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Surprises, COVID Challenges, And A Less Carbon-Intensive Approach

In this companion piece to the “peek behind the scenes” of how a “Top 100” wine industry list actually comes to fruition, Wine & Spirits magazine editor and publisher Josh Greene describes general trends he’s noticed over the past 35 years of producing his index of top wineries from around the world. Greene also describes this year’s surprises, the COVID-related challenges he and his team have faced, and how to create a less carbon-intensive global list.

What are some general trends you’ve noticed over the years?

JG: We’ve been doing the Top 100 Wineries list for 35 years, and there’s been so much change in the wine world. We wouldn’t have had so many pinot noirs in Oregon back in 1987. In 1987, Hirsch Vineyards (Sonoma) had two acres of vines. Hermann Wiemer would have still been running his winery [in New York state], and Ravines [also in New York] didn’t exist in their current state back then.

The biggest change is how many small artisan growers have developed international distribution and fame in those 35 years. And it’s still happening, there are still new ones coming on. There’s been so much development and so much shifting of style. Will Napa Valley be producing the wines five years from now that were produced even ten years ago?

Other than Clos Canarelli in Corsica, have there been any surprises this year?

JG: I would say J Lohr was a surprise. They’re a huge grower in the Central Coast of California who showed well and consistently this year. It was an interesting and pleasant surprise, and a lot of their wines are very affordable.

Sullivan Rutherford Estate (Napa), Hannes Sabathi (Austria) and Petit & Bajan (Champagne) are completely new. Also Clos des Fées (Languedoc), Vassaltis (Santorini), and Eden Rift (California Central Coast). I’m glad to see Musar (Lebanon) on the list.

Have you encountered any COVID-related challenges to producing the list these past few years?

JG: We’ve had all sorts of challenges that we faced through COVID, but we were able to sustain our tasting project. For a long time it was really hard to do because we had everyone tasting remotely. We were sending samples around, in some cases bottling samples for other people, in other cases tasting with people on a Zoom call, but always tasting with at least one other person. When opened our office again, we tasted live with one or two or three other people. It was challenging but we stlll were able to taste ten thousand wines this year.

The bigger challenge during the pandemic was working with restaurants [whose staff also serve as tasters and panelists]. Restaurants had two levels of challenge. One, a lot of the people who taste with us are no longer at the restaurants where they were before. People are scattered all over the place. Secondly, for our restaurant poll, trying to pin down people and what they’re selling has been chaos. We’re hoping that our restaurant poll will come back into focus this year. Beyond tasting, it’s been reporting on restaurants that’s been really hard. It’s just coming back now in any sort of way that seems solid.

Any plans to change the process or do anything differently, moving forward?

JG: We’ve been talking a lot about how to make our system less carbon intensive. We don’t want to be flying around, visiting different regions consistently. It’s challenging and not simple, to figure out ways to do it differently that still meet our goal.

What’s hard about changing it is that there are all sorts of unintended consequences that have cropped up. We’re trying to have less wines shipped to us, for example, and more local tasters. But we don’t want to take out things that we’d otherwise be recommending, and we don’t want to pre-empt the role of the importer.

What do you personally find most interesting about creating this list each year?

JG: The most interesting thing to me about the list is how consistent it is even though all the tasting is blind. Half of the list is always changing, half of it is familiar names, even with all of the logistical shifts and changing patterns. Because we’re looking for wines that are expressive of their regions, those wines rise to our top level every year in a consistent way. Rather than looking for the highest quality, we’re looking for the most expressive wines.

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