Top Picks for 2005

By JoAnne Hewett | January 1, 2006 10:04 pm

It’s that time of year, when the media overwhelms us with list after list of the “Best fill in the blank of 2005″. I fully admit to being hooked on these (sometimes cheesy) lists – it’s a combination of nostalgia and curiosity on my part. To me, one such list stands out. In fact, it is downright important: the annual top 100 wines of the year as compiled by the Wine Spectator. It comes pretty close to bringing total hysteria to my household. It is published every year in the December 31st issue. If I see it in the store before it has arrived in my mailbox, I buy it – one can’t have too many copies of the pull-out form of the list. This year, I learned that Mark received his copy a full TWO days before me, and seeing my agony, he was kind enough to xerox the pull-out for me.

The editors of the Wine Spectator tasted and rated 12,400 wines in 2005. (If I don’t make it in physics, I’m going to apply for that job!) They rated 2500 as outstanding, which translates to gathering at least 90 points on their 100 point rating system. They started with this set of 2500 outstanding wines and evaluated each on 4 criteria: quality, value, availability, and excitement. I’m sure there was plenty of discussion (perhaps more tasting??) before they finally arrived at their top 100 picks. The roundup spans 13 countries (note that I count California and the Pacific Northwest as 2 different wine countries).

Each year, upon finally getting my hands on this list, my first task is to see how many of the wines I have tasted. The count this year was about average (the year I had only tasted 2 Chardonnays was heartbreaking): 12/100, corresponding to numbers 3, 16, 30, 33, 42, 49, 53, 69, 77, 78, 80, and 85 for the insanely curious. Note that the wines tend to be less expensive if they are further down the list. (I’ve been keeping track of this Best of list since 1991 and have only had 2 of their #1 wines – one of which is still cellared!) I highly recommend 2 of these wines: #69, Fairview Goats do Roam in Villages 2003 from South Africa (no, I’m not joking, that is the actual name – it’s a pun off the French Cote du Rhone) and #77, Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2002. I snared a case of each (long since sold out in the Bay Area) and it’s almost all gone….these are very quaffable wines. Goats was $11/bottle and the Cab was $12.

My next task is to memorize the compilation and scour the local wine shops for other wines on the list! It’s a frenzy cause I have to beat out everyone else. The process has begun and I managed to capture the last bottle of #18, a 2003 Aussie Shiraz for $15, sitting on the rack in my local shop. In fact, the wine shops will now contact their distributors and also try to nab as many of these bottles as they can – they will be featured in the January newsletters and I will be able to pick up a couple more (with reasonable prices).

I could go on about whether wine magazines with their rating scales do a service or disservice to the wine community – case in point: the Number One wine of 1999 was the 1996 Chateau St Jean Cinq Cepages – the price for that wine immediately shot up to ~$75 and has stayed there since, while I have a 1994 bottling in my cellar with a $13 price tag still on the bottle. But I think I will save that discussion for a later time and close with my personal top picks for the year.

My personal top wine of the year was one that I accidentally found in the back of my wine storage area – it was a 1992 Ridge Lytton Estates Zinfandel, which should have been drunk about 5 years ago, but was absolutely fabulous. The runner-up was a 2003 Oregon Argyle Pinot Noir Nuthouse Vineyard. Had that one in a restaurant and ordered it just for the name! Honorable mention goes to 2003 P.E.T.S. Vinum Petite Sirah at $11/bottle. That case is long gone. (Don’t even think about trying the 2004 – it’s not the same.)

Now that the New Year has arrived, I look forward to the wines released in 2006! May they be bountiful, delicious, and affordable.

  • Richard

    I have doubts about the usefulness of this list, except perhaps as a very rough guide. Even beginning with only 2500 wines that need to be narrowed down to 100, this task would be extremely taxing to the taste and olfactory memories of our brain. A dog perhaps, but not a human! What are the biases of the editors? Are these few people imposing their own particular tastes on the entire marketplace? How is the very weak value of our dollar affecting this list and consequently distorting the marketplace?

    The best approach does not give instant satisfaction, but is probably best in the long run. Establish your own taste by sampling many different wines from different locations — sweet [yech] or dry, single grape or complex blends (most French are blends), full bodied or bright — and make sure that the wine expert in your local store understands what you like and don’t like over time so that they can give progressively more accurate recommendations. Also, wine tastings can be an excellent way of sampling many wines at one time, but pay attention to biases that may be built into them.

    Slightly off topic: don’t make the mistake that I just made of opening one of your best bottles of wine when you have a head cold. Save it for later!

  • Sean

    “Goats do Roam in Villages” is perhaps the best name for a wine ever. I would definitely buy it just on that basis alone.

    And you can’t go wrong with Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandels, although I don’t think I’ve been lucky enough to try the 1992.

  • JoAnne


    I agree with you that the absolute best way to develop one’s wine palate is to taste, taste, taste, and then taste some more. I have been fortunate to tour almost every major wine growing region in the world (I’m presently missing only Piedmont, Tuscany, and South America – ok, Germany too, but I don’t like German wines so that doesn’t count). And I’ve been attending tastings regularly for the last 15 years. When approached with a new to me bottling, I can make a fairly accurate educated guess as to whether or not it will be to my taste.

    However, the Wine Spectator – for good or worse – was an essential part of developing knowledge of my wine tastes. I have this love-hate relationship with them. I have consistently found their recommendations to be reliable (I find that my taste is well calibrated to James Laube – their California wine editor). I have been steered wrong by Robert Parker so many times that I no longer subscribe to his Wine Advocate. As a contrast, I have never, and I repeat, never, found a staff member of a local wine shop to be helpful. (OK, to be fair, the exception is when I’m choosing the SLAC Summer Institute wines. They know they’re getting a $1500-2000 wine order and they go out of their way.) I find that wine shop staffers tend to steer me towards slightly more expensive wines that don’t pack the punch. They leave the juicy bargins that sell out quickly to the people who know what they’re buying.

    And, one must continuously be cautious with wait-staff in restaurants. Unless I’m in a place like the Little Nell at Aspen with a world-class sommelier I ask them to leave me alone on the wine choice. Most of time they don’t know diddley squat. It’s really disappointing.

    Continuing this diatribe for those brave enough to venture on, I have a pet peeve with most wine shops. They overcharge. I know what exactly what some wines should cost, and nothing gets my dander up more than seeing them overpriced. A perfect example near SLAC is Beltramo’s in Menlo Park. A less then 5 minute drive down the street will land you in K&L Wine Merchants. They may not pay as much attention to you, but it’s the same wine at $5 less per bottle. I have no idea how Beltramo’s can stay in business.

  • JoAnne


    Fairview has a series of “Goats” wines: Goats do Roam, Goats do Roam in Villages, and Goat Rotie. Which is best depends on the particular vintage. All are great fun!

    And now I’m going to get snobby, but there is point behind my snobbiness. One can never be too careful in reading the label of a wine in order to know exactly what one is drinking. You mentioned the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, which is a very good wine, and is widely available in good wine shops literally throughout the world. I was talking about Ridge Lytton Estates Zinfendel. It’s a different animal. It’s only sold to members of Ridge’s Advanced Taster’s Program, or at the winery if you happen to know the person behind the counter. I have only been fortunate enough to taste the 92 and 96 Lytton Estates and it is a nectar from the Gods. It’s a small difference on the label, but a large difference in taste between something good and something special.

    Gosh – just in case somebody might be reading this and wondering what to get me for the next occasion (like, maybe my birthday?) how about the gift that keeps on giving – a membership to Ridge’s Advance Taster’s Program!

    That was shameless of me – sorry. Couldn’t resist….

  • Sean

    Fair enough, I stand corrected. Although, if I were in charge of marketing for Ridge, I’d give them some pointers on high-end branding.

  • Science

    You are lucky living in a wine producing country. Wine in the UK is overtaxed as is every other import. Luckily the beer is no longer served warm.

  • Richard


    How lucky to find a reviewer who consistently agrees with your own taste!

    The retail markup on wine may be significant in stores, but the situation in restaurants is even worse. My wine expert in the neighborhood wine store recently told me that he’s usually horrified when he reads through the wine list in a restaurant, finding, for example, bottles for which they are charging $50 that sell for only $30 retail in his own store. Wine and liquor are big cash cows for the restaurants. He also told me that he sees a consistent pattern that the second to the least expensive wine in the list is usually the worst deal on the list. Why? Because many people don’t want to spend a small fortune for their bottle of wine, but feel embarrassed to order the least expensive bottle — especially when on a date I suppose — and so they target the next most expensive bottle as a money maker with a low quality to price ratio. I can’t personally confirm this theory, but I thought I’d pass it on.

  • JoAnne

    Richard, you are absolutely right. I don’t even want to get started on a diatribe about the pricing of wines in restaurants. On more than one occasion I have confronted the poor waitor with what I know is a factor of at least 3 markup.

    In the end, if I find a restaurant with good wine pricing I return. If the wine pricing is off-scale, I don’t order wine and I don’t got back.

  • Doug K

    “Fairview Goats do Roam” – Fairview has a flock of goats, and a Goat Tower (which if memory serves is pictured on the label). Fairview’s goat milk cheeses are rather wonderful too. It’s one of the reliable S. African estates – never had a bad wine from them, and some fine ones.

    I’ve bought from K&L Wines by mailorder, buying for a winetasting club: also once to try a real Bordeaux (Lynch-Bages). They’re good shop.

    One of the few regrets I have about not being rich, is not being able to afford the kind of wines that are on the top 100.. oh well.


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