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Paradise at the Milton:
A Wine Epic

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: One of the more talked-about tastings in the history of cyber-winedom took place in December of 1996 at Maryland's Milton Inn.

     It was hosted by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. and attended by sixteen folks, most of whom had met Bob through Prodigy's wine bulletin board.

     It was occasioned partly by his wish to lift a glass with his online friends in person...and partly also to address the strident anti-California arguments of one particular Prodigy wine board member, Robert Callahan. (Hence the event is often called "The RC Challenge.")

     Bob Parker brought the wine and paid for "lunch" -- a five course feast that stretched from noon to 5 pm. Those he invited swarmed in from as far away as California and Texas, and yep, you guessed it, one of them was me.

     The wines were served double-blind, meaning no one (except Bob Parker)  had a clue what we were drinking, beyond the color. We were told that each flight would contain similar wines, period.

    We were challenged to identify which wines we liked best in each flight -- and to decide out whether each wine was French or American. The results were more than a little embarassing to those among us who cherish regional prejudices.

     Following are my sip-by-sip notes...

 

miltoninn2.jpg (28466 bytes)
Left to right, the tasters: Jack Cornett, Joel Framson, Jim Daugherty, Stuart Yaniger, Harmon Skurnik, Robert Parker, Yours Truly, Dianne Lampkin, Mark Squires, Mitch Guttenplan, Robert Callahan, David Cochrane, Ron Kramer, Jay Miller, Robert Slovacek and Lee Kirby Smith. Missing from the group is Steve Wolfe, who shot and kindly supplied me with this photo.

(December 7, 1996)
Actually, these are more like the Cliff’s 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, doesn’t 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 it’s easy once you know.

     I FELL IN LOVE with the ‘89 L’Angelus! 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 let’s 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.

     What’s that? You say you’re totally fair-minded and simply taste what’s 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 I’m going to be long-winded.

     NUMBERS DON’T 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. I’ll 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 isn’t French, I’ll 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 I’ll 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 I’m tasting a little coconut? What a whomper on the palate! So intense it hurts! Steely finish. Interesting. Despite the reserved use of oak, I’m convinced this is American. Turn out to be MT. EDEN 1992 ESTATE CHARDONNAY. #2 wine in flight by group vote.

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, it’s wild yeast, unfiltered, and because the oak isn’t very prominent I’ll say French because I don’t 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. I’m 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. I’ve never been a huge fan of Louis Latour CC and this one didn’t 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 there’s 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. Here’s 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 it’s 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 — wasn’t 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 it’s done right and the wine is young. You heard it here that this wine is going to age beautifully and I’m putting a bottle aside to prove it in 5 years.

WINE 2. Reticent red raspberry aroma. Not quite gamey but there’s 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 there’s 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, it’s 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 let’s 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 wasn’t "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 one’s 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 more developed.

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 it’s not a Burg, it’s 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 it’s 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 everything’s 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, I’m 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 I’ll 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 weren’t even Cabs.

***WINE 4. Sinful, whorish, vanilla and chocolate aromas. Oh yes there’s 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 I’ll bet my cellar most folks picked it as California.

REFLECTIONS. Why do fools fall in love? I’m right to love it. I’m a fool for not picking up all the obvious clues that this is Merlot. The tasting is double-blind. No one said there wouldn’t be any Merlots, but a wine that tastes this wicked can’t be, right? But Merlot is Noble and this is Exhibit A.

****WINE 5. Can you say V-I-O-L-E-T-S? I’m hooked in a sniff. Bordeaux flavors below. Ohhhhhhh... JD pronounces confidently, "Leoville Las-Cases." I tell him he’s full of it and for once I’m right. No way! Margaux, maybe. Or Paulliac. Yeah, that’s the ticket. A great Paulliac. Incredibly fragrant. I guess France and it turns out to be CHATEAU L’ANGELUS 1989, number 1 wine of the flight by a landslide vote and my Wine of the Day..

REFLECTIONS. You who weren’t there are laughing at me. "All those flowers! Why did L’Angelus never occur to you?" Why? Because it’s 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 yesterday’s magnum and in heaven again. The icing is gone, but I’m 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 didn’t much like. Wasn’t on or didn’t 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 DOMINUS 1991.

REFLECTIONS. Not a tough guess, since this was so likely to be included in the tasting and I had it the night before. I’m not very good, however, at tasting through the tannins in wines that are closing down, and I think that’s exactly what’s 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, I’d 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. I’d say Australian Shiraz? No, let’s 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. Let’s not argue. I was there. I never would have guessed Petite Sirah either. It wasn’t too tannic. It wasn’t short. Napa Valley Petite Sirah may be the Madiran of California.

****WINE 2. A little herbal, complex, French as Edith Piaf and I haven’t even tasted it yet. Magnificent! Piercing. Hurtfully long. Has to be a Cote Rotie and I don’t think I’ve 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 vote.

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. I’m surprised this wine didn’t 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 can’t score it, but I like it! Let’s see. If it’s not Languedoc, and I’m guessing they won’t be included, it’s got to be California. If it’s California, it’s got to be Qupe or ESJ. That’s 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 I’m 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. I’ve had this once before and didn’t 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, it’s 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 I’ll 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. Parker’s 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. I’d 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 Sirahs.

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 isn’t it just possible to be having so much fun that you let your guard down — and actually learn something?

     Happened for me. And I’ll 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 we’re 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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