Scolded by the Secret Service (or Why Haut-Brion is Not Opium)

Cabernet Etiquette: “Don’t EVER say that in this situation!” sneered the Secret Service agent, his neck veins and eyes aflame just long enough to singe a look of terror into my puzzled face.

I was at a political fundraiser in the living room of a wine collector in the leafy suburb of Katona, New York. The host — a genial real estate czar with a craving for collectable Cabernets – had asked me to decant a selection of his vinous thoroughbreds and introduce them to the thirty or so supporters – designer Kenneth Cole among them — waiting to hear former President Clinton speak on behalf of Hillary.

As Bill made his way around the living room greeting donors, a guest who had seen me talk about the night’s wines asked me to pour her some of the ‘95 Lafite Rothchild. I informed her cheerfully that the host wanted the guests to enjoy the wine in a specific order, so by house rules, it was “illegal to pour the Lafitre Rotchshild before the Haut Brion”.

To our incredulity, that was all it took to trigger the venomous eruption — “Don’t EVER say that in this situation!” — from the Secret Service agent planted nearby.

In a flash, I wondered if his sudden imposition of a vinous speech code was compelled by his special knowledge of how first-growth Bordeaux from the 1995 vintage should be served: was this a secret sommelier hiding behind an ear piece and a Glock?

Or, in the heat of the moment, did his oversensitized, reflexes-at-the-ready mind process my utterance of “Haut Brion (Oh Bree-ohn)” as “opium”?

Whatever the case, this overzealous and ill-tempered power tripper – imagine a seething, monster-truck version of Bobby Flay – yanked the words “illegal” and “Haut Brion” out of their benign context and jumped all over them like they were an injured Gipper leaning on a limo.

No amount of misplaced malevolence from the Secret Service, however, could dampen the buzz in the room and in the decanters before me. Whether or not you are a Clinton (or Cabernet) supporter, you had to admire the former President’s personal magnetism and intellectual virtuosity.  And the wine was equally arresting, an all-star line-up from the 1995 vintage: a Napa legend, two first-growth red Bordeaux, and a fabled Super Tuscan:

  • Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1995
  • Chateau Haut-Brion 1995
  • Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1995
  • Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 1995

Two things surprised me.   First, given its critical praise (Wine Spectator had called it “the best Lafite in ages”) and illustrious reputation, I expected the ’95 Lafite to be the top dog, but the ’95 Haut Brion ended up winning the day. While the Lafite showed the building blocks of greatness — blackberries, pencil lead, cigar box – it was edgy and not yet ready for prime-time, like a great soup before its components have melded together.

The Haut Brion, in contrast, was a wine in full – a wholly pleasurable paragon of elegance, medium-bodied with perfectly-integrated essences of blackcurrants and cedar and smoke and a lush, almost Burgundian silkiness. The next week I mentioned my impressions to Patrick Cappiello, a sommelier at New York’s Veritas restaurant, and he confirmed that among the Bordeaux first-growths, Haut Brion is often more approachable in its relative youth, 12 years being still young for these titans. “With more recent vintages, I never steer customers [interested in Bordeaux first-growths] to Lafite,” Cappiello told me. “Haut Brion is more likely to be pleasurable early on.”

The other surprise was, well, with such stunning wines available and his reputation as a man of considerable appetites, Bubba remained a teetotaler that night – sipping on nothing more than a glass of Diet Coke. Perhaps the Secret Service sommelier had rendered another Cabernet intervention.

Veiling the Veuve as Newark Begins Anew

Why was this wine writer crouching in the bushes of Newark, New Jersey, feverishly attempting to hide a magnum of Veuve Clicquot, like a dog burying his bone?

cory booker Veuve Clicquot

The Victor                                    The Contraband

I had traveled to Newark for the election-night celebration of Cory Booker, a college friend who was on the verge of becoming this troubled city’s first new mayor in two decades.  Smart, charismatic, and innovative in his approach to urban reform, Cory is a brainy Vin Diesel who’s got the goods to effect real change and help Newark achieve its potential.

So what Champagne is grand enough for to celebrate the rebirth of New Jersey’s largest city?  I reflexively thought of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, who, like Cory, is loved by legions and so distinctive looking that its orange-yellow label is immediately recognizable across a crowded gymnasium of jubilant supporters.  To my consternation, however, when I arrived at Booker headquarters toting this grand bottle in a satchel, I was immediately descended upon by no less than five security guards, who sternly informed me that no alcohol was allowed in the venue.

“But what if I don’t open it?” I pleaded, not even believing my own words.  The beefy security chief wasn’t buying it either and pointed me to the exit.  I slunked out of the building, defeated and thirsty.  Feeling like a suburban high schooler forced to hide a six-pack of Moosehead from his parents, I found myself having to elude the police officers milling about the venue and find a deserted patch of shrubbery in which to hide this magnificent bottle.  I then returned to the festivities.

But all ended well: Cory won in a landslide victory and the magnum of VC was still there after the election party — undisturbed, still somewhat chilled, and ready to inaugurate an era of hope and opportunity for Newark.

newchamProducer: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

Wine: Yellow Label Brut

Vintage: NV

Cost: $45 (or about $90 for a magnum)

Track it down: ubiquitous (including the lonely shrubs of Newark)

A crowd favorite famous for its balance of force and finesse, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is everything a richer-style, Pinot Noir-dominated Champagne should be.  This golden-yellow potion consistently delivers tiny, pinpoint bubbles, joined by notes of apple, honey, vanilla, and baked bread, culminating in a creamy finish that lasts longer than a politician’s smile.