Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recreating Wine History

Checking my email recently, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes; Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro was staging a “Judgment of Paris” blind wine tasting. Unfortunately when I called in, the maximum of twelve attendees had already signed up. Rats! But with the promise of another possible tasting later, I put my name on the list. This time luck was with me, and the second tasting on August 8 was a go.

I have attended other wine dinners at Zinc, and been impressed with how well organized they were, so I was prepared for a fun evening. Zinc did not disappoint. Zinc’s Kevin Roessler, masterminded the event and greeted my wife and me as we climbed to the second level where a long table was set up and we joined the rest of the celebrants. Six glasses and notes on the wines were arranged at each place setting. Two whites in front and four reds behind had already been poured.

The 1976 Judgment of Paris

Revisiting the original 1976 Judgment of Paris, set up by Steven Spurrier, California winemakers Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, and Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap Wine Cellars won top awards in the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon blind tasting respectively. Spurrier, an Englishman, ran the Academy du Vin, to teach oenology to English-speaking attendees, and sponsored the event to attract attention to his school.

The most attention he attracted was from the French wine judges, who harangued him for what, in their view, was the latest in a long series of offenses by the English. One could almost hear the beginning of a new Hundred Years War in their complaints of his sabotaging the French wine industry. Spurrier, on the other hand, was as surprised as they at the results. After all Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Meursault Charmes Roulot are some of the most prized red and white wines, respectively. How could the upstart Americans compete with that?

The Zinc Tasting

Duplicating the original wines would have been cost-prohibitive, even if all the wines were still available, but Kevin provided a very good set of replacements. The cornerstone was a 2000 Chateau Margaux, which was enough reason for me to be there. This cult wine, which easily goes for over $1,000, when you can find it, was from one of the great vintage years for Margaux. For the whites, he selected a Grgich Cellars 2006 Chardonnay and a P Matrot Charmes 2006 Meursault. Mike Grgich was the winemaker of the first place winning Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, so the lineages for both were good.

The Chardonnay wines were not hard to differentiate, although the French judges in 1976 were confounded by the similarities. The Chateau Margaux was also easy to spot with an earthy nose, redolent of tobacco and spice, and rich red and dark fruit on the palate. The tannins were sinuous, and the finish just kept going. I can see why this vintage has an average rating of 98 points, with a number of 100-point awards. I savored this one to the last drop, but felt it would be bad form to tongue out the glass.

The Other Wines

The Freemark Abbey 2002 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was also reasonably easy to spot, a classic Napa Cab. The problem I had was with the Chateau Bastide Dauzac 2005 Margaux and the 2005 Franciscan Magnificat, a Meritage blend. The Dauzac Margaux is a Cinquièmes Crus or fifth growth and didn’t taste like a typical Margaux and both wines had a significant dark cherry palate. I ended up swapping them on my tasting form. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

The food that accompanied the wines was well selected although I waited until after I’d tasted all the wines before indulging to keep my palate clear. This was a well-conceived and fun event, complete with high-quality wines and tasty complementary foods. Zinc is definately for wine lovers. Salud!

Tunneling Into the Hills of Coombsville

If a winemaker made a wish list of everything he or she would need to make the best wines, and price were no object, it might look something like Porter Family Vineyards. When our guide, Curtis Strohl of Ancien Wines, drove us up the final hill to the Porter property, there were breathtaking views to the north. Below us lay Napa Valley, gently curving through sloping hills. In the near distance, a dilapidated building indicated the last vestiges of a long defunct stage line that brought early settlers to this lush farmland.

We met Tim Porter and entered the nearest building, which also housed the lab for testing brix and other parameters. Tim took over the tour and poured the 2008 Sandpiper Rosé, made from 100% Syrah. Gazing out the west-facing windows, I explored the rounded hill just above us. Grapes blanketed the hill with row upon row of gently undulating vines, but at the base I spotted the entrance to a cave. A wine cave, no doubt. But, no. Upon closer inspection, that cave was actually the winery!

Taking our glasses of wine with us, we climbed the hill and looked down upon a large grape-crushing machine, covered by a tin roof, and resting on the downward slope. This design permits the grape juice to be gravity-fed below to the rear entrance to the cave, a structure that travels the entire length of the hill’s base, and contains more than 17,000 square feet of wine-making equipment and storage, plus a tasting room.

Entering the Cave

We descended the stairs to the rear entrance. The complex looked like a giant mole had cut a huge hole into the hill, magically coating its sides with smooth concrete before continuing its mad scamper through to the downhill opening. Power cables clung to the sides and numerous branches off the main tunnel appeared as we proceeded further into the cave. It was an unreal feeling, as though I’d stepped into a James Bond movie, with a criminal mastermind lurking just around the next corner.

One of the major branches contained a long row of stainless steel fermentation tanks. Above them a long metal track housed an apparatus for automatically performing the daily punch-downs in each tank. What winemaker wouldn’t kill for a setup like this, I thought. Many automated systems used pump-overs to keep the cap broken up, but punch-downs are generally considered a better way to handle the process, except for the added labor usually associated with it. Not here.

When we finally made our way into another branch that was the tasting room, I was ready to sample the wine all this technology was designed to bring forth. Over thirty-five feet in circumference and rising to a rounded top, the enclosure sported indirect lighting along the sides and a huge round table that could have seated all of Arthur’s knights. On it was the Porter Family Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, our holy grail and much easier to find than Sir Galahad’s goal.

Was it worth the quest? In spades. The wine is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, and 3% Merlot; not a typical Bordeaux blend, but it works. The nose yields notes of violet, cedar, and spices. Packed with dense, dark fruit of blackberry, plum and black currant, the 24 months in French oak added vanilla bean and dark cocoa. The tannins provide good structure and enhance the long finish. There may have been tears in my eyes after sampling the wine, but I quickly brushed them away. The 91 rating from Wine Spectator is much too low. Just goes to show you, some things you have to discover for yourself. Salud!