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Thursday throwaway


Wine May Cut Decline in Thinking Skills

is the headline in this new WebMD article that says wine “may even protect against dementia.” That’s wine, mind you — “not beer and spirits.”

Why am I not surprised? As any reader of this blog knows, wine drinkers are smarter, handsomer/prettier, healthier, funnier and in general better human beings than anybody else.

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While we’re on the subject of scientfic studies, here’s another one that shows how your choice in wine “could also reveal [your] personality traits.” For example, sweet wine lovers are more impulsive while dry wine lovers are more open.

I have no idea what this study means or if it’s important or if anybody cares, but it did get two university professors that much closer to a cosseted life of tenured employment.

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Some anecdotal talk out here in Cali that the over-$20 market is picking up steam again.

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The weather has turned a little warmer, but it’s still below normal. Today’s Chronicle says the abnormally chilly summer has had the benefit of fewer smoggy days. Some of the comments from winemakers (both here and on my Facebook page) correct me that it’s not warmth that ripens grapes, but solar radiation; and, they say, 2010 could be a great vintage, because although it feels cold to humans (it does, it does), it feels great to grapes, who are soaking up the radiation, and could achieve true ripeness at lower sugar levels. This is, of course, the Holy Grail of California winemakers. They’ve been trying to do it for years, tinkering with canopies, trying new yeast strains and so on. Mother Nature, as it turns out, may do it for them. Now, all we have to do is convince her not to start the rainy season until November.

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Lucky was the writer (David Elswood, of Christie’s, the British auction house), who was invited to Chevel Blanc to participate in the recorking of some bottles of the legendary 1947 vintage, perhaps the most famous wine of the 20th century.

I was fortunate to taste it twice, both times courtesy of the Getty family, in San Francisco. One time, Billy Getty phoned me (I was already living in Oakland) to say his mother had just bought “an amusing little cellar” from somebody in New York, and did I want to come over to the mansion to try some stuff, including ‘47 Cheval Blanc?

Did I! I’d written an article about it in Wine Spectator, and had interviewed all these famous collectors (Bipin Desai, Marvin Overton, Tawfig Khoury) who described it to me (they were only too happy to have their names in the magazine). So I jumped into my car and raced across the Bay Bridge and zoomed up Fillmore to Pacific Heights, made a quick left on Broadway, and parked opposite the Big House with its grand view of the Bay.

Knocked on the door. The elderly butler (who had worked for old Joe Kennedy when he’d been ambassador to the Court of St. James, during the war), opened it. Inside, in that marble room off to the left, was Billy, with two or three other friends, busily drinking wine. I asked for the ‘47. Billy brought me the bottle. I held it, turned it upside down over my glass — and nothing came out. Empty!

I was too late. But Billy Getty was nothing if not a charming host. He saw my face droop. What’s wrong? It’s empty, I sighed. No problem! Billy clapped his hands — the old butler appeared from nowhere — another bottle of the ‘47 Cheval Blanc! And that is the story of how I found myself with my very own bottle of that legendary wine. (And, yes, it was good. Rather Califorianian, I daresay.)

  1. What was the ’47 like and what made it Californian?

  2. Scott, it was very full bodied, almost heavy. Jammy and sweet in blackberry liqueur and chocolate. Viscous. I had the feeling it was like Port in that it would live for decades more.

  3. Here is the thing that has always amazed me about the bitching re CA wines–and you hit it on the head while being kind to those whose hypocrisy is so apparent.

    People talk about 47 CB as if it were the cat’s ass (if you are too young to understand this reference, look it up). Its virtues were its Port-like concentration and its 16% alcohol. Yet, these same characteristics (real or imagined) are the very things for which these hypocrits bash CA wine–even though you and I and most people with a brain know that most CA Cabs (Dan Berger’s assertions notwithstanding) do not fit that model.

    I will admit that I am not especially fond of Cab that tastes like Port or chocolate but there are plenty of folks who think those wines are nothing mroe than the latter day comings of 47 CB. Good on ’em. Let them enjoy their dry Port substitutes.

    What I do not get is why so many people who hold up 47 CB as a classic have such great disdain for wines like Staglin, Hewitt, Rubicon, etc which may be ripe, but are fruit-centered, deep and have plenty of range and nuance.

  4. You got that right, Charlie. I’ve wondered the same thing.

  5. Charlie/Steve:

    I asked my dad whether he had every had this wine, and he had…a couple of times. He said the same thing re its “california-ness.” He also mentioned he thought the wine was high in VA maybe adding a bit of “freshness” to the wine.

  6. Steven, I have read that the wine was high in VA. Charlie, years ago I spoke with the cellar master at Cheval Blanc and as I recall he said the ’47 was not particularly high in alcohol.

  7. Steve, the 47 CB, while not high by today’s standard, either here on the Right Bank, was high at the time. Hence, its porty character derived from desiccated berries.

    Of course, the apparent magic of the wine at the time was that it was intense and alive and seemed to make good lemonade out of VA, overripe grapes, etc.

    I have no axe to grind in this discussion except the seeming hypocrisy of those who call the 47 CB the greatest ever and then curse ripe and balanced CA wines. 47 CB was not prune juice and neither is most of CA Cab.

  8. I’m with you on the hypocrisy part, Charlie. If all of public experience is a giant pond, there are certain events that cause ripples in the pond that last. In one tiny little place in this pond is where “Wine” occurs.

    Up from the bottom comes this bubble that is “47 Cheval Blanc is the greatest wine ever.” The bubble breaks the surface and instead of dying the quick death that 99.99 percent of bubbles do, it sends out ripples that have kept going til this day. No one really knows why the ripples persist or what caused the bubble in the first place.

    No two bubbles are the same; some gain momentum in mysterious ways and blot out other bubbles, and some really meaningful bubbles never even make it to the surface. In the words of the theatre owner in “Shakespeare in Love,” “It’s a mystery!”

  9. Steven, I am partly responsible for the bubble. I wrote my “greatest 20th century wine” article when I was a novice writer for Wine Spectator, and my bosses expected me to interview rich collectors and report on this kind of stuff. I wouldn’t do that today, but you will have to forgive me for being young, ambitious and naive.

  10. Not sure I buy the hypocrisy argument here regarding the ’47 Cheval Blanc and modern CA Cab. I would expect desiccated berries of Cabernet Franc and Merlot grown in southwest France to make different wine than desiccated berries of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in northern California. Besides, isn’t “terroir” the popular buzzword now in the blogosphere?

  11. Steve:

    We were all three at one point in time. Hopefully, still one. I certainly understand the editorial directive, boring as it might be. The zeitgeist, the trope, the meme of the moment can be a little soul crushing…trying to look at the long-term…thinking about what the grandkids might think of grandpa’s doings thirty years from now.

    Jason: I think Charlie’s point was less to do about the specifics of the wine or the appellation as much as it was a comment about the myopia of those who fawn over the “best of all time” kind of wines and the double standard that many of those same folks have toward wines from CA made in a similar style.

  12. All I know is when I have too much off dry Riesling I am impulsively open.

  13. Mr. Olken,

    Thank you for tipping me off to an expression I had never heard, i.e., “cat’s ass.” I did look it up and am so grateful – it will now become part of my “lexicon of clever and obscure colorful phrases…”

    Also agree with you on the hypocrisy. Just out of curiosity, did the 47 CB have 16% alcohol? Most internet research (yes, highly questionable if found on the internet) indicates a 14.4% level? Having never even been close to a bottle, I have no idea.


  14. Richard, as I wrote earlier, I recall the cellarmaster of Cheval Blanc telling me the alc level was not 16%. In my memory, it was high 14s.

  15. As I have never tasted the ’47 CB (Pierre, take note), I am more intrigued by the concept of creating wonderful stories and images that arise from grapes. Steve, Getty and the butler; Steven, the bubbles (it was an image that even Pixar could not duplicate, thank you).
    What I should know and don’t is whether there is some kind of an INAO limit to how often an old wine should be recorked (regardless of where on the hardy shoulder it slips).
    What else I don’t know (well, for this post anyway) is why the Port-like sensibility of a wine doesn’t translate to Port, the real thing. Port, at its best and even at its merely great, is one of those beautiful bubbles that rarely seems to break the surface.

  16. Kathy, I don’t know why people don’t drink more Port, except that it doesn’t fit into modern lifestyles. Not mine, anyway. I wonder if the INAO would really get involved in a recorking debate, especially as Nanny Government all over Europe seems to be under attack!

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