“Hell, yes!” Every once in a while, a taster will respond with unbridled enthusiasm when our editor asks, “Would you tell a friend to buy this wine?” Sometimes, they’re a lonely yes vote—and then we offer to give them the bottle to take home. But often, they can’t have it, as other panelists are just as excited about the wine, and the editor will need time, measured in hours or days, to consider it.
Put a lot of unanimous Hell, yeses together, and, after 10,000 wines, you get this guide.
Forty years ago, this magazine began running blind tastings with winemakers—trained as technical tasters, more generous with their science than their enthusiasm. Five years later, when we started this guide, it was an opportunity to reflect on the outcome of our tastings. We had already quashed the idea of tasting with winemakers; at the time, we were more concerned about the embarrassment they felt when they dissed their own wine, or one made by a friend.
We were tasting with knowledgeable people in the trade, perceptive and articulate blind tasters. But it took us a long time before the year-end results would align with our own sense of what wine should be, or could be.
For a number of years, we published the results of the American Wine Competition, Craig Goldwyn’s project for which he gathered seven pre-qualified tasters for each panel, and calculated results from the group’s scores to generate the awards. The top wines tended to be the ones on which everyone could agree—wines of great quality, but rarely with distinctive character. So, we took all of our tastings back in house and began to build a team of knowledgeable editors to lead our blind tastings, each focused on a particular set of regions. We trained them to encourage the most professional sommeliers to relax, to leave their tasting grid behind and just respond to the wine: to filter their own preferences through their academic tasting skills, which we all do, whether consciously or not. Then we asked our editors to gather the responses of the panelists, consider their own response to each wine, and rate it from their own perspective.
That’s about the time Tara Q. Thomas came onboard, in 1997. She helped us develop the system that creates what we now believe to be an extraordinary guide to the wines released in the past year. Patrick Comiskey joined soon thereafter, and he and Tara continue to work with me to steer our tasting team. Stephanie Johnson and Corey Warren have joined more recently, both running our tasting department before taking on regions as wine editors. Luke Sykora, who served as senior editor in our California office for close to a decade, helped us articulate our scoring system and develop the language we use to talk about wine. He continues to contribute to this guide, with a number of Top 100 Winery profiles.
All of them have contributed to the development of our tasting policies, edited down to a simple question, “Would you recommend this wine to a friend?” That question elicits a very different response than “Would you recommend this wine?” It balances the personal with the professional. And it generates a guide to 100 wineries that inspired more of those personal recommendations than any of their neighbors. We love gathering these wineries for our Top 100 Tasting, where many of them pour a selection from our Top 100 Wines—a separate list of top performances—and some from our Top 100 Best Buys: all and only wines that excited our tasters. We are proud to present our 35th Annual Buying Guide with selections to enliven your holidays, and the year to come.
This story appears in the print issue of Winter 2021.
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