January 1, 2013
I have chosen to put this essay from 2004 first in the website’s queue of past articles because it is the story of how I got “hooked” on wine, and the beginning of so many memorable experiences which involved great bottles and vintages. It is also a personal reminiscence about my family, and is extra special to me since now my father and grandmother have both died. I hope this portal leads you to explore other articles on the site, and become a regular reader!
It was a bottle of 1926 Château Cheval Blanc. Recently out of graduate school, I was a freelance clarinetist in New York City. (“Freelance”: an adjective meaning “rarely employed”.) My other waking hours were spent bagging almonds and dried apricots in an upper west side health food store, feverishly practicing my instrument toward my big break, and, as an oasis, reading about wine. My first taste of a 1970 Château Lascombes from the Margaux district of Bordeaux was a revelation, my catharsis. So THIS was what wine could be! It was all satin sheets, warm succulent texture, and sex. (Well, I was very young.) Nothing like the alcoholic grape juice I had previously guzzled. I began reading ravenously about wine in every book I could tote from the public library.
A cellist friend and I used to double date. He would always supply a couple of $4 wines for our foursome. With a Côtes de Bourg here and a Macon Villages there, our dates always settled into a cozy, warm atmosphere. One time, when my friend had a late rehearsal, the job of selection fell to me. I recall my panic and the sheer nastiness of the wines I chose. It was enough to shake the confidence of any Don Juan, and a big incentive for further study.
Music, with its ability to transform a series of lines and circles into a swirl of overwhelming emotional impact, had always been my first passion. but now wine, with its ability to transform grapes into a magic liquid, seemingly completely removed from its source, became an intense avocation. As my education and selections improved, I found myself relishing rather prestigious wines by sharing the expense with four or five like-minded friends. In this way, we spent numerous evenings pondering great Burgundies, Piedmontese reds, and Grand Cru Classé Bourdeaux–albeit only about a four-ounce allotment each.
In time, a fixation developed within me toward the consumption of a venerable wine, one of the legends of the Bordeaux hierarchy. These were wines mostly seen at auction, and then at astronomical prices. (It made sense: how many bottles of 1918 Lafite Rothschild could be left in the world? Demand equals costliness.) Still, just thinking of being able to purchase one was the stuff that dreams are made of.
One November morning, I was reading the Wednesday New York Times, Wednesday being when Frank Prial’s wine column appeared. I glanced over to an ad for D. Sokolin, an upscale wine shop. Some anniversary or other was being celegrated and, as a thank you to their loyal customers (you know the spiel), a few gems were being offered at prices well below their market value. One item literally leapt from the page: it was a bottle of 1926 Château Cheval Blanc, one of the “Magnificent Seven” of the Bordeaux hierarchy. A book I had recently purchased (from the remainder shelf, naturally) was Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book. I had been nightly ingesting its contents like a bar of dark chocolate. Here is part of what he had to say about this wine:
“The decade of the ’20s was good to this Chateau. When I first drank it in 1967 I could not believe it was from Bordeaux–more like the plumpest, ripest, and most velvety Burgundy. Mahogany color, full but delicate bouquet, harmonious, lively rich flavor. Perfect weight and balance–in fact, a perfect wine.”
He gave it his maximum five star rating and predicted optimal drinkability for many years ahead.
The price was $125.00. Not chicken feed, but a mere one-fifth of what it was worth on the auction block. I went to the bank, then camped out on Sokolin’s doorstep the next morning. They opened at 9; I was there at 7. I vowed to get it and no one else best try.
At around 8:15, another fellow, his breath suspended in the cold air, appeared. “Here for the ’26 Cheval?” I queried.
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, unless they have two bottles, you’re out of luck,” I shivered back.
Ruthless, and proud of it, I watched him grumble and then simply shuffle away in gritty New York City fashion (stirred but not shaken).
The door was finally opened and the gate lifted. I immediately spoke my intentions and the storekeeper lead me to the holy grail. He pointed out that the label was faded but the chateau name and date were still clearly, unmistakably, visible. He said there were no guarantees on a bottle this old, but indicated how high the liquid level was in the neck of the bottle. With the passage of time, wine slowly, imperceptibly, evaporates through the cork. In a bottle of this age, the wine could easily have been below the shoulder level. Yet there was still a sliver of liquid reaching into the base of the neck–a good sign, we both agreed. I thanked him and excitedly paid while cradling the bottle with both hands. 1926–the year before Lindbergh’s flight and the Babe’s 60 homers. A year when this bottle’s contents were illegal in America. The era of bathtub gin and Fitzgerald’s flappers.
I drove home to Durham for the holidays and transported the bottle in the center of a 12-compartment cardboard wine box, upright, with tons of padding on all four sides. Before unpacking anything else, it went immediately to my mom’s sideboard, and there spent four days resting up and dropping its sediment to the bottom of the bottle. I suppose “bemused” would be the reaction of my folks to this treasure.
“Is it any good?” my father asked.
“Don’t know, pop, but it’s supposed to be perfection,” I defensively replied.
The tradition of opening gifts had moved to Christmas Eve in our all-adult house, with a grand supper following. My thoughts were predictably far flung as the gift giving proceeded, while my hopes hovered toward a tasty meal accompanied by paradise. I eased the cork out at a snail’s pace, hoping it would neither crack nor crumble. It emerged like a newborn child, moist, smooth, and intact. It had done its job admirably during 55 years of imprisonment. (Interestingly, by the next day, the cork had shriveled and shrunk impressively, looking like a mummy or Dorian Gray’s portrait, all creased and misshapen.)
I decanted the wine just before we drank it. The color was a light but healthy hue and its fragrance was magnificent. How would it taste? My father’s first reaction was, “How much more of this have you got?” He liked it! But a frown of displeasure arose when I told him that this was it, a one-of-a-kind experience. (I never mentioned what it cost.) I could see his practical wheels turning: what good is it if we can’t have another bottle?
My mother was pleased that I was so pleased, boyishly placing this event at the apogee of our reunion. I’m sure she liked the wine, yet perhaps not more than others we had previously shared. Mom normally liked her wines with a bit of kick to them, reminiscent of the hearty barberas or splashy freisas she grew up drinking. This wine was smooooooth and totally devoid of any biting tannin.
My grandmother was in her heaven, surrounded by her child, son-in-law, and grandchildren. I’m sure she never once came down from that rarefied perch. Later that evening, we all signed our names on the bottle’s label to commemorate the occasion. In her excitement she curiously wrote “Love, Ada”, as if a postscript to a letter delineating what the evening had meant to her. (She was gently kidded about this for some years to come.)
My brother and his wife were new students of the grape, and they genuinely shared in the significance of the occasion, getting caught up in my indefatigable energy. To them, with whom I had little in common but cared deeply about, it proved a tasty bond that we could compare and revel in.
What expectations did I have? I had never before drunk a wine of such pedigree, age, or accomplishment. Despite its stellar rating, the wine was far lighter than I had expected, a very thread of grace, like a ballerina on a moonbeam, soft and spiritual. I wrongly expected a bigger statement, but was so pleased with its health and what it did have: perfect balance, ease, calm and glide. I was sold.
Harking back now, with almost 25 years of experience to guide me, the event was the beginning of many more magical bottles and occasions to come. I’ll never forget it. Not only the wine, but how it drew us all together in a time, in a way, that never quite happened again.
(December, 2004, with thanks to master illustrator V. C. Rogers)
January 1, 2013
Americans don’t know what to make of dessert wines. Lord knows, it’s not sugar or sweetness that deters them, as tons of cheesecake and black-bottom pie are consumed weekly. One problem could be that sweet beverages load up our table during mealtime itself, from iced tea to hard lemonade to Coke. Plus, there seems to be little time in our current culture to take moments to ponder the world, or someone’s eyes, while consuming a rare Sauternes or marvelous Eiswein. Time tables, a football game, a neighborhood association meeting or an evening concert constantly loom. Wines are not overly portable, but a Snickers or an apple turnover is.
Let’s consider: a time to sit and relax at the table or in front of the fireplace with a post- prandial delight. You may have drunk water or a dry wine during the meal, so the sweetness will be novel and welcome. The dilemma ? If you have cherries jubilee staring at you, how is a glass of wine going to stand up to, let alone match, this sugar-loaded, solid, stolid dessert? As the King of Siam would ponder, “‘Tis a puzzlement!”
Can wines really enhance your pleasure at meal’s end? The answer is yes, but there’s thought and work required in preventing your Rheingau riesling from falling flat as a de-puffed pastry. A few guidelines:
A perfect “novice” dessert wine that’s light as a soap bubble. A subtle spritz carries with it grapey goodness and an ephemeral aftertaste. Almost too easy to drink, it just floats down the throat.
2002 Moscato d’Asti, DeForville
Airy with low-pressure bubbles that make it refreshing and alarmingly vital. A revelation to those who’ve never tried one; its bouquet jumps out at you with such intensity. Delicious, but watch out! One glass leads to another, and another.
2001 Moscato Late Harvest, EOS 375 ml
This Paso Robles winery produces a joyful wine in a beautiful package (see photo). They whimsically call it “Tears of Dew.” A tropical bouquet with undercurrents of ripe stone fruit. Flavors are lightly honeyed with a dash of coconut and crispy almonds. Nice balance with just enough acidity to keep it agile.
2000 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, La Pigeade 375 ml
From the Rhône district of southern France, this thick, heady wine has been made for centuries. Sappy, rich with an aroma of citrus and flowers, you’ll find this rather decadent and heartily satisfying.
1997 Vin Santo del Chianti, Fattoria Casabianca
A classic vin santo, neither too dry like some sherries, nor too sweet like a muscat. Toasty, almondy with underlying sweetness. Not heavy and personality packed.
2002 Riesling Spätlese, Monchhof
From the famous Mosel town of Urzig and the vineyard named Würzgarten, it lives up to its name. A spicy, “nervy” white with a brisk, light sweetness and energetic acidity. A full and firm drink to close an evening.
2002 Riesling Auslese, Geltz-Zilliken
From the village of Saarburg and the vineyard named Rausch, this Mosel estate makes a sweet, delicately styled wine with a steely backbone that never allows for dullness or a weighty mouth feel. Too rich a dessert will smother it.
2000 Beerenauslese, Bretz
From the Burgenland region of Austria, famous for its sweet wines, this contains the late harvest “noble rot” or botrytis nose. Botrytis occurs when grapes are left on the vine, well into fall, to be infested by a mold that shrivels the grapes naturally and makes for a concentrated, richly textured drink. Apricot impressions on the nose and palate. Thick, simple and palate coating.
2000 Botrytis Semillon, Peter Lehman
From Australia, a remarkable wine with the full texture and “oiliness” that semillon grapes possess. Overflowing with peach character, it is lighter than the Bretz Beerenauslese, but has a creamy, succulent fruitiness.
Recioto di Valpolicella, Tomaso Bussola 500 ml
Recioto, just like its more famous cousin, Amarone, is never cheap. Super ripe, red grapes are left out on mats in the fall to shrivel, becoming raisin-like, and are then pressed in the spring. Unlike Amarone, much residual sugar is left in. Strong, concentrated, loaded with spice, a chocolate-covered cherry quality and an ultra thick texture. A bit odd, but quite the experience.
Mourvedre, Cline Cellars “Big Break” Vineyard 375 ml
Another red dessert wine, and maybe the oddest. Mourvedre, an important grape of the southern Rhone region, is transformed into a late-harvest wine by the California cult winery named Cline. Cline is well-known for bargain-priced zinfandel, but they make exceptional single vineyard bottlings as well, from ancient vines and tiny yields. This sweet fellow is super ripe with vanilla, lush berries and dark, almost candied fruit impressions. It really should be drunk all alone. Connoisseurs–fool your friends!
2001 Sauternes, Château Suduiraut
Sauternes range from delightful up to existential. (Chateau d’Yquem is the latter, but its price of hundreds of dollars is a deterrent.) Suduiraut is one of d’Yquems top challengers in quality, especially in a top vintage like 2001. Made from semillon grapes with 15 percent sauvignon blanc, botrytis is quite evident. Its golden color, which darkens with age, forceful alcohol and perfect balance, create an inspiring mold to which many other wineries aspire. Fat, rich and almost liqueur like. To show its best, it really needs five more years in the bottle. Patience is a virtue, but . . .
1999 Tokaj Aszu 3 Puttonyos, Oremus 500 ml
From Hungary, this famous wine, made from the obscure Furmint grape, has buckets of botrytis-affected grapes added to the base wine. A new fermentation creates an elegant, surprising wine with an ethereal sweetness, and light body.
1983 Tokaj Essencia, Oremus 500 ml
Remarkably, this is one of the best buys on today’s list! Compares favorably to Chateau d’Yquem at one-third to one-sixth the price. Essencia is an elixir: so rich, so perfumed and outrageously complex that it is said to have caused kings to rise up from their deathbeds. I’ll make no such claim, but this wine, which is made entirely from botrytis-affected grapes, is one of the world’s truly great wines, regardless of price. It’s seldom available and seldom made (conditions must be perfect). It takes years to ferment and then spends 10 years in oak before release! One of a kind, a life altering experience, only a small glass will do the trick for ecstatic response.
FORTIFIED WINES have all had brandy or neutral spirits added to the wine in order to stop fermentation and retain a certain level of grape sugar and sweetness. Wines differ as to the amount residual sugar and the alcoholic strength. Fortified wines are always higher in alcohol than “regular” dessert wines.
“Museum” Muscat, Yalumba 375 ml
This non-vintage Australian classic is what the natives call a “stickie.” Dark, warm, dense character with raisin, spice and bitter orange components. Drink alone or with vanilla ice cream.
Tawny Port, “Galway Pipe”, Trafford
Aussie tawnies are sweeter than their Portuguese progenitors. Fermentation is stopped sooner, leaving a “chewy,” mouth-filling drink with caramel, toffee and singed sensations.
Framboise, Bonny Doon
This perennial pleaser is a delicious, concentrated raspberry wine. A wonderful sipper at any time, in any season. It captures the freshness of just picked berries, with a concentration and warmth on the palate that is smile provoking.
Amontillado Sherry Medium Dry, Pedro Domecq
Sherry is so misunderstood, and that is understandable. It’s made by a complicated process, and its final appearance depends mostly on how much sweet, Pedro Ximenez grape wine is added before bottling. This wine smells of hazelnuts and drinks with a light sweetness. A bitter end twinge gives a grip of energy.
Amontillado “Rare Esquedrilla,” Lustau
Lustau’s version is more extroverted and slightly drier than Domecq. A two-fisted style that’s also good with dry cheeses and chowders. Where Domecq speaks eloquently, Lustau talks brash and Brooklyn. Sherry is certainly an acquired taste, and one worth learning. Considering the years and labor involved in production, sherry is a financial bargain.
1996 Late Bottled Vintage Port, Cockburn’s
Like a Christmas spice cake: sophisticated sweetness. This type of port, usually shortened in nomenclature to LBV, is made in years when conditions are not quite up to snuff for making true vintage port. Aged four to six years, this retains a fresh grapiness, a round, juicy texture with excellent balance. A delicious item to aid in deciding whether you’re a candidate for expensive, concentrated vintage port.
Madeira, 5-year-old Bual, Cossart Gordon
The Madeira process, where the wine is actually heated and is consequently “maderized,” makes it practically indestructible. A year after it’s opened, it’s still delicious. Sweet, soft, smoky and not overly heavy, this wine has a special tang of acidity on the finish which keeps it fresh.
All of these fortified wines should be served slightly chilled, but not as cold as the unfortified entries.
December 31, 2012
I don’t know the “inside story” of Stags’ Leap Winery, located a tad north of the more commercially prominent Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The “winery” predates the “cellars” by 79 years. It is 23 acres smaller than the Cellars, with (unlike the Cellars) the majority of the grapes coming from the immediate property. The Winery is the more intimate, self-contained estate, but often seems to get little respect. Even the tourist guide, “Inside Napa Valley”, leaves it conspicuously off its map of Silverado Trail wineries.
Why the slight? Surely the wines are not to blame. Maybe it’s the attitude, because Stags’ Leap Winery is fiercely independent, maverick really, and its cultured and driven winemaker, Robert Brittan, seems a private man rather than the rah rah type. A vineyardist who loves music (and occasionally plays his french horn in the depths of the estate’s original wine cellar), he impresses as an “everyman”, with vast ranging interests and a fierce devotion to the individuality of his terrain. In doing so, he makes some of the most extracted, expressive wines of the region.
Nestled between the Vaca mountain range and the steep, jutting Palisades, it is breathtaking to view this valley vineyard, still receiving the volcanic deposits from above and enjoying the alluvial soil set down by the Napa River, which once flowed here. It’s a wild, Grimm’s fairy tale kind of spot, with grand vistas that become a bit dark and scary as night falls. The 110-year-old Manor house is literally built into the hillside, and its structural beauty, containing what is believed to be the first in-ground pool built in the area, is a fitting foothold above the valley floor. One feels transported into a Victorian novel of wealth, seclusion, paramours and ghosts. In fact, the Manor is said to house its own spirit. Left virtually alone the evening of my visit, and after a solitary game of billiards downstairs, I sat in the great room reading, sipping on petite syrah, and waiting. No communication I’m sorry to say, but then I hope to succeed some day.
The afternoon with Robert Brittan was a joyful one. We had met for lunch once before, and so picked up the thread of our lives and activities as we drank his most recent vintages. We spoke far more about philosophy than we did on the intricacies of winemaking. The afternoon flew and each wine showed Robert’s fixation on expressing the uniqueness, strength and character that each wine can achieve. The wines are first solid and granitic, like a Bruckner symphony, and from there they go on to reveal so many complexities emerging over time in the glass. That they become more like Brahms and Schumann rather than Ravel or Debussy is Robert’s doing. They are of heroic proportion, wines to be savored, not to be consumed quickly or gluttonously.
I thank Robert Brittan for taking me a bit into his world on this thoughtful and provocative visit. There seems to be no bull in the man. I surmise that he isn’t the easiest person to work for, but his goals are so inspiring that, like the high school teacher who made a difference in your life, it must be very satisfying and rewarding to do so. Try these wines on a day where you needn’t hurry–a night without distractions. They will please the intellect as well as the taste buds.
2002 Viognier–Fresh apricot and pear with a deep, intense, “oily” and long texture. Tart and crisp on the palate with an intriguing suggestion of marshmallow. A breath of spring in February.
2002 Chardonnay–Waves of deep fruit, pineapple, butterscotch and vanilla. Fabulously explosive and decadently rich. Alive with apple, peach, and a very refreshing lime-like finish that keeps its size from tasting bloated.
2001 Merlot–Ruby crimson color. A super ripe berry nose covered in chocolate! So pretty and yet so forthright and penetrating. Flavors are refined, smoky, and mouth charming. This wine is still closed in but is a great cellar selection to drink at least until 2009.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon–dusty, dark, and forest-like. Dark “wild” berries with coffee and chocolate impressions. Flavors are tight yet exciting. Ripe, vibrant fruit that’s energetic and promising. Quite drinkable but better in 2-4 years. This is passionate stuff!
2000 Petite Syrah–Stage’ Leap’s signature wine and one of the best anywhere. Positively purple color. A spice garden with a whiff of earth, boysenberry, and cola. Hard to describe, but it smells so purely and totally organic. Unique. Flavors are power packed, highly extracted, tannic and a bit harsh. This vintage seems tough compared to the outrageously good bottlings of 1996, 1997, and 1999. Yet even in a “just OK” vintage it still impresses, and may in time develop fabulously. A great match for grilled food and lamb.
2000 Merlot, Estate Grown Reserve–well-rounded and generous with intense plummy flavors. Very “elastic”, it gives and gives. Ripe and profound. Medium bodied with a touch of mint. Great depth, very dry and needing more bottle age.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve–full, sweet, very ripe, with lingering dark fruits and dark chocolate nose. Flavors keep extending and expanding with high glycerin and long aftertaste. Marvelous.
1999 “Ne Chede Malis” Estate Reserve–The name is derived from a stained glass windown in the Manor House. (“Don’t give into adversity” is how I translate it, but the “h” seems misplaced.) A field blend of petite syrah, syrah, carnignane, grenache, peloursin, and mourvedre grapes: quite the Rhône lineup! Lush with spirity fruit and some heat on the nose. Very complex flavors with a sense of root vegetables, iodine, and multifaceted complexities. Maybe a bit overly extracted but fascinating all the same. Drink with creamy cheeses and contemplate.
December 31, 2012
Truffles, like caviar, are an acquired taste, but what an acquisition! Both are pungent, heady, and aggressively flavored. Not everyone likes them, and for those humans so afflicted, much money can be saved. With prices of up to $2,000/pound, even minimal consumption makes for a special occasion–a meal requiring time to savor, and a wine that justifies its presence in such distinguished company.
The magic of Perigord, or black winter truffles, is a bouquet and flavor ravenously sought throughout the world. Earthy, musky, and inimitable, truffles are as hard to describe as the enigmatic qualities of pinot noir wine. France, Italy, and Spain are the original sources for these delicacies, once only found growing haphazardly in the wild, sniffed out by sows and dogs, and much more recently cultivated, with limited success, in the same areas. Italy is even more famous for its white (Alba) truffles, which have defied commercial cultivation and can cost three times as much as Perigords.
The wines of France’s upper Rhône district and those of Italy’s Piedmont region are a perfect complement. With vineyards adjacent to where these underground fungi grow, their wines are laden with many flavor components that mirror the truffle’s characteristics, and naturally set off truffle-enhanced food.
I remember seeing white truffles sold at the Saturday open air market in the Piedmont town of Biella. They’re white on the inside, but on the outside they’re ugly, black, irregular spheres, grotesque and dirt-laden. Not very appetizing at first glance. So too, I recall the perfect risotto, garnished with raw white truffles and wile board, cooked together with black truffles, being served at local mountain trattorias. These out-of-the-way inns, inhabited mostly by hunters and locals, are a step back in time and sense of place. And what food! Ideal occasions to drink a fine Barolo or Barbaresco from vineyards located just slightly south of the region.
Many syrahs from American and shiraz from Australia would do very well to drink now as an accompaniment to truffle dishes. They include:
Truffles are said to have “the smell of sex”. Amazingly, scientists have confirmed that they contain a pheromone, a chemical secretion, also found in the makeup of human beings. This makes the legend of truffles’ aphrodisiac qualities all the more believable.
Try white truffles, uncooked, with simple pastas or potato concoctions. Sample winter blacks cooked with scallops or fresh water trout. No matter what the medium, truffles will render their unique message.
February 21, 2012
Some people joked after the death of American folk artist Grandma Moses at age 101 that “the good die young”. This same loving obituary could be applied to the recent [5/16/2008] death of Robert Mondavi, who passed peacefully in his sleep just shy of his 95th birthday. I never met Mondavi, but he almost seemed like a member of the family. He and I have two obvious things in common: we are first generation Italian-Americans, and we share a profound love of wine. Whereas my father was born in Florence, Mondavi’s dad came from the tiny village of Sassoferrato in the region known as Le Marche, east of Tuscany. Mondavi resembled my Great Uncle Cesare, which somehow made me feel closer to him.
Would someone else have stepped forward if Mondavi had not been around to spell out why California wine can equal the world’s finest? Probably. Would someone else have possessed the indefatigable energy, communicative skills, and irrepressible joy that he exuded? Probably not. One hundred years from now, two names, both Italian, will head any listed recollection of California’s wine odyssey: Gallo and Mondavi.
Gallo (especially from 1950-1980) represented quality “every day” table wine. My Uncle Marcello, a lifelong resident of Florence, visited America in the ’60s and ’70s. He remarked upon, and much preferred, Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy to the vino da tavola of his native land.
Mondavi represented a break from “every day”, always aspiring for perfection. Studying the European model of fine winecraft hands-on, and then constantly applying it toward a unique Napa Valley identity, he established his enduring legacy. This singular mission became a journey that eventually split him off from his mother and brother in an infamous 1960s feud. Long before his lionized days–those “When Robert Mondavi Speaks, People Listen” days–he preached the California gospel to any who would listen. When the results of his philosophy came streaming out in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris”, he had been stating theobvious formore than a decade.
Great wine and California wine have become synonymous. This is Mondavi’s legacy. While many have built California dreams in the ensuing 40 years, Mondavi was the original architect.
February 21, 2012
The story of “The Judgment of Paris” has hit the big screen. Long the provenance of wine geeks, this is the tale of Steven Spurrier, and energetic British citizen whose training took place at Christopher & Company, England’s oldest wine merchant. By 1970, he had opened his own shop in Paris. Les Caves de la Madeleine quickly gained recognition as a first-rate store, run by the energetic, quixotic Francophile.
In 1976, perhaps in part as a publicity stunt, and in confluence with America’s 200th birthday, Spurrier decided that a blind tasting of French and California wines–to show off the merits of each–would be a fun idea. The French obviously agreed. It would be yet another medium in which to express the superiority of French wines, and an especially practical way to humiliate those California upstarts.
Well, the rest is history, and a tidal wave of folklore has grown from it. Utilizing a panel of nine distinguished French judges, the result was a Napa Valley Cabernet besting famous Bordeaux reds. A Napa Chardonnay did the same compared to venerable Burgundy offerings. No manner of bluster or post-tasting apologies could dim the raw truth: the panel not only found many California wines superior, but even mistook many of these offerings as French. “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed judge Raymond Oliver as he swirled and sipped a Napa Chardonnay. “This is definitely California, it has no nose,” spouted another judge, as he quaffed a Batard-Monrachet. (I had a reality check when I read the original Time magazine article written shortly after the tasting: “The U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers, and rather expensive ($6+).” Oh, boy! Life *and* prices were awfully good in the ’70s.)
Yet I never imagined that this event, important as it was for California’s emerging credibility, could be fodder for a feature length film. A documentary? Surely. But this tale, adored by industry insiders worldwide, is now a movie called “Bottle Shock”, and it makes one wonder what Hollywood will do to spice it up.
A blind wine tasting is about as romantic and exciting to watch as a Mah Jong tournament. Look! Here are folks sniffing, drinking, and spitting. (Special effects and slow motion might enhance the expectoration.) Sex? I can imagine a bit of hanky panky amid the dark, humid aging barrels, or a post-contest romantic interlude at the Place de l’Opera. Plus, I’ve seen the movie’s trailer, which features couples kissing amid the vines and a pretty young thing taking off her T-shirt in an attempt to flag a passing car. (Shades of Claudette Colbert’s leg in “It Happened One Night”.) But the vehicle turns out to be a police car. Oops, my bad.
“Bottle Shock” centers on the Barrett family and their estate, Chateau Montelena, a great California cult winery that was having a hard time staying afloat in the mid-70s. The Judgement of Paris actually helped them turn their business around. And thank goodness! It was their Chardonnay that won big in Paris and, as a wine lover with three bottles of their now even more celebrated Cabernet in my own cellar, I’m a beneficiary. Real life arguments persist as to who was really responsible for Montelena’s ’76 success: the winery owners or radical winemaker Mike Grgich? This remains a sore point to this very day.
Prominent actors in the film include Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and Rachael Taylor, with former “Law and Order” cop Dennis Farina spouting home-grown wine aphorisms (“I detect bacon fat laced with honey melon”). Danny DeVito plays a cameo as Grgich, and Grgich himself appears in several scenes at the chateau. The real Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, appears in the film as a vineyard owner who pours a wine sample for Rickman.
I’m hoping against hope that this will not be a jingoistic film where America conquers France. It’s fair to ask why the French wine coterie ever agreed to such an event. Chutzpah and history, I imagine, but there remains a lesson that French winemakers know, and that American winemakers should keep on the front burner. During the past 30 years, America’s explosive emergence among the new world order of great winemaking is a dynamic story. But, last time I checked, the wines that garner bids of thousands of dollars a bottle at auction are still French. They remain the gold standard, like it or not, that they’ve always been. Plus ça change……