Last week in sunny Palo Alto, it was cloudy with a chance of rain. And rain it did, in the form of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache, with five vintages of impeccable provenance from a collector whose proclivity to sharing is unmatched. Let’s get to the report (cue 70’s porn music):
1990 La Tache: The nose was a heady mélange of ripe, sweet red fruit permeated with notes of mushrooms, truffles, and La Tache’s unmistakable perfume of Asian spices. The rich-but-not-heavy taste penetrated every pore and lingered forever on the kaleidoscopic finish; you don’t need wine expertise to sense how sexy and astonishingly intense this wine is. Having been fortunate to canoodle with the 1990 several times over the years, I found this to be its best, most expressive showing.
1996 La Tache: If the 1990 was a buxom Burgundy-born pin-up, then the 1996 was Tippi Hedren — elegance and mystery, with a smoldering sex appeal that shows itself only when it decides it is ready. After about a half hour in the glass, it opened up to reveal layers of red fruit, soy sauce, and mint joined by seductive, powdery tannins which coat the tongue like the finest velvet.
1999 La Tache: Although Burgundy specialists regard the 1999 as near “perfect”, this bottle was a bit more reserved than expected and its muscular tannins and tart acidity were a bit too insistent. But the makings are there for future greatness, with its foundation of ripe plum, spice, and that know-it-when-you-smell-it earthiness the French call sous bois (“under brush” or “forest floor”).
2001 La Tache: The great surprise of the night: undeniably gorgeous, with a perfume of rose petals and minerals, with every structural element — acidity, tannin, fruit concentration, and alcohol — in balletic equipoise. The 2001 demonstrates how a top winery can make a masterpiece even in a relatively disappointing vintage year.
2002 La Tache: Started with an odd, flowers-and-cedar scent and sharp acidity, a woody dissonance that suggested spoilage. It was even more disjointed after an hour. Oxidized bottle.
2005 La Tache: A rare specimen of beauty, its dense black fruit showing hints of exotic spice coupled with a pleasing whiff of earth and beef bouillon. Its finish lingers like long, high clouds across a summer sky. But it is still young and tightly wound, with noticeable tannins. All signs point to a legend in the making that will get more nuanced and silky in the years and decades to come.
Nobody raises an eyebrow if they see a fan getting his book or concert program signed. If Meryl Streep or Daniel Craig is asked for an autograph, it is a natural course of events. But what of wine and the winemaker: is it ok to ask a vintner to sign to your bottle?
So I pondered during the recent Domaine de la Romanée-Conti media tasting at New York’s A Voce Columbus. The featured speaker was Aubert de Villaine, the courtly French co-owner and winemaker of DRC, widely considered the most sacred Pinot Noir ever to ferment its way into existence. After we tasted through the 2010’s, which included pulse-quickening renditions of La Tâche and Romanée Conti, as well as, of course, the ethically proper abandonment of my spit cup, I threw caution to the wind and approached Aubert. Preternaturally unassuming, he gamely agreed to sign my bottle and did so with an appreciative smile, thereby creating a memento that shall grace my curio cabinet for the rest of my wine-moistened years.
Later I reflected on what it takes to make the most of approaching your favorite winemaker for such a bottle note, and here’s what I came up with:
Have a good marker ready. Don’t use just any pen – employ a Sharpie for its permanence and then choose a color such as purple or burgundy to lend visibility and uniqueness. For a dark label, go metallic gold or silver.
Have an inscription in mind. Unlike authors or actors, winemakers don’t necessarily come equipped with witty inscriptions. If you don’t premeditate something for them to write, you might be left with only a lonely signature, which just isn’t making the most of your effort or the bottle’s potential impact. During the tasting, Aubert had talked of how great wine gets that way when grapes can achieve a fine ripeness he called “finesse de maturité”. And there, in that poetic phrase, an inscription for my bottle was born.
Make it a special bottle. Even if I had wanted to use an empty 2010 bottle from the tasting, I wouldn’t have dared, for fear of freaking out DRC’s importer, Wilson Daniels, whose reps rushed to scrawl an “X” over the label of each emptied bottle so as to discourage counterfeiting. Who can blame them when you consider how connoisseurs have been duped by the likes of scoundrels such as recent faker extraordinaire Rudy Kurniawan; one expert told me that just one empty bottle of Romanée Conti could be worth thousands of dollars on the black market.
Fortunately a month before this tasting, I took part in a nine-person dinner vinously catered by not one but two legendary collectors. For a grape nut, this is the rarest of planetary alignments, like being afforded access to the music collection of Brahms and Beethoven. Among his show-stopping offerings the first collector brought the dessert wine Château d’Yquem from the unfathomable vintage of 1893 (incredibly, the middle two numbers have not been transposed) which still had plenty of lemon-vanilla intensity despite its century-topping slumber in glass.
The other collector’s contributions included the 1996 Leflaive Montrachet, one of the rarest and most coveted Chardonnays ever made, and two bottles each of 1990 La Tache and 1990 Romanée Conti, both Picassos of Pinot whose current auction price I resisted Googling for fear of setting my computer’s keys ablaze. The day after this epic repast, I knew that the right thing to do was to ship home one of the empty bottles of Romanée Conti.
This of course wasn’t the first time I saved an empty bottle for sentimental purposes. As detailed in this New York Times piece and in this lighthearted video, I was sent to New York criminal court for walking the streets with an unloaded bottle of 1970 Château Palmer. It is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories, recounted in amusing detail in this official court transcript. When last fall I had the opportunity to have dinner with Château Palmer’s CEO Thomas Duroux, I had him inscribe a bottle of the ’70 Palmer with the rallying cry from the above video, “Libérez Oldman!”
My first foray into winemaker worship happened as a college student when I co-founded the Stanford Wine Circle and convinced the mythic Robert Mondavi to come to campus to lead a tasting of his To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. After his presentation, Wine Circle members lined up with the determination of sample-sale seekers to have an empty bottle from this tasting signed by this vintner hero. Bursting with ruddy enthusiasm, Mondavi basked in the attention, any trace of his octenegarian years vanishing in the presence of the event’s adoring coeds. And like a Cab-craving Richard Dawson, he kissed every one of them.
My own tribute to the man came in the form of having him sign a bottle of the then-acclaimed 1985 Mondavi Cabernet Reserve, which I had sourced with the help of the winery’s San Jose rep; we located what seemed like the last bottle on Earth hidden under egg grass in the display case of a trinket shop at SFO airport.
So the message here is not to hesitate engaging in your own winemaker groupiedom. Find a wine you love and discover who is behind it. Visit the winery or attend a winemaker dinner and get your bottle signed with a message meaningful to you. Not only will it pay due tribute to a talented soul, but it will forever bond you to their work. It may also inspire you to follow that wine throughout the years, noticing how each vintage can bring intriguing flavor and texture variations – the observance of which is one of the great joys of wine appreciation. Never forget that winemakers are as deserving of a place on your shelf of memories as any musician or actor. Actually, they might be more deserving, because winemakers aren’t just artists; they are artists who get you buzzed.
2010 DRC TASTING – MARCH 2013
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Corton 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echézeaux 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands Echézeaux 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-St.-Vivant 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 2010
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet 2010
COLLECTORS’ DINNER – FEBRUARY 2013
Domaine Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet 1996
Domaine Leflaive Montrachet 1996
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet 1996
Domaine Dujac Romanée St. Vivant 2006
Domaine Dujac Romanée St. Vivant 2007
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1990
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1990
Château d’Yquem 1893
The recent Food & Wine Festival in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo was a technicolor caravan of spirited gastronomy. You can read all about it, including the much-loved appearances by my fellow speakers Michael Symon and Marcus Samuelsson, in this excellent recap at Eater National. While the setting was Monaco-travel-poster beautiful, I couldn’t exactly pass the time slurping guava in a hammock on the beach. When I wasn’t teaching one of my four seminars, I mostly was preparing for them. Successful presentations, like good writing, require dogged, sweaty effort. There’s just no way around it, no short cut when you want your audience to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. This still doesn’t justify why I didn’t take the time to enjoy the infinity pool conveniently located in my hotel suite’s outdoor living room. You read that right: pool-in-living-room. I was stationed at La Casa Que Canta, a hotel so dreamy that it figured into the Meg Ryan flick When a Man Loves a Woman. Being by myself in this secluded cradle of romance, I was essentially on a honeymoon of one. Twisted minds might wonder: well, then, did you at least get lucky with yourself? I ain’t saying. But I can tell you that I relished the hotel’s superb room service, which brought the resplendent hillock of guacamole you see in this glamour shot.
Our driver for the weekend, Ricoberto Perez, was one of my favorite memories. A sweet, unassuming man, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, tempting us with stories of a local “tamale lady” who sold her magnificent cornmeal creations at certain hours of the night. Rico was also a bit drowsy, partial to catnaps in his van’s back seat when he wasn’t driving us. When someone in our group asked him about his hobbies, his answer was matter-of-fact: “I like to exercise. You know, stay in shape.” Only later in the trip did he casually mention that he was participating in the next day’s Ixtapa Triathlon Pan American Cup, the kind of competition that I thought was solely the province of Oakley-wearing ectomorphs. Our group was floored. Calling his bluff, I demanded, playfully, to see his official gear. He produced his wetsuit, complete with its sponsorship patches from local eateries. The surprise we experienced reminded me of the scene in Romancing the Stone when a local tells Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner that his only vehicle to escape town is a “lil’ mule”. “Lil’ Mule,’ you might remember, turns out to be the nickname for his roaring, jacked-up Ford Bronco. Looks can be deceiving.
Another highlight was getting to know Mexican wine, a rara avis that is almost never seen on American shelves. A lot of it is very good, but unlike Argentina’s Malbec or New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc, Mexico has yet to find a signature grape. Instead, the country’s increasingly sophisticated winemakers use a broad array of grape types, including a preponderance of Spanish and French varieties, almost all of which are grown in ocean-cooled microclimates of the northern Baja peninsula. If you’re interested in sampling some Mexican wine, good examples can be ordered through the Baja Wines website. If you do, no one can ever accuse you of failing to drink bravely. One of my favorite wines was Vino de Piedra, a red that Food & Wine’s Jay Meyer ordered as our group gathered to have a nightcap on the Viceroy Zihuatanejo’s beautiful beachfront. The waiter decanted the wine right there – on the beach, at midnight, into a fantastically long-necked decanter – creating what deserves to become a new trend among oenophiles: nighttime beach decanting.
After finishing my fourth and final seminar, I returned to my hotel and celebrated with a massage, which commenced in a way that was anything but relaxing. Before the masseuse exited the room, she pointed me to a surgical-blue shower cap sitting on the massage table. They must use some strong oils here if you have to keep your head covered, I reasoned, while attempting to stretch the fabric over my head — that is, until I noticed it had two holes in it. That can’t be a shower cap, I finally realized; it has holes for your legs. I imagined that it must be some sort of protective diaper required by the Mexican massage authorities. The question remains: who in this equation is being protected? I tried to pull it on and was to alarmed to see that there was way too little fabric in front, and way too much in back – not, unfortunately, for anatomical reasons but because I had it on backwards. As I struggled to turn it around, my get-undressed time must have expired because the masseuse started knocking. With the language barrier, she didn’t know to recoil from my panicked “no’s!”. It wasn’t exactly one of my finer moments as she got an eyeful of me, a pasty blur hopping on one foot with this blasted shower cap twisted around a leg.
On to less humiliating subjects, Inside Food & Beverage has just issued this generous review of Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine. Don’t forget: the book makes for an excellent gift for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or, er, Bastille Day, and can be ordered at Amazon for the price of a (good) tequila shot.
With Grill Girl on Martha Stewart Radio
Last week it was electric, as always, hanging out with the lovely and talented chef-extraordinaire Elizabeth Karmel (a.k.a. “Grill Girl“) on Martha Stewart Living Radio. We talked about wine for Easter, including the joys of rosé and Albarino. I also mentioned to her that after watching Stanford Basketball recent triumph in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden, her Hill Country BBQ was the perfect choice for a celebratory barbecue feast with friends.
Are you a Facebook (or Instagram) millionaire? Or do you just want to drink like one? Watch this.
Teaching tequila is its own martial art. (Photo courtesy of WhiteOnRiceCouple.com)