Wine World

Raise a glass to 2020

It wasn’t all bad for California wine
Online and premium wine sales have surged during the pandemic. Photo: Feverpitched

It’s a huge understatement to say that 2020 was a rough year, and California’s wine industry suffered multiple crises — the pandemic that closed winery tasting rooms, weeks of brutal heat, and horrific wildfires that burned wineries and engulfed the entire Bay Area in thick smoke and falling ash. As a result, the state’s wine grape growers produced less wine in 2020 than was forecast. And yet, according to Wine Industry Advisor, of the 4,200 wineries in California, fewer than 20 reported significant damage to wineries. Smoke taint (when grapes exposed to smoke results in wine that carries a faint off aroma and the taste of smoke) did do some damage, but plenty of delicious varietals were crafted in 2020. White wines like Chardonnay and Riesling, which are harvested earlier than reds so the grapes were picked before the fires, did especially well.


Covid-19 also brought changes to the way we drink wine, and to the way in which we buy it. For one, more consumers buy their wine online, and once buyers purchase wine this way, they tend to repeat it. According to Pew Research, more than 80 percent of Americans now purchase wine online, and online wine sales are growing. Virtual wine tastings and ads on social media are also convincing consumers to purchase wine directly from wineries.


We’re also drinking more wine, and more premium wines at that. In a Dec. 18, 2020 New York Times article, Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverages and alcohol at the research firm Nielson, said, “Consumers are trading up and spending more, and it’s a trend that’s been accelerated since the pandemic started.” Many Americans are traveling less and not eating out, so they’re more likely to splurge for wine at home, where it can cost half of what it does in restaurants.


This trend is inspiring some top California wineries to release older vintages — library or cave releases from winery cellars are doing well. For example, The New York Times reported that Napa Valley’s Quintessa sold its first “decade release” wine in 2020 at $250 a bottle. And Charles Krug, one of the oldest wineries in the country, rereleased a collection of “vintage select” Cabernet Sauvignons from 1974, 1991, and 2003 for $1,000; 2020’s vintage select Cabernet is $125. According to SipSource, which collects data from wine and spirits distributors, sales of premium wines have grown more than other categories.

Another thing to note about California winemaking in 2020 is that while the entire state suffered from excessive heat and wildfire smoke, wine-growing regions other than Napa and Sonoma were somewhat less impacted. Growing conditions in appellations in the Russian River Valley, Lake County, Mendocino County, Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles and the Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, and El Dorado Hills benefited from an early, mostly mild spring and just a few heat spikes. Wine makers from these areas believe their 2020 varietals have great potential. And there are plenty of reasonably priced, newly released wines on the market from all over the state to buy now.


It’s too early to sample most 2020 vintages, but whether you plan to buy your wine online or directly from a winery, here are some of Wine Enthusiast’s top choices for 2020 affordable new releases from California:

Brady Vineyard Paso Robles Zinfandel 2018, $24. Rich red fruit and contrasting stone, savory spice, and ample acidity and tannins.

Birichino Besson Vineyard Central Coast Old Vine Grenache 2018, $25. Dark, ripe berries and spices with fresh acidity and minerality.

San Simeon Monterey Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2019, $25. Aromas of Bing cherry, cloves, and other baking spices, and a smooth, silky mouthfeel. 

Four Vines Naked Central Coast Chardonnay 2018, $11. Vibrant with flavors of crisp Asian pear and mint on the nose, and a palate rich with melon, lemon, and guava.

Husch Anderson Valley Dry Gewurztraminer 2018, $15. Dry and flavorful with bright grapefruit and pear flavors; full bodied with a lingering finish.

Girasole Mendocino County Pinot Blanc 2019, $14. Ripe, luscious melon flavors balanced by a smooth, buttery feel with citrus accents.

Kendall-Jackson Santa Rosa Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2019, $15. Bright, ripe fruit flavors and zesty acidity in a full-bodied white.

Of course there are many more new wines to try and more on their way. If you’d like expert help selecting them, look to California Wine Merchant (2113 Chestnut Street, 415-567-0646, or The Jug Shop (1590 Pacific Avenue, 415-885-2922, And when the 2020 varietals roll out, you may just want to put one away to bring out in remembrance of a year that none of us will ever forget.

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