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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Winning Wines

From the Cellar Dept.: Here’s an account of one of my more embarrassing moments, when I was invited, as part of a select group of local press people, to participate in a blind tasting comparing some forthcoming Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves from Robert Mondavi with a trio of supposedly similar French wines. Trouble was, I grew up on those French wines . . .


SUPPOSE YOU COULD STAND at Picasso’s side while he sketched a new painting on canvas. Around you, in the studio, hang a number of works that affirm the artist’s reputation. And if you’re willing to make a commitment to buy the new product, sight unseen, you’ll get it at a substantial discount.

Futures have long been a viable commodity, but creatively-based futures are a more recent twist. And earlier this month, representatives from Robert Mondavi, the California-based winemaker known for his premium product, were in the area selling wine futures.

The 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve has been blended. Although it won’t be released until 1991, Mondavi is offering it at a discounted price to restaurateurs and distributors, a number of which met locally at the Stone Ends Restaurant to sample the product.

While the new blend has yet to attain the significant features only obvious after many months of maturation, the presentation cleverly placed it in the context of a “vertical tasting”; that is, a comparison of Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves from 1985, 1986 and 1987. And, to make the comparison all the more compelling, three more wines were added to the assortment, all from France’s splendid 1985 Bordeaux harvest: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau LaTour.

The seven glasses sat anonymously at each place setting. To complement the tasting, Stone Ends chef Dale Miller prepared a bounty of hors d’oeuvres that included puff-pastry shells of crabmeat or escargot, miniature quiches, chunks of honeydew wrapped in prosciutto and a rich, piquant truffle mousse pâté.

Some of the most discriminating palates in the area were assembled to appreciate the beauty of these distinguished wines. To train your sense of taste is one of the biggest sensory challenges: we’re much more inclined to concentrate on what we see and hear. Wine appreciation requires sight, of course, to regard the physical aspect of a glass of it, but taste and its close cousin, smell, are the major centers of wine enjoyment.

It doesn’t hurt to have a pleasant setting, and good food is a necessity. One of wine’s most magic aspects is its ability to complement a meal. But what signals the difference between a five dollar bottle of plonk and the esteemed vintages presented on this table? A world of craftsmanship, and its satellite world of those who have taken the time and interest to taste, savor and remember.

During several years in the restaurant business, I sampled all the vine varieties I could get my hands on, including much of what was represented at this presentation. Although my budget tends to steer to the ten- to fifteen-dollar selections in the local liquor store, I’m always delighted to partake of someone else’s costly purchase.

But to taste these wines, none of them labeled, and rank the top three in order of my preference? What a daunting prospect. It was pointed out, of course, that there’s no wrong answer ... still. I could come out looking like a goof.

Which is exactly what happened, though not in the manner I feared. One of the glasses was identified: the 1988 Reserve designate, sitting in its own corner, its color a dark purple against the deep ruby of the rest. Otherwise, we were on our own.

As the tasting began, Mondavi representative Karen Smith-Sfara explained the wisdom of buying wine futures, citing impressive figures from the 1983 to 1986 offerings. The retail appreciation of the bottles over a two-year period averaged 80 percent. To look at it another way, a bottle of the 1986 Cabernet Reserve sold as a future for about $15. It presently has a wholesale value of about $24 and a retail value of $36.

With the sales pitch over, the tasting began. Not only were we to choose our favorite three, we also were asked to guess which were French and which American. We went to work.

]Some two dozen heads bobbed over the glasses, swirling, examining, tasting – but not necessarily spitting, despite the presence of a plastic discard cup. I’ve always resisted the practice, wise as it may be, because I’m reminded then of the dentist’s office and my teeth hurt.

Joseph Carr, sommelier at the Sagamore Resort’s Trillium, commented that it was a credit to Mondavi that he would put his wines up against these the French had given its highest, or Grand Cru rating.

And a credit it was. You might as well be asked to pick a favorite Mozart symphony. Each had the full, claret flavor that rolls along the tongue and tickles all of the taste-based areas. With an hour and a half to breathe, the wines had taken on a hearty mellow quality, and still the flavor was making subtle modifications.

Still, there were subtle differences. I tasted “A” and noted, “kind of an acidic kick ... fills the mouth fast.” On to “B,” which was really pretty similar, and yet ... “medium tempo,” I wrote, “but also works fast.” I decided to put “B” ahead.

There was no “C” through “E” designation, so on to “F.” This one seemed a little smoother than “A,” though without the mouth-filling essence of “B.” I put it in-between. “G” moved slightly ahead of “F,” possibly because I took a big bite of pâté just then and anything would taste terrific in conjunction with the buttery spread.

“H” was another that unfolded slowly. I decided, almost arbitrarily, to go with those that went to work faster. With “I” the fruitiness came out fast and the essence really it was more confusing than ever.

And this is not to mention those important elements of tasting wherein you identify the varied and complex elements of the oak, the sugar, the fermentation. The more I drank, the better everything tasted.

“Time’s up,” our monitor said. The votes were taken with a show of hands; I got four out of six in separating France from California. It was reassuring to see a couple of local restaurant people vote with me in the “top three” department, but the votes otherwise were as mixed as could be imagined. Every wine ranked as number one with someone in the room.

But my top three? All French. “I – I don’t know what to say,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Smith-Sfara.

“No, really – I was so busy eating ...”

She went on to take some orders for the 1988 futures.

Leaving me branded, no doubt, a Francophile snob, although I confess to no such preference. I have offered to visit the Mondavi winery this autumn and, in atonement, press grapes with my bare hands, or feet, or whatever, but I’m advised that technology has gone quite far beyond that. In any event, I was given the best consolation I could have expected at the finish of the event: another glass of wine. California wine.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 25 May 1989

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