My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.
It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.
The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.
I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.
Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.
We had another of our periodic tastings yesterday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, and I want to focus on a couple of them, to show that stylistic differences in their production—mainly alcohol level—are really irrelevant when it comes to quality.
Consider these four wines, with price, alcohol level and my rating. All the wines were tasted blind.
WALT 2012 The Corners, $75, 15.2%, 91 points.
Kendall-Jackson 2013 Jackson Estate, $30, 14.7%, 94 points.
Anthill 2012 Demuth Vineyard, $46, 12.9%, 96 points.
Littorai 2013 Savoy Vineyard, $70, 12.7%, 95 points.
You can see right off the bat that, for me anyway, the alcohol levels didn’t matter, in the sense that I did not automatically reject the K-J or the WALT as being “unbalanced.”
The WALT was actually a delight. Yes, it didn’t score quite as high as the others—because the alcohol did give it some heaviness—but the flavors were fantastic: cherry pie filling, orange zest, cocoa powder and an exotic teriyaki savoriness. An easy, lush, fat wine that, frankly, expresses a certain California style, and would be fabulous to drink with steak. It’s a shame some people reject that approach: it’s simply one extreme of a spectrum of Cailfornia Pinot Noir.
The other end? How about that Littorai! Sometimes these low alcohol wines can flirt with greenness, but not the Littorai. It had a clear, translucent ruby color, suggesting its delicacy, and what an eruption of flavor and spice. Raspberries, cola, orange zest, a gorgeous, dramatic, silky wine. I’m sure this is the kind of wine the IPOB crowd loves, as well they should: but I wish the cool kids were more open to other styles.
And yet, good as it was, there was the Anthill, which was my wine of the flight (of 14 wines). I remember meeting the Anthill guys years ago and being so impressed by them, so it was nice to see another triumph. The mountain vineyard (Demuth) has been source to many famous Pinot Noirs. This one, with its low alcohol, was a triumph of silk and delicacy, and enormously complex and racy. Just a beautiful wine, and an ager too.
It was, I have to say, a particular delight that the Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate scored so well, especially since we were tasting at K-J’s chateau and gardens, up in Fulton. Having been a small part of the launch of Jackson Estate, I know how excited K-J and the Jackson Family have been about the launch of Jackson Estate, which they meant to express the finest terroir of their vineyards. Really, the Jackson Estate knocked it out of the park. At 14.7%, it’s not low in alcohol, and yet the wine showed.—well, here are my notes. “A very pretty wine, easy to like. Lots of sweet, upfront raspberries and cherries. Some sweet heirloom tomato and prosciutto. Good acidity, smooth tannins. A bracing, wholesome wine, balanced and charming, with a long, rich finish.”
I might add that the Jackson Estate, at $30 retail, was by far the least expensive wine in the flight, further proof, as I blogged yesterday: “The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better.”
Did the flight show any particular Anderson Valley character? Not really. The wines were just too different to all be lumped together. Certainly, the uniform high quality testifies to Anderson Valley’s suitability at being included among California’s great coastal, cool-climate wine valleys. There was perhaps a certain mushroomy earthiness in many of the wines that was more prevalent in the Anderson Valley flight than in, say, Santa Rita Hills. One could say, poetically, that Anderson Valley Pinot Noir represents a middle ground between the fruit of Russian River Valley and the earthiness of Willamette Valley. But, as with any great growing area, there were wines that were not particularly successful; two or three were too heavy (despite being expensive), and lacked the vibrancy you want in any wine, especially Pinot Noir. I do not think that’s an Anderson Valley characteristic, though, as much as one of young vines, perhaps, or of the grapes being grown in a warmer spot, or something odd in the fermentation. As for alcohol level, I have to say that my lowest score, 86 points, went, sadly, to the Drew 2013 Morning Dew Ranch, a wine I’d had high expectations for, as the vineyard (not the winery) is Burt Williams post Williams-Selyem project. Its alcohol was a mere 13.3%; I found some vegetal notes. Oddly, the Williams Selyem Morning Dew, made from the same vineyard, I scored at 93 points. But then, its alcohol was 14.1%.
Have a wonderful weekend. Back on Monday.
We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.
As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.
(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)
Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.
All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.
A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.
I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.
Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.
Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.
Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.
However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.
So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.
And what a fabulous tasting it was. This was really one of the most interesting sessions I’ve been to in years. For one thing, the level of wineries was exceptionally high, as it tend to be in this sprawling appellation. We’re also dealing with two very good years, 2012 and 2103.
As usual—and as we saw in our tasting of Russian River Valley Pinots last week—two styles of wine emerged: one paler in color and generally lower in alcohol, and the other darker and more full-bodied. It was quite impossible to rule one style or the other out: both succeeded. Of the fifteen wines we tasted, I scored each at 91 points or higher.
Here are my notes, from highest on down. They generally accorded with the group’s findings. All the wines were tasted blind during our 2-1/2 hour session, which included plenty of spirited conversation.
Williams Selyem 2012 Precious Mountain, $94, 13.6%. Over my years at Wine Enthusiast, this bottling became my favorite of the winery’s many vineyard designations. Once again, it didn’t disappoint. Gives off a tremendous perfume of aromatics: spices, sandalwood, toast, persimmon, sassafras. In the mouth, delicate but intense, bone dry, with masses of sweet fruit and a long, spicy finish. Such sophistication, so high-toned. A real beauty, and will age. Score: 97.
Hirsch 2012 Block 8, $85, 13.4%. The official appellation beginning with the 2013 will be Fort Ross-Seaview. The wine has a beautifully clear, prismatic translucence. It is delicately perfumed with strawberry and pomegranate jam, black tea, rose petal, smoke and dusty spices. Rich, spicy, complex, bone dry, with great acidity. Shows the wild, feral quality you often find in these Fort Ross Pinot Noirs. An intellectual wine, with mystery; feminine. Score: 96.
Hartford Court 2012 Seascape, $70, 14.4%. The vineyard is west of Occidental. The wine is young and fruity, with tons of raspberry jam, wild mushroom, root beer, black tea and exotic spice notes. Shows smooth, complex tannins and great balancing acidity. A dramatic, compelling wine, with a very long finish. Will certainly age. From Jackson Family. Score: 95.
Wild Ridge 2012, price unknown, 14.5%. A brilliant translucent ruby color. Absolutely luscious. Delicate and silky, with fabulous spices and raspberry-cherry fruit, cocoa powder, mushrooms, forest floor earthiness. Great acidity. This is a Jackson Family Wines brand that I wasn’t all that familiar with. The vineyard is in Annapolis, at an elevation of 900 feet. Score: 95.
DuMol 2012 Eoin, $79, 14.1%. This was the only wine in our tasting that was grown east of the 101 Freeway. The vineyard is east of Petaluma, influenced by the Petaluma Wind Gap. The aroma began with oak, and the first impression was of a jammy wine, with persimmons, blackberries, cherries, root beer and orange zest. Smooth tannins, great acidity. Later, a peat moss tang emerged. A lovely wine for holding until 2018, at least. Score: 95.
Littorai 2013 The Pivot, $70, 13.1%. The estate vineyard is between Sebastopol and Freestone. The wine is very dry and tart with acids, with some floral notes. The lowish alcohol shows in the light, delicate mouthfeel. Very pretty and supple, with complex rose petal, tart strawberry, black tea and brown spice notes. I couldn’t help but think of charcuterie with this wine. Give it another 5 years. Score: 95.
Joseph Phelps 2012 Quarter Moon Vineyard, $75, 13.8%. A darker color suggesting greater extract. Tremendous fruit, almost sappy: raspberries, cherries, cola, sassafras, cocoa dust. Showed an iodine, peat note, like an Islay Scotch. Tons of spices: clove, star anise, pepper. Rich, heady, dramatic, full-bodied. A great overall impression The vineyard is in Freestone, at 500 feel in elevation. Score: 95.
Hartford 2012 Far Coast, $70, 14.8%. The vineyard is up near Annapolis. This was a substantial wine, darker in color and full-bodied. Erupted in freshly ripe cherries and persimmons, with an earthy, mushroomy note. Feels rich and harmonious, with fine tannins and brisk acidity. Certainly a wine that needs time to evolve. Best after 2018. Score: 94.
Siduri 2013 Hirsch Vineyard, price unknown, 14.1%. One of the more delicate entries, and quite similar to the Hirsch Block 8, although of course the vintage is different. Lots of black tea, licorice, sweet raspberry, rhubarb and even some leather flavors. Exotic and savory. Feels elegant, spicy, complex, but needs time. 2018 and beyond. Another Jackson Family Wines wine. Score: 94.
Martinelli 2012 Blue Slide Ridge, $95, 15.2%. Good ruby color, with tremendous aromatics: violets, rose petals, raspberries, cola, black tea, cinnamon, clove and cumin spice. Lots of charm, with zesty acidity and rich tannins. Fancy and complex, but I found a touch of heat in the finish, which must have come from the relatively high alcohol. Still, Score: 93.
Lynmar 2013 Terra de Pormissio, $70, 14.3%. A darker wine, made from grapes purchased from this well-known Petaluma Wind Gap vineyard. Big, rich and full-bodied, but a little heavy, with extracted, jammy raspberry fruit and some meaty bacon. Delicious, but could be defter and more delicate. Almost like Grenache. Hold until 2018 and see. Score: 93.
Wayfarer 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard, $90, 14.5%. One of the darkest wines in the flight. At first, the aroma was muted. It took a while for the black cherries, black tea and persimmons to emerge. Quite full-bodied and tannic, a bigger, bolder style that needs time to develop. Despite the power, there’s plenty of harmony. From Jayson Pahlmeyer. Score: 93.
Hartford 2013 Land’s Edge, $50, 15%. The wine is a blend of the Far Coast and Seascape vineyards. I found some heat from alcohol, but otherwise, the wine is rich and exotic, with sassafras, raspberry, gingerbread cookie, cinnamon and clove aromas and flavors. Some sweet glycerine around the edges. I would certainly love this with a grilled steak. Score: 92.
Peay 2013 Pomarium Estate, $56, 13.5%. From way up near Sea Ranch, in Annapolis. I called it a “pretty” wine. Tons of sweet red fruit and berries, very spicy, with nice oak application. Some earthy herbs add interest. Polish, supple, easy to drink, with great harmony. I may have missed something; others liked it more than I did. Score: 91.
* * *
Last week I blogged at my disappointment by the S.F. Chronicle’s wine coverage, or lack thereof. I got an email from the newspaper’s managing editor, who felt that I had done The Chron a disservice. She wrote that her team is “doubling down on our wine coverage, have a new critic/writer starting next week and plan several new publications around our wine and spirits journalism.” The new wine writer, whom I do not know, previously was at Wine Spectator.
Well, as Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, there are unknown unknowns in life. I did not know that the Chron is planning on this greatly-expanded new wine coverage, because how could I? I subscribe, I read the paper every day, and I saw nothing to alert us readers to these new realities. I welcome them: As I wrote, the Chron is Northern California’s biggest newspaper, at the gateway to wine country. I’ve read it daily for close to 40 years. No one can be more pleased than I that they are once again going to cover wine.
There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.
This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!
All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.
Here are my notes, with scores:
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.
Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.
Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.
Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.
Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.
Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.
The most interesting, or at least memorable, California wine I ever had was a 1977 Chateau Montelena when it was fifteen years old.
I’d gotten to know a fellow by the name of Albert Dupont, a Belgian, who was at that time one of the more interesting characters running around Napa Valley. He and his wife had a lovely home in southern Napa, filled with antiques. I never could quite figure out how Albert made a living, but he seemed to live well. He had a sort of gig wherein he would occasionally recork old bottles for wineries. This is a tricky business, because you have to pull the old cork and replace it with a new one, which involves exposing the wine to oxygen, which is something you don’t want to do very much, if at all, because oxygen as we all know will kill an old wine.
So Albert had invented a contraption, a kind of glove box whose inside was filled with an inert gas. He would put the bottle and the opener and the new cork and a wine glass inside the see-through box, then insert his hands into rubber gloves that protruded inside, so that he could perform all these delicate operations oxygen-free.
Montelena had hired him to recork their old library bottles, and Albert invited me to come along. Part of the operation involved tasting the wine to be recorked. After all, if the wine was already dead, or suffering from TCA contamination, there was no point in recorking it. So we were tasting all these Montelenas including that 1977.
It had already lost its primary character and was solidly in secondary or tertiary phases. So aromatic, so delicate, so complex and delicious, I could hardly find words to describe it. (Sadly, I didn’t take any notes.) But it struck a chord inside me, an almost satori-like moment I hadn’t even been looking for. I remember it to this day.
Can I say it was the greatest wine I ever had? Nope. I’m not sure I would call any wine the greatest, just as I couldn’t single out the person who had the greatest influence on my life. Many wines have blown my mind: a 1961 Heidsieck Monopole in magnum I drank in in 1991, a 40-year old Musigny. And not only old ones: my first Saxums wasted me, and there was a young Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive that a friend once kindly offered me when I was just starting out; I have a distinct memory of the top of my head exploding with the first sip.
But for some reason that Montelena occupies a special place in my mind. I can’t say why. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Italian word ambiente, which I learned about from Joseph Bastianich’s and David’s Lynch’s superb book, Vino Italiano. By it, the authors mean that everything concerning your experience of a wine—the time, the place, the people, the food, where you’re at in your life—contributes to how you perceive it. I suppose I had that Montelena at a happy time in my life; I had just been hired by Wine Spectator and considered myself a very fortunate young wine writer, indeed. (Of course, that’s not to take away from that ’77. It was a glorious Cabernet, and would have been great under any circumstances, I’m sure.)
I myself will probably never get the opportunity to taste or drink many older vintages of the world’s most famous wines the way some critics do, but that’s all right. I used to know a lot of wealthy people who could drink those wines every day, and I didn’t particularly find most of them to be interesting or vital human beings. Mostly they seemed consumed with their own success, which is a very un-Zen way to live. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve tried to live by the philosophy of “Be happy with what you’ve got.” That’s why I can be happy with perfectly ordinary wines (as long as they’re sound). I love Kendall-Jackson’s new Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris (yes, they pay me, but I wouldn’t mention it in print unless I really liked it), and you can get it for less than $15. Does it blow the top of my head off, like that Zind Humbrecht? No, it doesn’t. But I wouldn’t want my head exploding every time I sipped a wine, and besides, I should think I’d get jaded if I had a ZH Vendange Tardive every time I wanted one. Some things are all the more enjoyable because you don’t get the chance to enjoy them whenever you want, so when you do, you really appreciate it.
Have a great weekend!