When wine lovers and professionals look back on a year passed, here’s what they see: a long line of empty bottles, each one with a story behind it – both in terms of how the wine was made, as well as how it was drunk. But even though most of those bottles were probably stunners, it’s only a select few that will stay in the memory for years to come.

We asked wine and beverage directors around the country to share their favorite drinking experiences of 2015. Most of the stories aren’t even really about the actual juice in the bottle; rather, these individuals recalled encounters with winemakers and sommeliers they admire and respect, or the generosity with which someone shared a rare wine, or even the terrifying possibility of breaking the very expensive equipment in a brand-new winery.

All of which goes to show, these professionals don’t just have wine on the brain: it’s in their hearts and souls, their very beings – and that’s why we trust them to pour for us. Cheers to the passionate wine directors who gave us great stuff to drink in 2015!

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Victoria James, new wine director with a penchant for quirky Italian wines at Michelin-starred restaurant Piora; Manhattan, NY


In April my younger sister and I were on what was our last day of a 2-week trip through Italy. To burn off all the pasta and wine, we decided we would hike the Sentiero degli Dei, a walk that clings to the edges of cliffs alongside the Amalfi Coast, in Campania. It was pouring rain and we could barely see an inch ahead of us – but we were persistent! After many near-death slips in the mud, we finally arrived at our destination, the coastal town of Positano. We were starving. The plan was to go to La Sirene, this beautiful restaurant with a steep price-point. When we arrived, soaked and covered in mud, I had to insist that we weren’t homeless. It turned out to be a pretty chic town – we had no idea. Begrudgingly, they “found room for us” on the outside patio, where at least we were sheltered from the rain. We ate as much as we possibly could, and I ordered a bottle of Egly Ouriet Le Vignes de Vrigny Champagne. After that death-defying hike, those hours of being pelted with rain and sea winds, our tired bodies needed nothing more than that bubbly Pinot Meunier.

Ross Maloof, wine director at Philly’s laude vegetarian restaurant Vedge, which serves eclectic natural wines; Philadelphia, PA


This past fall I had the pleasure of working a harvest with upstart natural winemaker, Brianne Day, at her brand-new winery out in Dundee, Oregon. Although it certainly was not funny at the time, and Brianne very well may kill me for saying it, one memory that has stuck in my mind and I can not help but chuckle at was when we accidentally put forklift holes in the ceiling to her brand new building. I won’t say who was operating the forklift, but looking back it was pretty hilarious, and paved the way for what are now very strict rules as to who is allowed to load grapes into the fancy, expensive Europress at Day’s winery.

Chad Walsh, wine director at classy SoHo spot The Dutch, which has an all-domestic wine program as well as Champagne; Manhattan, NY


 Although I’ve known Maggie Harrison, the winemaker at Antica Terra and Lillian in Oregon, and formerly of the cult Napa winery Sine Qua Non, for years, I finally got an opportunity to taste in her space over the summer. Although it doesn’t look like much from outside – picture a white warehouse on the edge of a subdivision – inside, Maggie has this beautiful room filled with barrels, and a big wooden table where a leg of Iberico ham awaited us. She put on a record of a solo celloist, sliced some ham, and we tasted through her wines. But here’s what made it unique: first of all, unlike a lot of New World winemakers, Maggie wasn’t afraid of pouring us Champagne to prime our palates. And after we tasted through her wines, she let me pick another bottle from her collection. I was greedy and chose a bottle of Raveneau, the famed Chablis producer! It was the Premier Cru “Montée de Tonnerre” from 2002, which is my “adopted” birthyear, because 1984 was a terrible vintage, and I graduated high school in ’02.

Austin Ferrari, beverage director of newcomer, contemporary farm-to-table restaurant Hillside Supper Club, San Francisco, CA:


This year I was lucky enough to drink some great wines. However, my best experience was joining my friend Cat, and sommelier Rajat Parr, of the Michael Mina group, for a late drink at Absinthe after a long Saturday night of service. Rajat is a huge inspiration to me – he’s a great role model for a young wine director like myself so I always jump at the opportunity to share some wine with him. Well, one glass turned into many and we ended up opening a few amazing bottles. We started with a 2007 Roumier, Chambolle-Musigny, and then a bottle of 2007 Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny. I thought it was over but we then continued on with a bottle of 2008 Clos du Jagueyron from the Haut-Medoc, and finished with a bottle of 2009 Thierry Allemand’s Chaillot, Cornas. All of a sudden it was two in the morning! It was one of those evenings where you sit back and appreciate the wonderful people you meet through working in the industry and bond over enjoying something together.

Phil Gilmour, owner of Moku Moku, a new neighborhoody Japanese Izakaya featuring excellent sake and beer; Brooklyn, NY


This fall, the owner of Masumi Sake, one of Japan’s premier sake brands, was in town and came by with a bottle of their Hiyaoroshi Yamahai junmai ginjo. It’s the fall version of their Arabashiri, which is the first-press of freshly fermented sake. Until now, this bottle wasn’t available in the U.S., so I’d never had it before. It was simple, but perfect: fragrant and floral in a very delicate way, sharp, but at the same time slightly sweet. But balanced in every way. I highly recommend finding it before the 60 cases run out!”

Steven Dilley, owner of wine-centric authentic Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant Bufalina; Austin, TX


Sometimes having a disorganized cellar has its advantages. Like the time over the summer I was going through a stash of old styrofoam mailers, and came across a case of 2002 Clos Roche Blanche “Cabernet,” a blend of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Loire Valley that, while never expensive, has become increasingly difficult to find. And it will likely become even harder to find, as 2014 was sadly their last vintage! The wine was a joy: alive with minerals and herbs, bracketed with a great tension, absolutely gorgeous.

Tara Herrick, wine director at Dirty Water, which offers over 100 wines by-the-glass with Coravin; San Francisco, CA


In August, I had the amazing opportunity to visit a handful of producers throughout the Loire Valley in France. One of the most memorable visits was at the family-run Domaine du Chevalerie in Bourgueil, a historic area focused on Cabernet Franc. We tasted over 30 wines in the caves with winemaker Stéphanie Caslot, and we found ourselves over an hour and 30 minutes late for our dinner reservation. Every time we tried to leave, she would say “one more bottle” and we would follow her with only a little flashlight around this dark cave, filled with mountains of dusty, unmarked bottles, and proceed to open two more wines. She asked what year I was born, and then when I told her, ran over to another pile of dusty bottles and opened a 1989 Cabernet Franc from their estate. In this pitch black, cold cave, I enjoyed my first birth year wine.

Severine Perru, wine director at charming, beloved natural wine bar The Ten Bells; Manhattan, NY


I went on a small trip to California this beginning of November, and my first stop was to see Hardy Wallace, one of the charismatic winemakers of the garagiste winery Dirty and Rowdy. We drove to the Rosewood vineyard, in Mendocino County, and while chatting and walking between old vines of Mourvèdre, we were sipping on a bottle of Dirty and Rowdy’s 2012 wine from this same exact vineyard. It’s always a special emotion when you’re hanging out with the winemaker in a vineyard – you can feel the sunshine on your face, touch and smell the soil, taste the remaining berries. All your senses are living the experience to give you an unforgettable memory!

Jason Soloway, co-owner and wine director of both The Eddy and Wallflower; Manhattan, NY


In October, I visited the region of Piedmont, in northern Italy, with my girlfriend. One day, we were having lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre, a beautiful restaurant serving local, traditional food, where winemakers often hang out, in the town of Barbaresco. We were joined by Daniella Rocca, the warm and thoughtful co-owner of the winery Albino Rocca, and her boyfriend Alessandro Boido, an exuberant character and owner of nearby winery Ca’ d’Gal. The atmosphere was relaxed, as everyone was feeling a sense of relief with the recent completion of the harvest. Daniella brought a bottle of her 2012 Barberesco Ronchi (a single vineyard Nebbiolo that strikes a remarkable balance of power, elegance and joy) because she knew I liked this wine. It was a dark, unlabeled bottle as it hadn’t yet been released to the market. I’m normally firmly against against drinking a wine like this so young — it needed a few years more — but in this case, it seemed to make perfect sense. The wine was perfect.