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Misty water-colored memories…



I love my job of tasting the wines of coastal California, from Napa and Sonoma all the way down to Santa Barbara County. But I do sometimes miss the world catholicity (small “c”) of my tasting before I was a professional wine critic.

In the Eighties, when I developed this crazy passion for wine, I was lucky enough to be living in San Francisco, where the entire world of wine was available for drinking, if you had the interest and connections. I had three ways of obtaining wine: I could buy it, of course, and back then, it was relatively affordable for a struggling student like me. I could even occasionally afford classified growth Bordeaux (although not First Growths).

A second way was through the old Les Amis du Vin tasting group, which I was a member of. We tasted a lot of interesting wines, often poured by visiting winemakers who were on marketing trips through The City. In June, 1989, for example, they held a tasting of 1986 Bordeaux at the World Affairs Center, downtown. It included La Lagune, Clerc Milon, Pape-Clement, Pichon Lalande, Leoville-Barton, Montrose and Mouton. (My top-ranked, blind, was the Mouton.) Not too shabby!

And the third way I had of tasting was at tasting bars. We didn’t have “wine bars” per se back then (well, maybe a couple), but some of the retailers offered tasting; and I was lucky enough to be friends with the guys who ran them, which offered certain distinct advantages.

(I don’t think I’ll get anyone in trouble for telling the following story. Remember Liquor Barn? They were sort of the predecessor of BevMo. There was a branch down on Bayshore Boulevard where I used to hang out. The guy who ran the tasting bar liked me, and would ask what I wanted to taste. I remember once when I asked for Yquem, fully expecting he’d say, “Dude, are you kidding?” But instead, he immediately pulled a bottle from the shelf, popped the cork and poured me a glass. Those were the days, my friend.)

As a result of those experiences (and widespread reading, of course), I developed a pretty sound knowledge base of the various wines of France, Germany and, to a more limited extent, Italy. Once the Nineties arrived, and I began writing for wine periodicals, I got on the mailing lists of the various trade associations and restaurants that sponsored tastings in San Francisco, and so was able to further broaden my palate. Some of you may remember Square One, Joyce Goldstein’s fabulous, pioneering restaurant in San Francisco’s Jackson Square district. My old pal, Peter Granoff, M.S., was the sommelier there, and his wine classes were as radically innovative as Joyce’s Mediterranean-style food. I learned a lot from Peter. In November, 1991, he held one on Condrieu and Cote Rotie. I mean, wow. That was quite an eye-opener for me, although, looking at my scores, I was more impressed by the idea of tasting these wines than by the wines themselves! I scored them all between 88-91 points, but this may have been because the wines were far too young to appreciate: the vintages were 1987-1990, and I don’t know that I properly understood how to look for ageability

Then there were the Bon Appetit tastings, run by Anthony (Andy) Dias Blue; these tastings, I must say, were historic in their scope. There was one in particular that I still have my notes for. It was in December, 1990, at a downtown restaurant. Andy served up, among other Cabs, Diamond Creek 1980 Gravelly Meadow, Dunn 1979 Howell Mountain, Laurel Glen 1981 (whatever happened to that wonderful winery after Patrick Campbell sold it?) and a 1978 Mayacamas. You don’t get to taste wines like that anymore–at least, not without paying big bucks.

I was still a cub wine writer at that Bon Appetit tasting, and was puzzled when I got to the Dunn. My review indicates my puzzlement. “Dead?” I wrote, describing its “raisined nose.” I added, “Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.”

Well, I needed some help understanding it, and fortunately there were two gentlemen present a lot smarter and more experienced than I was: Jim Laube and Andy himself. So I asked their opinion. One said it was dead; the other, that it needed many more years to come around. (Unfortunately, I no longer remember who said what.) That left me more puzzled than ever–but it taught me a valuable lesson. If two guys as wise as Jim and Andy could come down on diametrically opposite sides, that meant my judgment was as good as anyone’s!

Incidentally, my highest-scoring wine at that tasting was Ridge 1975 Monte Bello. At the age of fifteen years, it just wasted me. I’d love to try it now.

Anyhow, I miss those more innocent times when the world of great wines was made available to me, courtesy of the kindness of people like Peter, Andy and my friends at the tasting bars.

  1. Nice trip down memory lane.

    “taught me a valuable lesson. If two guys as wise as Jim and Andy could come down on diametrically opposite sides, that meant my judgment was as good as anyone’s!”

    Very true. But I also read that as meaning: everyone has their own palate, even “experts” can be wrong and anyone’s opinion can be just as valid as a critic’s.

  2. doug wilder says:

    I recall some of those Bon Appetit tastings, either at The Palace or Postrio. They did a lot to set the bar in SF during the 90s. There were others that are still etched in memory, The DRC lunch at Fleur d Lys where we tasted all the 1990 vintage with a vertical of St. Vivant back to ’67, or the Port Tasting including dozens of houses. (I spent the afternoon tasting going to every table and tasting only 1963). There was one at Stars put on by Mondavi of mostly older vintages in magnum or larger format. All the wines were sitting out open. It happened to be the day that Iraq started lobbing Scuds into Israel. We all congregated in the bar downing stronger libations because the sky was falling. Turns out that most of the fragile wines were dead after being open for several hours.

  3. Michael Kennedy says:

    Seeing that you were a member of Les Amis du Vin brought back memories. I actually worked at the office for about 4 months with Ron Fonte. I attended their tastings nearly every month. One memorable one was a Mondavi tasting where they shipped in “fresh cabernet grapes” from the vineyard to be tasted with the wine. Alas, the cross country trip as not kind to the grapes.

    I also had a high school friend that ran a wine shop. I remember that one time he told me to give him $150 for some special burgundy. To my surprise it was 4 bottles of Dr. Barolet from the late 30’s to mid 40’s. Friends like that are hard to find.

  4. Man, I wish I could find a friend that would pull a bottle of D’Yquem off the shelf like it’s nothing. I need to make some better friends I guess.

  5. Jason, they were different times. I doubt that anyone would do that today.

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