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All But Perfect

(January 14, 2001) The food is terrific. The wines, legendary. Our companions, two of our favorite people. So how could this not be an evening of sheer perfection?

     How about this. Every ten minutes or so, like a running gag in a Seinfeld show, yet another restaurant staffer stops by and tells us to hurry up.

     Let me name the offending restaurant -- Café Panache in Ramsey, New Jersey. Do not, repeat, do not go there in search of relaxing times.

     Enough ranting. Now let me rave about what these bozos were rushing us through.


We start the evening with a very rare piece of California Chardonnay history, Helen Turley's *+1988 Peter Michael Point Rouge. That's right, I said 1988. Naturally fermented wines are all the rage today, but this bottle is the "experiment" that helped set the trend.
     Only 50 cases were made and no special labels were printed. It sports the very same label as Peter Michael's regular cuvée, Mon Plaisir -- plus a big red, stick-on dot. Red dot. Point Rouge. Get it? Pretty neat.
     Anyhow, the wine is still alive and kicking quite impressively, even though it has doubtless seen better days. It's medium gold, with plenty of sediment. Aromas of truffle, mineral and vanilla. Cream and dough on the palate, with a darned good finish. Starts to fade in 15 minutes, but pretty darned good for a 13-year-old Chard from the worst California vintage in recent memory.

Now we open the wine that mesmerizes my California-Chard-loving bride. ***1993 Etienne Sauzet Batard Montrachet. Big mineral aromas. Loads of gunflint and cream flavors. Thundering finish. Develops well, showing mushroom, more minerals and a truckload of Chardonnay fruit. All this, plus wonderfully light on its feet. And even though it must have been aged in 100% new oak, it's showing hardly any vanilla at all. WHITE OF THE EVENING.

In comparison, the yummy **+1996 Kistler Chardonnay Kistler Vineyard is all but ignored. I have to say, however, that it's surprisingly well-matched to the Batard, showing lots of mineral flavors too and impressive depth, plus the oak you'd expect in such a young wine. In two or three years, this wine should be even better.


Now I want you to imagine that you have exactly 1 hour and 30 minutes to sit down with one of the greatest Bordeaux I've ever tasted.  Here I sit with a splendid filet on my plate -- and ***+1989 La Mission Haut Brion. I have never, but never, tasted a better La Mission Haut Brion. It's a baby still, but a prodigy! Deep dark ruby-black, with a fabulous tobacco fragrance. On the palate, you get cigar, earth and minerals, atop untold depths of cassis. You want to savor every sip of this wine, followed up by tiny nibbles of steak. Then your waiter comes by and tells you to hurry up. Tell me a better justification for homicide. WINE OF THE EVENING.

Sometimes I wonder how Robert Parker can possibly distinguish between a mere 99-point wine and a full 100 pointer. Tonight, however, I can taste the difference too. ***+1994 Dominus is fantastic but can't quite trump La Mission. When I've tasted it before, it always seemed somewhat closed -- but next to the gigantic La Mission, it seems wide open. It is still, however, one of the greatest California Cabs ever made. With oceans of ripe fruit and the tell-tale earthiness of a Napanook wine, it's the best of Bordeaux plus the best of Napa Valley.


As we open the ***1998 Donnhoff Riesling Eiswein, the waiter practically plops our bill onto the bottle. But this wine can sweeten even the sourest moments. Ultra-thick, pineapple-scented, apple-tinged essence of Riesling. Masses of sugar, but balanced on a knife-blade of acidity. The perfect end to an all-but-perfect evening.

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