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As one year comes to a close and another is on the near horizon, it’s only natural to look back on some treasured experiences while looking forward to those that await when the calendar turns.

Gratefully, I can say 2019 was packed with more wine adventures and discoveries than I ever could have imagined. Tastings, travel, fun dinners and many more dotted the calendar from start to finish. Here are just a few that stand out in my memory, each enriching my vinous experiences in its own way.

Our year began with our son, Randy, and his beautiful wife, Noelle, hosting their annual “Supper Club” for a New Year’s Eve celebratory dinner. Each couple prepared a unique themed dish to pair with a beverage of their choice. All the dishes were delicious, intriguing and accompanied by a wide range of wines from around the globe. Our dish was Roasted Butternut Squash with Baked Ricotta, Pumpkin Seeds and Sage accompanied by a 2003 Kopke Colheita White Port – an unusual pairing that elicited many positive comments.

As January unfolded, I was fortunate to attend the annual Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in San Francisco focusing on the compelling 2016 vintage that completed a rare trifecta of excellence from 2014, 2015 and 2016. During the tasting, 100 of Bordeaux’s finest châteaux (representing all of the appellation’s most prestigious growing areas) proudly showcased their wines with either the winemaker or vintner presenting them to a zealous crowd of trade and press. The quality of the vintage exceeded even my highest expectations.

As March rolled in, I attended the Terlato Wine Group’s tightly focused tasting highlighting five of their esteemed Burgundian Estates with winemakers and principles pouring exclusively for the trade and press. Demonstrating Burgundy’s diversity, the tasting featured 26 carefully chosen wines, including a few Regional and Villages selections, a rich representation of Premier Crus and several well-chosen Grand Crus (just 2 percent of Burgundy’s planted acreage).

Both whites and reds were included from the highly acclaimed, but quite different, 2015 and 2016 vintages. Throughout the tasting I observed a profound expression of terroir between different appellations and most remarkably, from different vineyards within the same appellation by the same producer. A real treat and one I continue to savor.

In May, my wife Barbara and I celebrated the 30th anniversary of our “Culinary Evening with the California Winemasters” (aka Winemasters), benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s research and care programs. Held at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Winemasters featured 75 of California’s finest wineries paired with 55 chefs from across the country and abroad along with more than 700 silent and live auction lots. This year’s event hosted 1400 guests and raised a net total of $1.8 million bringing our 30 year total to more than $34 million.

Winemasters kicked off with a Friday night Appellation Dinner focusing on the Stags Leap District that was a great success with seven Stags Leap District wineries pouring a broad range of wines and five chefs preparing an assortment of grilling dishes to tantalize the palate.

September was an especially busy month beginning with the always memorable Grgich Hills “Blessing of the Grapes” at their Rutherford winery. Grgich Hills was officially launched on July 4, 1976 and on September 8, 1977, Mike Grgich and partner Austin Hills crushed their inaugural Chardonnay with the first Blessing of the Grapes. Together, we sang two of Mike’s favorite songs: “You are My Sunshine” and “Que Serâ Serâ, both representing his personal gratitude for another harvest. It was a true joy to see Mike at 96 sing along with us while boasting a big smile.

The following week took us to Umbria in central Italy where we joined our 25 guests from around the country as we hosted a three-day wine-focused excursion in this most interesting and diverse area. Homebase was Hotel Borgo dei Conti about 30 minutes from Perugia. From there we ventured to the Le Marche region on the Adriatic coast for a visit to Ciú Ciú (translated to “drink drink”). With glass in hand, we toured the winery and then drove off to their 17th Century “showroom” in the heart of the medieval town of Offida for a locally inspired lunch accompanied by a generous selection of their wines.

The next day, we visited Antinori’s Castello della Sala in the Orvieto region. Here, we were escorted on an inspiring historical tour of the 14th century property that included sprawling tunnels and underground rooms that date to the original construction. We were then treated to a beautiful reception in the 13th century tower followed by a multi-course lunch paired to their award-winning wines. Each of the three evenings featured a different Umbrian five-course dining experience paired with a vinous selection of Italy’s finest.

We then traveled to the port of Civitavecchia and boarded the Crystal Serenity for a seven-day cruise to Sorrento, around the “sole” of Italy’s boot to the Adriatic with stops in Corfu, Montenegro, Dubrovnik and concluding in Venice. On board, our wine tasting group grew to 45, and I conducted two tastings, a five-course wine pairing dinner and a classic lunch in Dubrovnik featuring the wines of Grgic Vina and Grgich Hills.

The first tasting was an exploration of Zinfandel’s genetic ancestry from its birthplace on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia to Puglia in the heel of Italy’s boot and ultimately to Northern California. The second tasting was a journey through Piedmont and Tuscany – two of Italy’s most prestigious growing areas – with the wines of Pio Cesare (Piedmont), Col d’Orcia (Montalcino) and Poderi Sanguineto (Montepulciano). Each course of our dinner was paired with selections from across Italy’s premier growing regions.

The November trade tasting sponsored by L’Association Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Emilion offered another perspective of the heralded 2016 vintage from Bordeaux’s Right Bank. The tasting featured 16 Saint-Emilion member châteaux where the vintner or winemaker personally poured their 2016 vintage, plus one other for a retrospective look at vintages 2009 through 2015 and a glimpse forward to 2017. This event lent further validation of the greatness of this vintage across all of Bordeaux.

A few other highlights that come to mind were: The ViniPortugal tasting and seminar program highlighting the history, story and wines of this most historic country. Our annual trek to the Relais and Château GourmetFest in Carmel where we were once again overwhelmed by the outstanding wines and culinary treats the event offers each year. A very extensive and educational tasting of Aligoté (Burgundy’s “other” white grape) hosted by Jacky and Jim Young of Young Inglewood Vineyards in St. Helena where we enjoyed beautiful examples from Burgundy, California and Oregon.

A 2020 Winemasters “Kick-off” dinner under the stars at Shade Redondo Beach with Valerie Wathen and the wines of Dutton-Goldfield. And last week’s Winemasters “Holiday Wine Dinner” at Yardbird in Los Angeles with Joel Peterson pouring the wines of Ravenswood, Bedrock and his new Once and Future.

Of course, there were countless other special times, unique bottles and a plethora of new discoveries enjoyed through the year with family and friends. A great year and I’m certainly looking forward to what 2020 has to offer!

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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an email to me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com. Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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