(December 7, 1996) Actually, these are more like the Cliffs Notes, but Robert
M. Parker Jr.s invitational tasting, held last Wednesday at the Milton Inn, was
indeed a wine epic.
War in Heaven raged between French wines
and their West Coast cousins. Bob Parker invited sixteen lucky souls to judge the outcome,
most of us longtime acquaintances of his from cyberspace. He looted his own cellar for the
wines, laid out a lunch fit for Bacchus and otherwise proved the friendliest, most
welcoming host imaginable.
Here are the headlines:
THE GOOD NEWS: It was a magical time, thanks to the generosity
of Robert Parker, the bounty of his cellar, the talents of the staff at the Milton Inn
and of course, the good people attending. I felt like a kid at Christmas.
THE BAD NEWS: There will be no containing Jim
Daugherty from here on. Earring and all, he nailed the first two flights perfectly, did
very well on the next two and hollered out the identity of a La Landonne, caution to the
winds. Sheesh. The kid from the left coast scores big bragging rights.
THE NON-NEWS. The guest of honor, Bob Callahan, scored a
creditable but not overwhelming 17 out of 30 (56%) by one count or 18 out of 30 ( 60%) by
another. Anyone who expects him to go forth converted, preaching the praises of West Coast
wines, doesnt know him very well.
"LET A PRO SHOW." Harmon Skurnik may have done even
better than Daugherty, albeit more quietly. He named 27 out of 30.
"I TOLD YOU SO." Wines 1 and 4 in the second flight
were overwhelmingly selected as top winners in the Pinot/Burg Flight. Their identities?
1992 and 1994 Beaux Frères, the second showing backward at first but emerging
impressively in the glass. Stunning wines.
MY TWO PROUDEST MOMENTS: 1. Going 6 for 6 on origin for the
Pinot Noirs, and guessing the 92 Beaux Frères (not so remarkable since I had it the
night before...but hey, so did most of the others who guessed wrong). 2. Nailing the
country and producer of the 92 ESJ Durrell Syrah. This wine baffled all but a few
folks. I must confess though that Harmon identified it also and with more confidence.
HUMBLE PIE. I flunked the Chards miserably, my 50% score no
better than a coin-tossing chimpanzee, identifying a Coche-Dury as Gauer Ranch and even
missing the stare-you-in-the-face Peter Michael Indigene.
FOOLED US ALL. I adored number 4 in the Cab flight, but felt
sure it must be a Silverado trail cab, probably Stags Leap District. Just about everyone
else love it or hate it was also certain this chocolatey, deliciously
layered sacher-torte of a wine must be CA. It was 90 Le Tertre Roteboeuf from
Magnum. Well, sure its easy once you know.
I FELL IN LOVE with the 89 LAngelus! My favorite
wine of the afternoon. Once again, no one named it as a St. Emilion...debate raging over
whether it could be Pauillac or St. Julien. And again, it should have been easy. All the
violets on the nose, right? Hah! You try.
NOW LET ME MOUNT THE PULPIT. It was wonderful fun but
lets not miss the weight of what went on. This tasting was historic and not
just because of its cyber-status.
A bunch of regional prejudices crashed down for the count
yesterday. And by dessert, a couple of varietal bugbears also got skewered.
Whats that? You say youre totally
fair-minded and simply taste whats there? Tell it to Immanual Kant. I profoundly
doubt that any guest at this lunch failed to undergo a few eye-openers.
So forgive me, but Im going to be long-winded.
NUMBERS DONT TELL IT ALL. By my own count, I identified
the country of origin correctly for 24 out of 30 wines. Pretty good, huh? Maybe not. I was
feeling great and wasnt the one under scrutiny. I was also sitting between Harmon
Skurnik and Jim Daugherty, two people whose tastes are close to mine and whose palates are
better trained. We didnt always come to the same conclusions, but we did sometimes
share impressions of flavors, aromas and development. I doubt they learned anything from
me, but in my case, it paid to shmooze.
There were four flights, one white, three red. All wines were
decanted 3 hours before and served double blind in what looked to me like Riedel Gourmet
Glasses. We were never even told the name of the grape. Ill indicate my 3-4 favorite
wines of each flight with an appropriate number of stars.
FLIGHT ONE: (CHARDONNAY)
***WINE 1. Penetrating aromas. Nose at first is all oak and sulfur, then complex
tropicals. Some wild flavors. Very full and long. Love it! Got to be California, Sonoma,
maybe Gauer Ranch. I say California. Turns out to be COCHE-DURY 1991 MEURSAULT
PERRIERES. , #1 wine in the flight by overwhelming group vote
REFLECTIONS. Very humbling. So much oak, so much mango-papaya fruit, so open and
flamboyant. These characteristics say "California" to me. Hah! (Harmon, by the
way, murmured, "If this isnt French, Ill resign." I worried, but now
we can all rest easy.)
WINE 2. Minerals, tight tree-fruit, not a lot of oak. Then it opens and blasts out butter.
Full on the palate, short on the finish. Fades in the glass. I say French. Turns out to be
CHALONE 1991 RESERVE CHARDONNAY.
REFLECTIONS. Bamboozled again. Little oak, mineral flavors say "Burgundy" to
me. Can I really be this prejudiced regionally? You bet. So is Callahan and Ill bet
you are too.
**WINE 3. Most reticent nose of any wine in the flight. Emerges very slowly after a lot
of swirling. Kind of dumb on the palate, with apple-pear flavors. But wow! What a finish.
A really tight wine, but a big one. Seems like a Grand Cru Chablis to me. I say French.
Turns out to be LEROY 1991 PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES FOLATIERES.
REFLECTIONS. I may be prejudiced, but at least I have expensive tastes. Sometimes when
a white wine tastes wonderful and puts the oak in the background it really is Burgundy.
*WINE 4. Muted, complex nose, again without much oak. But could it be Im tasting
a little coconut? What a whomper on the palate! So intense it hurts! Steely finish.
Interesting. Despite the reserved use of oak, Im convinced this is American. Turn
out to be MT. EDEN 1992 ESTATE CHARDONNAY. #2 wine in flight by group
REFLECTIONS. I had this wine a couple of weeks ago, liked it then too and had similar
impressions. This always helps. But many people in the group besides Callahan were fooled
by the origin today.
WINE 5. Lovely mingling of lumber and fruit aromas, but tastes a little thin on the
palate. Seems short too. I say American. Turns out to be MARCASSIN 1993 HUDSON
CHARDONAY. Tied for #3 wine in flight by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. What a disappointing showing for my favorite American producer! Had I
favored one wine in the flight by label alone, it would have been this.
WINE 6. Very earthy nose. Really over the top for me. Then apple flavors come out.
Okay, its wild yeast, unfiltered, and because the oak isnt very prominent
Ill say French because I dont know any wild yeast California wines that are so
mild in the oak department. Definitely French. A nature-boy French producer. Turns out to
be NIELLON 1989 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET VERGERS.
REFLECTIONS. My logic on this one worked. Probably my most successful identification of
the flight. But again, a very disappointing showing for one of my favorite producers.
WINE 7. Sexy, creme-brulee aromas. Oh I love it! But the palate disappoints. Is it
tight? No, flabby. Eh. Im not impressed. But gosh it smells good. I say California.
Turns out to be LOUIS LATOUR 1990 CORTON-CHARLEMAGNE, tied for #3 wine in
flight by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. Ive never been a huge fan of Louis Latour CC and this one
didnt change my mind. The fact I guessed it as California again betrays my prejudice
despite my efforts at fairness, when I taste an oaky wine without much stuffing, I
automatically think California.
WINE 8. Nose of new French wood and not much else. Lightest color of any wine in the
flight. Coax, coax, coax. Nuttin. Seems like theres a finish though. A good one. But
the wine is just too young and tight for this taster to guess. I say French. It turns out
to be PETER MICHAEL 1994 INDIGENE.
REFLECTIONS. I slipped up badly here. Heres a wine I had just last month with a
distinctive profile I usually recognize and it zipped right by me. (Harmon, the canny
creature, thought it might be Peter Michael Pointe Rouge.) Again, I erred in the French
direction because the wine seemed closed and classy.
FLIGHT TWO: (Pinot Noir)
Let me note that I l-o-v-e salmon with Pinot...and the
experience of lapping up these beauties accompanied by Seared Salmon and Mashed Yukon Gold
Potatoes with Sauce Robert is one I will think back on for a long time to come. I was in
hawg heaven (and from the look of it, my brother salmon- freak JD was too).
***WINE 1. POW-erful blackberry nose! Elixir. California? Oregon! High alcohol. Not
showing all its got. Long. What all PN would taste like if it could. Has to be
Oregon, very likely Beaux Frères. Yes, definitely Oregon. I say West Coast and it turns
out to be BEAUX FRÈRES 1992 ESTATE. Tied for number 1 in the flight by
group vote. (There was no clear consensus for anything but first place in this flight.)
REFLECTIONS. Here at least I felt not baffled but vindicated. Yes, the flavor of the
berries said "Oregon" to me. But the character of the wine the
concentration, structure, balance and length wasnt out of keeping with the
best Burgs in the flight. This extracted, concentrated style of Pinot Noir is what the
stuff is SUPPOSED to taste like when its done right and the wine is young. You heard
it here that this wine is going to age beautifully and Im putting a bottle aside to
prove it in 5 years.
WINE 2. Reticent red raspberry aroma. Not quite gamey but theres a spicy tang to
it. Burg, and a very graceful one. I say French. It turns out to be CLAUDE DUGAT
1990 CHARMES CHAMBERTIN.
REFLECTIONS. Easy call.
WINE 3. Nose of strong oak drowning out anything else. Nothing much on palate, either.
Tannic. But theres considerable length here. I say French. It turns out to be LEROY
1991 CLOS DE LA ROCHE.
REFLECTIONS. I seem to recall that Bob Callahan remarked this wine was showing worse
than it might on another day. This proved perceptive. Knowing the producer now and given
the tell-tale finish, it seems to me this wine was simply shut tight.
**WINE 4. Complex blackberry-vanilla aromas. Very, very sexy. Arlaud? No, West Coast.
JD suggests I taste again, its opening. Sure is. Opening wider, wider, w-i-d-e-r.
Lots of blackberries. Another Oregon. I say Oregon. It turns out to be BEAUX
FRÈRES 1994 ESTATE. Tied for number 1 in flight by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. I hereby pronounce the debate on this wine over. Even Bob Callahan
voted this one of his top 2 picks in the flight. So stop asking, is it unbalanced, is it
clumsy, is it already hopelessly out of whack? Funny how nobody asks this when a Leroy is
tasted at an awkward stage! I admit to preferring the more open 92 Beaux Frères for
drinking at this stage, but lets face it, my friends. This wine may well prove to be
the greatest Pinot Noir ever produced in Oregon. I repeat, this wine may well prove to
be the greatest Pinot Noir ever produced in Oregon.
By the way, I have heard protests already that Bob Parker
wasnt "supposed" to place Beaux Frères into the tasting and that all the
American wines were supposed to be from California. Come on. Blind is blind!
Plus, after sniffing Wines 1 and 4, I asked Bob Parker (across the room, in my loud
voice) if we could rule out Oregon, and he replied "No guarantees!"
*WINE 5. Big, spicy, berry aromas. Lot of red raspberry. Russian River Valley? Cross
that out. This ones tough but I finally say French. It turns out to be LECHENEAULT
1990 CLOS DE LA ROCHE.
REFLECTIONS. Lovely stuff, but beside the Beaux Frères, this wine seemed tame, though
WINE 6. Well-balanced berry and oak aromas. Initially the aromas are just as strong as
5 but more complex. Most developed of all wines in the flight. If its not a Burg,
its a heck of a ringer. Fading. Fading almost to nothing. I say French. It turns out
to be PONSOT 1991 CLOS DE LA ROCHE VIELLES VIGNES.
REFLECTIONS. Disappointing showing for a great vineyard and a great producer. But Burgs
do wax and wane. Maybe its just being mercurial. Or maybe not.
FLIGHT 3 (Bordeaux Grapes.)
I assumed this flight would be pretty bumpy when it came to
naming country of origin. But I nailed 7 of 8 and I believe many others did as
well. Pretty good, huh? Uh-uh. Read through these notes and watch for varietal bigotry...
**WINE 1. Tobacco city. Roasted meat. Bordeaux essence. Nearly perfect. Big wine and
everythings here. What a finish! Now vanilla comes out and something else. Was that
coffee? Bordeaux? Dominus? Whoops, here comes a carload of cassis. Cab! Whatever it is,
nice showing. I say California. It turns out to be RIDGE MONTE BELLO 1984,
number 2 in the flight by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. I flip-flopped on this for a while, guessed right, but totally missed the
biggest clue. As soon as I heard the real identity, I tasted again and yep
dang! That "coffee" was the American oak talking. Still, Im consistent.
This has always been one of my favorite Cabs.
WINE 2. Aromas of toasty berries and alcohol. Reticent. Tannic. Highest tannins of the
bunch. California Mountain Cab. Togni? La Jota? I guess California. Turns out to be HESS
COLLECTION 1984 RESERVE.
REFLECTIONS. I did pretty well here. Mt. Veeder never occurred to me, but at least I
was headed for the hills.
WINE 3. Big. Very big. Like #1, but more berries, less tobacco. Great depth. Has to be
Bordeaux. I say France. Turns out to be CHATEAU MARGAUX 1983.
REFLECTIONS. I liked this wine a lot today. I have also praised it lavishly on several
occasions, and if Santa had asked me ahead of time which wine of the flight I would like
to receive case of, it would have been this one. And Ill bet most of you who know
your wines would say the same. But. On my scorecard at least, there were four more
impressive wines today. And two of them werent even Cabs.
***WINE 4. Sinful, whorish, vanilla and chocolate aromas. Oh yes theres oak here
and I want it! Very tough not to sip it immediately. Okay, now. Ahh. A dripping,
gooey sundae! This is the wine that would ace the tasting at my local wine shop. Caymus?
Cask 23? Let me count the layers. It must be a Silverado Trail Cab, probably Stags Leap
District, California as it can be and give me more! I guess California with great
confidence. It turns out to be...LE TERTRE ROTEBOEUF 1990. Very
controversial wine, loved by some, scorned by others, and Ill bet my cellar most
folks picked it as California.
REFLECTIONS. Why do fools fall in love? Im right to love it. Im a fool for
not picking up all the obvious clues that this is Merlot. The tasting is double-blind. No
one said there wouldnt be any Merlots, but a wine that tastes this wicked cant
be, right? But Merlot is Noble and this is Exhibit A.
****WINE 5. Can you say V-I-O-L-E-T-S? Im hooked in a sniff. Bordeaux flavors
below. Ohhhhhhh... JD pronounces confidently, "Leoville Las-Cases." I tell him
hes full of it and for once Im right. No way! Margaux, maybe. Or Paulliac.
Yeah, thats the ticket. A great Paulliac. Incredibly fragrant. I guess France and it
turns out to be CHATEAU LANGELUS 1989, number 1 wine of the flight
by a landslide vote and my Wine of the Day..
REFLECTIONS. You who werent there are laughing at me. "All those flowers!
Why did LAngelus never occur to you?" Why? Because its not a Medoc,
dummy! Everyone KNOWS that the wine of the evening has to be Pauillac or Margaux. Right.
(By the way, as I tap this out, I am sipping the last quarter of
yesterdays magnum and in heaven again. The icing is gone, but Im loving the
lower layers. Eat your hearts out.)
WINE 6. Hint of mint. Tingling tannins. Oak. Period. I say California and it turns out
to be CONN VALLEY VINEYARD 1990.
REFLECTIONS. The only wine in the flight that I didnt much like. Wasnt on
or didnt have the stuffing.
WINE 7. Very fragrant but not the same as 5 at all. Berries come out on the palate. And
more berries. Almost like a Pinot. Swee-eet fruit. Cab. I say California and it turns out
to be ROBERT MONDAVI 1991 RESERVE.
REFLECTIONS. Most obvious Cab of the flight and a superb wine, but seemed backward to
me. Blind, I preferred it to the Margaux.
*WINE 8. Very strong Tobacco. Some fragrance. Pomerol? Graves? Here comes a special
taste. Chocolate- berry-roasted-grain. Napanook?. I say California and it turns out to be
REFLECTIONS. Not a tough guess, since this was so likely to be included in the tasting
and I had it the night before. Im not very good, however, at tasting through the
tannins in wines that are closing down, and I think thats exactly whats
happening in this one. It was showing better the night before. In my book, it was shown up
today by Monte Bello and two St. Emilions.
FLIGHT 4. (Syrah and guess what else?)
Of all the flights, Id have to name this as the biggest
shocker. Not just because the Rhone Maven uncorked some killer Californias and fooled
almost the whole room on two of them. Something else happened too. I call to the stand...
WINE 1. Very grapey cassis and raspberry flavors. What a pleasure. Blackberry essence!
New World for sure. Id say Australian Shiraz? No, lets play it safe. I say
California. It turns to be ROCKLAND 1993 NAPA VALLEY PETITE SIRAH? Huh?
REFLECTIONS. Get used to it. Decant, wait three hours and taste. Be honest. This grape
is for real. Lets not argue. I was there. I never would have guessed Petite Sirah
either. It wasnt too tannic. It wasnt short. Napa Valley Petite Sirah may be
the Madiran of California.
****WINE 2. A little herbal, complex, French as Edith Piaf and I havent even
tasted it yet. Magnificent! Piercing. Hurtfully long. Has to be a Cote Rotie and I
dont think Ive ever tasted a better one. It turns out to be GUIGAL
1991 COTE ROTIE LA LANDONNE, tied for number 3 (you read that right) by group
REFLECTIONS. I must disagree strongly with the group here. Sometimes you really do get
what you pay for. I preferred the flavors of Wine 6, but the power of this wine was
unearthly. Took my palate in a Vulcan death-grip. Im surprised this wine didnt
win the flight by unanimous vote.
*WINE 3. Grapey, tangy, almost like a Domaine Peyre Rose or some other great Languedoc
Syrah. No noticeable oak. Rawest, youngest critter in the flight. So savage I cant
score it, but I like it! Lets see. If its not Languedoc, and Im guessing
they wont be included, its got to be California. If its California,
its got to be Qupe or ESJ. Thats it! ESJ. I say California. It turns out to be
EDMUNDS ST. JOHN 1992 SYRAH DURRELL VINEYARD. Just about tied for number
1 by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. Two years ago, I knew nada about West Coast Syrah and not too awful much
about Northern Rhones. Started exploring. Did my homework, asked around, came onto the ESJ
Durrell and tasted truth. Bought a case at $17 per bottle. Well, even a blind hog will
find an acorn once in a while and Im grateful to know the taste of my own acorns.
WINE 4. Bacony, Rhonish flavors. Asian spice. Dull in comparison to the others. I guess
France. It turns out to be PAUL JABOULET 1990 LA CHAPPELLE.
REFLECTIONS. Ive had this once before and didnt like it then either.
WINE 5. Coconut, I could swear. Little bit of dill too. New World? Good stuff, but it
seems Australian to me. I guess "New World." It turns out to be CHAPOUTIER
1991 LE PAVILLON.
REFLECTIONS. Will someone please explain what I tasted? Was I hallucinating?
***WINE 6. If this be candy, its dandy. More refined than wine 3, more tasty oak
and I prefer it . Also more tannic, but not to a fault. Again, I might call this Oz
Shiraz, but Ill say California. It turns out to be SWANSON 1992 SYRAH NAPA
VALLEY. Tied for number 1 by group vote.
REFLECTIONS. Feeling smug. This was the other 92 Syrah that I bought two years
ago. Some folks I know decried this at release as lumpy, leaden, stiff. Baaaaa, humbug.
Parkers rave was right-on.
WINE 7. Gamey! Too gamey. Cote Rotie. I say French and it turns out to be GERIN
1991 COTE ROTIE LES GRANDES PLACES.
REFLECTIONS. Id be surprised if anyone guessed wrong on this one.
**WINE 8. Very different. Maybe the ripest wine of the flight. Lots of oak, lots of
fruit, oozing vanilla. I say California. It turns out to be LA JOTA 1994 PETITE
SYRAH NAPA. Shows respectably in the group vote, maybe tied for number 3.
REFLECTIONS. See Wine 1 in this flight. Maybe we all should be tasting more Petite
AND THE GRAND FINALE....
Perhaps even I could have nailed ***1955 TAYLOR as a Port. Fortunately
I was spared the test and just sipped, secure in the knowledge that the joy in my heart
was confirmed by the label. This is Port of the gods, tannins outta here, fruit flowing,
light garnet nectar. Sublime with chocolate.
LEST YOU SAY, "LIGHTEN UP..." Yes, it was just 17
folks in a big room drinking wine and having grand old time. But isnt it just
possible to be having so much fun that you let your guard down and actually learn
Happened for me. And Ill bet it happened for at least 15
others...people from the Northeast, the South, the West Coast, the plain old
West...wine-lovers all, many of them with very fine palates and minds that had fun being
broadened. Now were all looking at a more expansive landscape, with more great wine
in the world than we knew about before.
Thanks again, Maven.
P.S. For another first-person account of the tasting, see Mark Squires'
article. Click here to
check it out!
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