Tales of Wining and Dining
The venerable wine writer Hugh Johnson, whose World Atlas of Wine has taught me the most about wine of any book I’ve encountered, once remarked that wines’ initial importance to humans, ultimately, came down to its capacity to intoxicate, to “banish care.” He may well be correct, yet it’s the way in which wine can bring a meal to life, and the way that food can deepen the experience of drinking wine that has continued to interest me in pulling corks and filling glasses for the past 31 years.
Now, it happens that a couple of months ago I offered to hold a tasting for the sales staff of Paul Marcus Wines here in the East Bay, featuring our 2000 Rocks and Gravel, and 2000 Los Robles Viejos Red Wine, and a few of the best 2000 vintage wines from Gigondas and from Châteauneuf du Pape, because I felt they’d be interested in seeing, first hand, the ways in which these wines, made from the same grape varieties, yet grown so far apart, echoed one another, and the ways they differed. I was particularly excited by the “echoing” half of the equation, because the French wines to be included in the tasting are some of my favorite wines to drink, and wines that I think of as models for my aspirations as a winemaker. That’s not to say I would ever think of consciously setting out to make wines that tasted the same as these “models,” but that they were great examples of balance, freshness, intensity, expressiveness, fine texture, complexity, and so forth, and that if I could produce a wine which provided a comparable level of pleasure vis à vis each of those criteria, I might feel I’d begun to approach my target. And with the 2000 Rocks and Gravel, and the 2000 Los Robles Viejos Red, I felt I’d hit dead center on nearly every shot. Since the Paul Marcus guys have been such great supporters of Edmunds St. John, I hoped they’d be as excited about it as I was.
Needless to say, such a tasting would call for a meal, which, as we discussed it, quickly evolved into a kind of potluck. The plan became to grill some meat, and have a salad. I volunteered to do vegetables. There would be bread and olives. A white wine to start, our Los Robles Viejos white. It would be Pig Heaven.
Too many tastings seem to be about competition: which wine is the biggest, the baddest, the most extracted, etc., etc. About as much fun as a drive-by shooting. When we sat down for this meal, I prefaced the consideration of the wines by saying that I thought these were all really lovely wines, and that what I was curious to know, in tasting through these wines, was whether anyone had an immediate reaction, in each of the two flights, to any of the wines, that suggested that that wine was definitely not from the same neighborhood as the other wines in the group.
The wines were presented in these two groupings:
- 2000 Château du Trignon, Gigondas (for more on the wines of Trignon, see Organolepticians #39)
- 2000 Domaine Font-Sane, Gigondas
- 2000 Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel, California
- 2000 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, Châteauneuf du Pape
- 2000 Clos des Papes, Châteauneuf du Pape
- 2000 Domaine Pierre Usseglio, Châteauneuf du Pape
- 2000 Edmunds St. John Los Robles Viejos Red Wine, Paso Robles
The wines came to the table in brown paper bags, so that their identities would not be known (a non-participant had bagged the wines, and marked each bag with its own identifying number.)
There were 10 of us at the table, and we all knew one another fairly well, so it was a pretty relaxed group. The conversation moved comfortably from the wines to other topics, and back again, several times. Perhaps the first occurrence of any note was the uproar over the vegetables. Everyone loved them! I made enough for 15-20 people, but they were wolfed down with great enthusiasm; in no time at all they were a fond memory. Here’s what we had:
3 different kinds of fingerling potatoes (Russian banana, Peruvian purple, and a red kind, the name of which I’ve lost.) roasted in a few tablespoonfuls of olive oil, till tender. Fava beans, shelled, parboiled, skinned. Fennel, diced and sauteed in olive oil till tender. Baby artichokes, trimmed, quartered, and steamed. All combined, and tossed in the skillet in which the fennel was cooked, with salt and pepper, and a bit of anchovy paste, to create a kind of ragout.
It was labor-intensive, but I enjoyed every minute of it, and the flavors and textures were heavenly. Great, of course, with the grilled meat (lamb and tenderloin of beef) and the wines.
After tasting through the wines the consensus was clear; these wines were on such an equal footing, vis à vis elegance, complexity, nuance, perfume, and overall quality, and the aromas and flavors, the kind of equilibria the wines exhibited, were so familially similar that no one (except perhaps me, for having been intimately involved in the creation of my wines) could say with certainty that any particular one of the wines wasn’t from Gigondas, or from Châteauneuf, even knowing that, in fact, one was, in each group.
There was a moment, before the group began to taste, when I wondered how this inquiry would turn out. Was I deluded? Had I shot myself in the foot? I remembered a similar tasting I’d orchestrated in Manhattan eleven years before (see Organolepticians #25); would jaws drop open in surprise, and shock? Would anyone remember, three days later? Questions that keep a winemaker from sleeping too much. This exercise was a step in a direction that this group of tasters hadn’t taken before, and I think it enlarged everyone’s perspective, a bit. And that can’t hurt.
Here’s something else that won’t hurt; on August 22nd at Oliveto restaurant, in Oakland, Paul Bertolli has created a special menu to accompany a selection of nine Edmunds St. John wines:
Duck Prosciutto with Summer melon
1996 Grand Heritage Viognier
Grilled Spiedino of Mediterranean mussels, fennel, and Italian bacon
2001 Los Robles Viejos Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier blend
2000 Nebbiolo Rosé Pinc froid
2001 Rocks and Gravel
Spelt pasta with Roast Pigeon
2001 California Syrah
2000 Los Robles Viejos Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, Grenache blend
Braised Shortrib, turnips
2000 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah
1994 Durell Vineyard Syrah
American and Italian Artisan cheeses
1992 Les Côtes Sauvages
Wild Fennel Ice Cream
It’s a special pleasure for me to collaborate, again, with Paul, at Oliveto. Paul and I met 25 years ago when we both worked at a wine and food emporium in Walnut Creek, called A La Carte, that seemed, unfortunately, to have been ahead of its time. It was plain to me though, that Paul was special, and that he would be, before very long, a force to be reckoned with in the world of great food. He’s still carving out new territory, 25 years later, and he’s just beginning to hit his stride.
Edmunds St. John celebrated our 10th anniversary in 1995 at Oliveto, and Paul cooked that night, (and it’s now 10 years he’s been at the helm at Oliveto) so this will be our second event in that venue. I love to drink really good wine with really wonderful food, and the wines we’ll be showing August 22nd represent many of the best we’ve ever made. To be able to enjoy them with Paul’s marvelous food seems like an opportunity that’s too good to miss. If you’re tempted, call Oliveto at (510) 547-5356 for details, or to make reservations. See you there!