Best of 2017: Monica Larner

It’s 5:00 a.m. and I am sitting in the dark in my hotel room reflecting on the past year that is now coming to a bittersweet conclusion. I’m in this hotel as the air quality back on Larner Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, is so bad in the midst of the tragic wildfires burning near my family’s home. The dim blue light of my laptop reflects off the lenses of my newly prescribed reading glasses. (Reading glasses, yes, those are one of the many smaller milestones passed in 2017.) There were many more significant changes this past year, some good and some unhappy. 

I will greatly miss the lively exchanges shared with two dear teammates, Jeb Dunnuck and Neal Martin, who both left our publication this year. It has been an enormous honor and a privilege to work with these two extraordinary wine critics. Our two newest hires Joe Czerwinski (my former Tasting Director for many years at the Wine Enthusiast—great to see you here, Joe!) and William Kelley have big shoes to fill, but are absolutely up to the task. I look forward to hitting that comfortable and productive work stride now that our reviewing team has been successfully reconfigured. For sure, there were a lot of growing pains over the course of the past year, but if 2018 opens a new and exciting chapter for the Wine Advocate—I say, bring it on! 

When looking back over the past 12 months, I cannot help but recall the great political and cultural uncertainty that has washed over us—not just in the United States—with regards to climate change. The effects on Italian wine started to emerge with clear and troublesome patterns to me over the past years and in 2017 in particular. We’ve all noticed subtle changes for years now in Italy: The parched and scorching hot summers in Puglia and Sicily where farmland cracks open like chapped lips; the fact it no longer rains softly in Rome (water instead dumps down with rainforest-like ferocity overpowering the capital’s ancient drainpipes and flooding my neighborhood streets); and the worrisome infrequency of winter snow and freezes in cool climates like Piedmont (subzero temperatures are important to resetting vines against disease). Depending on the region, the 2017 vintage showed various unfortunate combinations of these dangerous weather adversities and conspired to create one of the most difficult growing seasons in recent memory across Italy. 

The worldwide picture is more troublesome still. One of my closest friends from university back in Boston struggled to get his older parents out of Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria hit this past September. The final straw came when he learned that his parents’ neighbor was forced to bury his deceased wife in his backyard garden because no one came to take her body. And we all watched in horror as storms hit Texas and Florida. As I write this, the Thomas Fire continues to burn close to the people and animals I hold most dear. The wildfire destruction across Napa, Sonoma, Ventura and Santa Barbara is impossible to digest. If this is “the new normal” as California Governor Jerry Brown suggests, it feels like the entire Golden State is at risk of destruction.  

Those of us who enjoy wine so passionately share a special bond to the land and to the climate. In a sense, we are the custodians of those magically unique farming conditions that bring so much pleasure and intellectual stimulation to our hearts, minds and palates. Each glass of fine wine is a symbol of the profound beauty that can be achieved with the most basic and natural agricultural practices. To close 2017, I raise my glass to this magnificent Planet Earth and to all of those who protect her. This includes the firefighters who are working so bravely throughout this holiday season. 

I am staying at The View Hotel within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the border of Arizona and Utah. The dim light of dawn now shines behind the heavy curtains. I see glowing hues of pink and gold from behind the fabric. As I pull them apart, I am treated to a panorama that I will not soon forget. Three buttes appear in perfect symmetry starting with the West and East Mitten Buttes and the Merrick Butte off to the right. 

When I see a site of such profound beauty, I am reminded that—perhaps—Mother Nature is raising her own glass of wine right back at us.

Top Three Most Outstanding New Releases
Instead of selecting all three from Italy, I wanted to spread the love, and decided to break this category down into three sections representing Northern, Central and Southern Italy.
Roberto Conterno and I barrel sampling at the Giacomo Conterno winery in Monforte d’Alba this past spring.

Hands down, my top pick from Northern Italy is the 2010 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino. “Duh?” you say? Indeed, this is a cosmic no-brainer. I could slap on all kinds of platitudes on the wine as I did when I gave it 100-points this past spring. Today with some distance, what I want to say most about this magnificent creation is that it moved me somewhere deep on the inside. The wine evoked an emotional response of joy and pleasure that I have encountered only a few times prior. I think an important part of my response—and my immediate 100-point assessment—came thanks to fulfilled expectation. When you have extremely high expectations, you almost always set yourself up for failure. It is far easier for those expectations to morph into disappointment because it’s near impossible for something to be as good as you imagined it to be. That did not happen when I reviewed this wine. I felt a combination of excitement and relief when I realized that the wine not only met my expectations, it exceeded them far and wide. 

Also on my list is the 100-point 2009 Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero. The Vietti winemaking style is just so darn appealing to me and to everyone I know. Have you ever heard anyone say anything bad about a Vietti wine? I haven’t. As I wrote in my review: “I’m not sure how Luca Currado does it.” He has the Midas Touch to turn Barolo into gold. 

My third pick from Northern Italy is the exceptional (but also very precious and pricey) 1991 Cantina Terlano Alto Adige Pinot Bianco Rarity. Alto Adige is a treasure trove of excellent cool climate whites at different price points and Pinot Bianco is one of my absolutely favorite expressions. This wine is actually blended with smaller parts Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and it ages on the lees for a quarter of a century.  Alto Adige leads the charge when it comes to demonstrating the longevity of Italian white wines. This stunning wine is a case in point.
I loved 2010, I loved 2012 and my new year will kick off with a preview taste of 2013 in just a few weeks time.

Central Italy

To my mind, one of the most Outstanding New Releases from Central Italy comes from the Sangiovese whisperer Alessandro Mori. His 2012 Il Marroneto Brunello di Montalcino Madonna Delle Grazie exudes elegance and grace with a stylistic approach that is so unique to this small estate to the north of Montalcino’s historic center. Finesse and pedigree put Il Marroneto in a small group of classic Brunello producers along with personal favorites Cerbaiona, Il Poggione and Salvioni (just to name a few). I took a big chance on Il Marroneto when I gave the 2010 vintage of this wine 100 points a few years back. To be honest, previous vintages tasted over the 10 years prior had not always convinced me. But the quality of 2010 was absolutely overwhelming and undisputed to my mind. I am so pleased to see Alessandro Mori maintain this excellence with his 2011 release and this exceptional wine from 2012. I look forward to reviewing the 2013 edition in just a few weeks’ time. 

Another wine from Central Italy that stuck out among this year’s new releases is the 2013 Tenuta Guado al Tasso Matarocchio. I would argue that Tuscany is one of the most exciting homes of Cabernet Franc. I would include this wine within an elite circle that includes Duemani’s Cabernet Franc Duemani, Le Macchiole’s Paleo and Tenuta di Trinoro’s line of single-vineyard Cabernet Francs. The Antinori family has authored some of Italy’s finest wines over these past decades. I am particularly honored to award this beauty 99 points. 

The 2013 Fèlsina Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colonia rounds off my selection of Most Outstanding New Releases from Central Italy. To my mind, this wine very much represents the true heart and soul of what the Gran Selezione category of Chianti Classico was designed to taste like. This is a single-vineyard expression of 100 percent Sangiovese that leaves no doubt as to its varietal typicity and its territorial roots. The Fèlsina folks spent two years of dynamite blasting to clear the rock that forced previous generations to abandon the Colonia vineyard. Polished mineral nuances present on the bouquet are nostalgic reminders of that excruciating effort.
What’s your name? Vintners on Etna recognize each vine by it own unique personality, shape and history. Each one is given a name.

Southern Italy
The wines of Etna, Sicily are my personal passion so it should come as no surprise that two of my top three were, in fact, born on the flanks of the mighty volcano. My top-scoring Etna red is the 97-point 2014 Pietradolce Etna Rosso Vigna Barbagalli. This wine represents a tremendous effort from one of the most beautifully dramatic and memorable vineyards I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Ancient head-pruned vines are frozen in place against a charcoal black backdrop. If you’ve ever seen those blackened plaster casts of victims’ bodies at Pompeii, well, these twisted and knotted plants remind me of those—anguished movement from centuries ago is stopped cold in its tracks for eternity.
Ecce Etna...

Another excellent wine from my favorite volcano is the 2014 Girolamo Russo Etna Rosso San Lorenzo. This expression is more delicate and elegant still with beautifully polished and fine detailing on the close. Pietradolce’s wine is more dramatic and opulent, but Giuseppe Russo’s expression walks with more delicate and graceful footsteps. 

My third pick from Southern Italy is a new vintage of a classic favorite: The 2015 Feudi di San Gregorio Pàtrimo. This pure expression of Merlot from one of the most exciting sub-zones in Campania has always been a critics’ favorite pick. The wine has evolved considerably since the peak of its popularity some 15-20 years ago. I am particularly attracted to the subtle changes in winemaking that have taken this massive and densely concentrated expression towards a slightly more ethereal and nuanced approach. But as I wrote in my review: “Make no mistake, this is a Big wine with a capital B.” It remains powerful and dense for sure, but Pàtrimo remains contemporary nonetheless. 

Top Three Greatest Value Wines of the Year

I dedicated a good amount of ink this past year to Value Wines from Italy. We published my first-ever report solely dedicated to Italian Wines Under $25 and I hope to be able to do the same in 2018. As I did in the above category for Outstanding New Releases, I have selected my Top Three Greatest Value Wines of the Year for Northern, Central and Southern Italy respectively. These wines are not necessarily under $25, but they should all be under $35 more or less.
Enrico Scavino shows me a letter signed by his father Paolo Scavino that was buried within the walls of his home during home construction in 1975. Luckily, the letter was hidden along with a dozen bottles of Barolo.

Northern Italy

I love the purity and the direct approach of the lovely 2015 Paolo Scavino Langhe Nebbiolo. This is an amazingly versatile wine that would pair with lean cuts of veal, pork or roasted chicken. Another special value discovery I made in Piedmont this year is the 2015 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore. Some of the best Nebbiolo coming out of the Roero sub zone can be traced to the large Valmaggiore vineyard. I can think of half a dozen producers who make excellent wine from this site, but Luciano Sandrone is among the very best. My last value pick from Northern Italy is the sparkling 2010 Fratelli Berlucchi Franciacorta Casa delle Colonne Brut Riserva I see listed at about $30 retail. This excellent blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Nero stands among the best Classic Method sparkling wines of the world, but can be purchased at half the price.
Coastal Tuscany and the Scansano area remain excellent value hunting grounds.

Central Italy

In terms of value wines, Elisabetta Geppetti knocks it out of the ballpark with the breakthrough 2013 Fattoria le Pupille Morellino di Scansano Riserva Poggio Valente. Morellino traditionally does not command high price points, but if this wine were produced in any of the more celebrated Tuscan appellations, I’m sure it would easily fetch three times its current cost. Buy this wine by the case, not by the bottle. Also very exciting is the 2013 San Felice Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Il Grigio. The style and approach is very different yet this streamlined red wine has the natural acidity, freshness and fruity brightness to cut through the cheese and olive oil found in your favorite pasta dishes. An excellent compromise between the opulent style embraced by Fattoria le Pupille and the classic approach displayed by San Felice is found in the wines made by the exuberant Giampaolo Motta. His 2015 Fattoria la Massa La Massa is a blend of Sangiovese with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet. This beautiful Tuscan red offers lasting richness and quality.
Sicily’s COS is one of the first wineries in Italy to embrace amphorae and the experience gained over these years shines through with confidence.

Southern Italy
One of my top value picks of the year comes from the Vittoria area of Sicily and represents a blend of two of my favorite Southern Italian varieties, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. The 2014 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico offers distinct aromas and delicate flavors that remind me of Nebbiolo. The 2014 vintage was excellent across Sicily, but disappointing in much of the rest of mainland Italy. The entry-level red from Alberto Graci on Mount Etna is another terrific wine that I happily add to this list. The 2014 Graci Etna Rosso gives you a lot of bang for your 26 bucks. The results are subtle and pure, but the wine also shows power and staying power. There is a connection with Nebbiolo here as well that transcends the taste profile of the wine. Alberto Graci and Angelo Gaja announced their joint venture to make wine together on Etna at the beginning of 2017. My last value pick from Southern Italy is the hearty and age-worthy 2010 I Capitani Taurasi Bosco Faiano. The pricing of this wine is closer to $40, but you still get amazing value here given the quality and unique typicity displayed by this hearty Campania Aglianico red. 

Top Three Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences 

In past editions of this column, I selected wines for this category based on obscure older vintages and general non-availability of the bottle. This year, I decided to change my strategy and I have instead selected three special wines based primarily on the people I shared them with.

Based on that criteria, the Produttori del Barbaresco 1967 Barbaresco Riserva Speciale Moccagatta will forever remain a very special bottle in my mind. I purchased it at Chambers Street Wines in New York City following a long day of meetings with the Wine Advocate crew to plan our editorial calendar and strategy for the upcoming year. Luis Gutiérrez and William Kelley helped me pick this bottle among the various vintages and cru expressions available from Produttori del Barbaresco at this lower Manhattan vinous institution. Stephan Reinhardt would soon join us on our shopping expedition. Happily, our Reviewers’ Meeting was also held on Chambers Street just a block or so to the East of the wine shop. We all packed a few bottles of wine in our suitcases to share with our colleagues during our Reviewers’ Meeting in New York. But I’m pretty sure each one of us departed New York with an even greater number of bottles in our luggage thanks to the dangerous proximity of this excellent wine shop. 

The folks at Chambers Street Wines were kind enough to pull the cork and decant the bottle in the afternoon because I planned to serve it later that evening. Luis, William and I sniffed the cork and you could already tell that the wine was already singing loud and with beautiful clarity. Its performance later that evening was nothing short of spectacular and I can safely say that this bottle would become an important building block in the new team spirit that brings us into this new and exciting year.

I am part of a women-in-wine group called the Magnum Club and I joined these amazing colleagues for a tasting tour of Champagne in late October. Krug CEO Maggie Henríquez is part of our club and she generously poured the Krug Grand Cuvée 158 ème Edition Brut during our visit to her winery. I don’t think this wine has or will ever see a commercial release. It is made from an assembly of 76 wines spanning ten years of harvest. A few spare bottles were found in a corner of the house’s historic cellars and Maggie thinks it was created in 2002 (and disgorged in 2008). Magnifique is the only word that comes to mind.

One of my greatest drinking experiences of the year is dedicated to the memory of Santa Barbara vintner Seth Kunin. In the photo above, you see his wines along with his favorite Italian liqueur, Fernet-Branca, that will forever be linked to his memory. My brother and family had a stronger relationship with Seth than I did because I live so far away. But I was lucky enough to be present at his memorial held at the Larner Ranch at the end of November. Hundreds of people came (many flew in from overseas) to honor this charismatic and charming vintner who died from a heart attack too young. The loving and positive vibe at his memorial was simply unforgettable. Everyone wanted to be there and everyone dug deep into their cellars to open their favorite bottles on this special day. There was an outdoor barbecue (courtesy of the Hitching Post restaurant) with Reggae music and free-flowing wine under that golden afternoon light. In a sense, it was a California homecoming for all of us, most especially Seth. 

Best Dinner(s) of the Year

I did a lot of home entertaining this year, so my favorite dinners were staged high up on my terrace in the Rione Monti neighborhood in Rome. My cooking efforts were greatly improved thanks to a new organic market that sells homemade pasta and ravioli made each morning and a new fishmonger who brings in assorted catch of the day. I also have an embarrassingly large collection of hand painted ceramic plates and tableware decorative items. I could probably dress my table each night of the month with new combinations of fabric, colors and dishware. If you are ever in Rome, come on by!
Some of the terrace trinkets I collected during my travels include white ceramic candle lanterns that I bought in Santo Stefano di Camastra, Sicily (and drove back to Rome packed tight in a Fiat 500). The bright red plates come from the same ceramic-making town in Sicily. Overhead, you see hand-blown glass spheres made in Biot, France. The blue water glasses are also from the same glass factory. Biot glassware is distinguished by its thick bubbles.

Instead of picking just one dinner of the year, I decided to select some of the many excellent dishes that were served up in 2017. Get ready for some serious #foodporn:

Best Antipasti of the Year
Clockwise, from left: Tina gambas at Real Balneario in Salinas, Asturias (Spain); Pizza bianca drizzled in olive oil with sliced mortadella at L’Antica Forno Canu in Montevarchi, Tuscany; Cured cecina sliced thin at a winery visit in Ribera del Duero; Insalata caprese made by yours truly with mozzarella di bufala that I brought home from one of my trips to southern Italy with Gaeta olives and olive oil from the Fèlsina winery in Tuscany (served on a ceramic plate with an insalata caprese motif).

Best Primi Piatti of the Year
Clockwise, from left: Spaghetti allo Scoglio served at Ara Pacis – La Capricciosa in Rome; Tagliolini covered in white truffle at La Ciau del Tornavento in Piedmont; Rice with lobster at Casa Ramón in Oviedo (Asturias), Spain served with apple cider of course; Risotto with creamy herbs, cauliflower and toasted artichoke extract made by visiting chef Davide Deluca at Alessia Antinori’s fabulous L’Orto di Alberico near the Via Appia Antica in Rome.

Best Piatti di Pesce of the Year
Clockwise, from left: How can you miss coquillage when stopping by the Cannes Film Festival in France? This is the raw platter for two at Astoux et Brun just off La Croisette; My two favorite ceramic artists retired this year closing down their shop Ceramica Artistica Klusium—so I bought this set of hand-painted fish plates just in the nick of time; Grilled fresh squids at Casa Ramón in Oviedo (Asturias), Spain; and fresh mazzancolle that I bought from my neighborhood fishmonger and served with radicchio salad and thin slices of pink grapefruit.

Best Piatti di Carne of the Year
Clockwise, from left: Only in Sicily—this is roasted porchetta prepared by the folks at the Tornatore winery in Castiglione di Sicilia on Etna; I make an annual pilgrimage to Les Acacias in Biot, France to eat couscous with spicy lamb merguez sausages and homemade harissa sauce; The Californian in me can never get enough Mexican food and one of my favorite dishes is the carnitas (pork) tacos al carbon served at Dos Carlitos Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Santa Ynez, California; and not too far away is the delicious Mesa Burger with tortilla strips and avocado in Santa Barbara. That’s a 100-point burger for sure.

Best Dolci of the Year
Clockwise, from left: I love to go antiques shopping at the outdoor market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France and I’ll never forget the fragrant freshness of these summer cherries served at the charming Le Mas des Grès; A Sicilian tradition is picking up a six pack of pistachio cannoli at Pasticceria Nonna Vincenza at the Catania airport on my way back to Rome; Fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries) with gelato alla crema is the ultimate dessert at Ara Pacis – La Capricciosa in Rome; Gelato al caffè e pistacchio con panna from the shop neat my apartment in Rome.

Best Retrospective of the Year

I’m being a bit of a cheat, but my best retrospective was actually a Barolo & Barbaresco Master Class I held in Piedmont (with Robert Parker checking in by video hookup from Maryland at 4:00 a.m. in the morning!) this past October. I selected the wines and the vintages and we purchased the bottles directly from the producers whenever possible. I’ll soon be publishing full notes and reviews of the wines we poured, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But I will let you dream. Here’s what we poured on that day: 

Top Three Life-Outside-of-Wine Experiences

I have a travel bug and 2017 was a good year for letting it roam free. My top life-outside-of-wine experiences were three fantastic trips I took to Spain, Champagne and Monument Valley and New Mexico. The first two were actually wine trips and the third largely took place on the very dry Navajo Indian Reservation. Basically, there was plenty of wine in two of my three Outside-of-Wine picks.


My colleague Luis was kind enough to direct me to some excellent winery visits in Ribera del Duero and Rioja this past October. The photo on the upper left shows oak lids post fermentation at Bodegas R. López de Heredia; Only Joan Miró (continuing clockwise) could give so much personality to a corkscrew as I learned at the Vivanco Cultura de Vino Museum in Briones; An old delivery truck at Marqués de Murrieta, and fish and chips the Spanish way.

Champagne, France

Here are some photographic highlights from my trip to Reims, France with the Magnum Club. Starting clockwise: The Reims Cathedral on a cool October evening; And a veritable cathedral of wine in the ancient cellars of Krug Champagne; the tombstone of Dom Pérignon in the Abbey at Hautvillers in Champagne Ardenne; and a colorful collection of flavored macarons.

Arizona, Utah and New Mexico 

I have an aunt in Phoenix and a great aunt in Taos, New Mexico—and it’s been too long since I last visited them. As the wildfires burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties these past weeks, I took off towards the celebrated Route 66, stopping by Monument Valley on the way. Starting clockwise in the photo above: Learning more about traditional adobe architecture in Santa Fe was a real treat, especially for someone like me who walks by Rome’s Colosseum each morning with the dog; I dealt a serious blow to my credit card at the various excellent pawn shops in Gallup, New Mexico; The Taos Pueblo is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site; and I got up close to this prickly guy in Surprise, Arizona. 

Thanks for reading and thanks to our subscribers for all the fantastic questions and exchanges we have enjoyed over the course of this year. 

It has been a pleasure tasting for you!

Happy New Year,

Monica Larner 

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