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From whiskey to cider to wine, these professional brewers and vintners weigh in on what they love to drink.

Elisabeth Sherman
May 04, 2018

On Monday, the James Beard Foundation will recognize the best restaurants, and most accomplished chefs, bakers, and bartenders of the past year. The foundation also awards —winemakers, distillers, and cider and beer brewers who consistently show creativity, passion, and extraordinary talent in their field.

And though this year's five nominees for outstanding drinks professional might all be professional drinkers, they are also so much more than that: They are the people who make the spirits, beer, and wine that regularly appear on the best restaurant wine lists in the country.

When one of them recommends a bottle to try, we listen. That’s why Food & Wine decided to ask the group a simple question: What’s the most important bottle of spirits, wine or cider, you’ve tasted in the course of your career? Here’s what they had to say:

Courtesy of A Woman’s Palate

Cathy Corison (Corison Winery, St. Helena CA): 1992 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

“At the moment, my most important bottle would be the 1992 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, from our own vineyard. I have always loved this wine, but it's especially important to me this year as my husband and I are celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary! I’m grateful for our partnership in the winery, which has resulted in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Among the many wonderful things that wine can do is speak of time and place. The 1992 tells of the vineyards on alluvial soils in the heart of the Napa Valley where it grew and the singular weather during the 1992 growing season. A relatively warm ripening season yielded a juicy, fruit-forward wine. In the bottle for nearly a quarter century now, it is in a particularly pretty spot. Still boasting a core of plum and blackberry fruit, it has had time to develop a lovely floral perfume.” 

Daniel Dent

Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson Wines, Napa CA): 1990 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

“In the late 1990s, while I was working in sustainable winegrowing in Lodi, I attended a meeting at Robert Mondavi Winery and they shared their 1990 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the first wine that I ever experienced in three dimensions, tasting it was like exploring the stone labyrinth beneath a castle, with twists, turns, hidden passages and dark rooms. The wine smelled like the Napa Valley in the summer, of oak trees and redwoods, earth and dry leaves, wild blackberries, and fermenting grapes. All around the world wine style has gotten riper and fruitier, with softer tannins and a plusher mouthfeel, but, for me, that structured and complex 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon is a beacon of the greatness possible here in the Napa Valley and a wine that we aspire towards.

Matt Salvo

Lance Winters (St. George Spirits, Alameda CA): Lagavulin

“Twenty-six years ago, my friend Todd gave me a bottle of Lagavulin. For all of its peat and strength, it was the first time that I was really able to appreciate subtle, layered flavors in a distilled spirit. I was a brewer at the time, but the beauty of that Lagavulin compelled me to become a distiller and ended up changing my life.”

Rocco Ceselin

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (Grgich Hills Estate, Rutherford CA): 2010 Paris Tasting 'Commemorative Chardonnay'

“Every Grgich Hills Estate wine I drink is important to me because each wine is my child. My most important bottle? The 2010 Paris Tasting 'Commemorative Chardonnay' which was given to me on my 90th birthday, five years ago. When I tasted the wine, it was as if I was drinking my 1977 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting of 1976, beating the best wines of France and California, both red and white. The best wine is a wine that makes you say “More!!!” as it goes down your throat."

Kate Medley

Diane Flynt (Foggy Ridge Cider, Dugspur VA): West County Redfield Cider

“Terry Maloney was the first modern cidermaker in the US. I first met Terry over 20 years ago at West County Cider in Massachusetts. We walked through his orchard in the snow and then drank a bottle of Redfield, his lovely sparkling cider made from red-fleshed apples. It was full of bright acidity, complex flavors, and soft tannin—all that I hoped my cider would be one day. I now grow Redfield apples at Foggy Ridge Cider, grafted with wood from Terry’s orchard, and try every day to grow fruit that equals this early memory.”