on its red varieties, including Nebbiolo and Barbera. Despite regional winemakers’ efforts to diversify their red-heavy portfolios with the likes of Arneis, Nascetta, or even Chardonnay and Riesling, broad acclaim for Piedmontese white wines has been relatively scant. But now it appears that consensus is forming around the future of Piemontese white wine, and that future is Timorasso. [Read more]

2. Being Black in the White World of Wine

Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Dorothy J. Gaiter talks about her experience as a Black wine journalist in an industry that has been slow to shed its identity as an exclusive all-white club

I’m angry, exhausted, and hurting.

I became a journalist 47 years ago to write about race and social issues. I wrote for the Miami Herald, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In 1998, the Journal asked me and my husband, John, to create a wine column for its new weekend section. We had been studying wine since we met in 1973, but this truly immersed me into the world of wine, and I’ve been here ever since, writing “Tastings” for the Journal until 2010 and now as the senior editor for the online wine magazine Grape Collective.

The killing of George Floyd, the resulting protests, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color have heightened my anger at how little progress we’ve made toward justice and equality—both in our country and in the wine industry. [Read more]

1. Unraveling the Master Sommelier Exam Cheating Scandal

Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

More than a year after the scandal that rocked the wine world in 2018, candidates and Master Sommeliers are still fighting for change

“Passing the Master Sommelier exam is everything you think it’s going to be and more,” says Pete Bothwell, the New York City–based East Coast sales manager for Continuum Estate wines. “It was the purest, most emotional time of my life.” That sentiment was magnified after the 2018 Master Sommelier exam, held September 3–5, when an unprecedented 24 Master Sommeliers, including Bothwell, passed and joined the top ranks of one of the wine world’s most prestigious organizations.

But the 2018 Master Sommelier exam would soon be remembered for another reason. On October 9, 2018, the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMSA), announced that it was invalidating the results of the tasting portion of the exam because a proctor had disclosed confidential test information the day of the exam. The result was that 23 of the 24 new MSs were stripped of their titles. (One new MS had passed the tasting portion in a previous year.) [Read more]


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