Nov 9, 2009

In Vino Veritas: Tom Wins Our Judgment

In Taber’s account of the 1976 California v. France wine tasting, the assembled French critics approached the task of comparing French and California vintages with typical Gallic hubris. And they came away chastened by the scores they awarded to the Chardonnays and Cabernets from California. We, on the other hand, were never in danger of losing. At Tom J’s elaborately arranged dinner and tasting on October 21, it was provincialism at its best: all California wines, all night long. (Some of us were willing to make an exception for an especially fine Australian Shiraz, but after extracting it from its display case Peter would only let us fondle his bottle of Penfolds 1999 Grange.)

As a prelude to his fantastic meal of grilled stuffed game hens (to say nothing of the accompanying pasta and salad), Tom set up a blind tasting of three winning Chardonnays from this year’s Sonoma Harvest Fair. With each bottle reflecting a different market tier (approximately $10 v. $20 v. $40), the test was whether price really does matter. It didn’t. We voted in favor of Taft Street Winery’s 2006 production. And the 2007 Sebastiani, at the low end, fared almost as well.

Our two guests for the evening played excellent supporting roles: Charlie ably backed up Tom in the kitchen (a critical function given the rising impairment levels in the group), while Dennis supplemented Tom’s wine tasting with several outstanding bottles from Lewis Cellars, where he and his family have developed a fine reputation among midsize vintners in the Napa Valley. In addition to serving a Chardonnay and several excellent Cabs, Dennis answered our many questions about the business of winemaking. Thanks to both of these gents for spending the evening with us. And thanks, too, to John for making an exquisite flourless chocolate torte to put an exclamation point on Tom’s meal.

As if we didn’t have enough wine to sample, Tom challenged us to pair up and bring an especially good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t recall all of the labels, but the highs and lows stand out. Doug’s bottle of Chimney Rock (thanks for letting me pair with you, Doug!) was universally lauded as exquisite, and Dean/Dan/Tom’s garage wine (with fermentation help from Roy) reminded us why these guys haven’t quit their day jobs.

The Book
For the uninitiated, the early part of Taber’s book about the 1976 Paris wine tasting gave us a badly-needed history of winemaking in the Napa Valley as well as a primer on the rarefied traditions still extant in France. How many of us knew that the classifications (e.g., grand crus, premier crus) given to French wineries in 1855 remain virtually unchanged today? Taber also provides a lengthy history of the two California wineries that took top honors in 1976. Both, we learned, were led by immigrant visionaries in a valley that had been making wine for almost a hundred years, but good wine since only the 1960’s.

Although Taber’s tedious summaries of the harvest and crush process could have used some pruning (indeed, Tom A felt that the entire book could have been condensed to article length), he eventually lets us in on the real surprise of the story. Both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap were upstarts, with newly-recruited talent (Mike Grgich) or self-taught winemakers (Warren Winiarski) and little commercial success before the Paris tasting put them on the map. After his description of the climactic tasting at the Paris Inter-Continental Hotel, Taber commences a survey of the development of winemaking in other parts of the world. It was at this point that many of us stopped reading and started complaining.

In retrospect, we should have done as Charlie and Dan did and watched Bottle Shock, a loose adaptation of the book, replete with sexual undertones notably absent from Taber’s account. Or we could have read The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which Doug applauded and which Tom J originally recommended. Since we did neither, we prided ourselves on our expanded knowledge of local oenology, and we breathed a sigh of relief that the author was in Palo Alto and unavailable to join us (thanks for trying to get him, Dan).

Next Up
In search of a new genre, Roy assembled a list of classic true crime dramas: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Mailer and Bugliosi were both too long (clever move, Roy), so we chose Capote’s carefully observed account of a murder in rural Kansas and its wider impact on America in 1959.

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