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Tripping down memory lane


I’m in New York this week. On the Friday before I left, I decided to do a little belated Spring cleaning and clear my shelves of years of useless junk. I found a box of old tasting notes I’d forgotten I even had. It put the nostalgia machine into high gear.

There were notes from Peter Granoff’s winetasting sessions at the Square One restaurant, which I think it’s fair to say was one of the first bastions of California cuisine in San Francisco (and it’s nice to see Joyce Goldstein still going strong although the restaurant closed years ago). I used to enjoy going to the bar, ordering little plates (we didn’t call them tapas then) off the blackboard menu. Because Peter was sommelier, he’d bring me sips of unusual wines. Those were good times.

I have notes of tasting Shafer Hillside Select, with John and Doug Shafer, going back to 1978. Ditto for a Clos du Val vertical to 1972 Reserve. There’s a menu from Chez Panisse of a meal Alice Waters prepared, at which Rod Berglund served Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs to 1972. Among the papers was an article from the old San Francisco Examiner, dated Aug. 22, 1982, written by Harvey Steiman, when he was still that newspaper’s food and wine editor. Not sure why I saved it. There were lots of notes from the old Les Amis du Vin, whose San Francisco chapter I belonged to from the early 1980s through most of the decade.  One of them was of 1976 Napa Cabernets; my favorite, I noted, was Clos du Val Reserve, which I called “austere” but fine. It’s still a fine, ageable wine today, although it’s made in a riper style.

There were notes from the old Bon Appetit Tasting Panel, which Anthony Dias Blue used to run (does he still?). I always looked forward to those tastings. Andy had the power to include fantastic wines, and for an aspiring, but broke, wine lover like me, they were a magic carpet ride.

I came across a horizontal tasting I’d sponsored that I didn’t even remember until I saw the notes. The Claremont Hotel, in the Berkeley hills, had hired me to do a series of tastings for the public. There was one on “Syrahs.” How did I manage to wangle Chapoutier Hermitage La Sizeranne, Penfold’s Grange Hermitage, Sean Thackery Orion, Qupe Bien Nacido and others? I can’t even remember.

There was a Bollinger vertical, with Guy Bizot, who I think was the winemaker. A Wilson-Daniels of Romanée-St.-Vivant from 1969 onward. Lots of German wines, which I get to taste way too little of these days. The Germans used to hold tastings at Fort Mason (do they still?) and I would beeline for them, but my oh my, what a job those acidic wines did on the teeth and enamel! I remember tasting 100+ of the ’77s and I couldn’t floss for a week.

There was — how did I get invited to that one? — a vertical of 30 vintages of Leoville-Las-Cases, starting from 1928. There were endless notes of tastings I’d done with a young, ambitious kid who wanted to get involved in the wine business by the name of  Gavin Newsom. There was a Chardonnay tasting, sponsored by the Wine Appreciation Guild which may or may not still exist. One of the wines was from Chateau Woltner. That brought back memories. It was started by a family who had sold their interest in La-Mission-Haut-Brion and developed a vineyard on Howell Mountain. Chardonnay from Howell Mountain? Yes, and, at the time, the most expensive Chardonnay in California. I used to like that wine a lot; it was tight and minerally. But the market didn’t accept it, and Chateau Woltner is now a footnote in history.

I had no money back then, no connections, few friends in the industry. But through passion, being friendly and reaching out, I managed to have these amazing opportunities to learn about wine.

I ended up, last week, throwing out a lot of old paperwork. But I saved that box of tasting notes. It will be fun to go through it again someday.

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