'I'm sorry, I can't drink this wine," said Steve. "Apparently, it doesn't exist." It was a fine, knowing joke: confronted with a 1995 Laboure-Roi Clos de la Roche (a well-regarded red Burgundy), Steve had pulled out his Palm pilot, tapped into the eRobertParker.com ratings data-base, and discovered the awful truth: apparently, neither the Mr. Parker nor his Burg-friendly Assistant had rated the wine. And if there's no rating -- really, how certain can a devotee of Mr. Parker's website be that it even exists, all sensory evidence notwithstanding?
But it was a joke; Steve was more than happy to drink the Laboure-Roi, as well as any number of the other Pinots that had been brought to that evening's eRobert Parker offline tasting at Savory in Encinitas. The lineup was remarkable for its range of age, style, and provenance. After an opening round of bubbly, we got things started with a Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot from...1975. A wine old enough to recall the man who planted Mount Eden's vineyards, pioneering winemaker Martin Ray. (Wine connoisseur Julian Street once telegrammed Ray that "your Pinot 1936...is first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure," and Ray's ashes were scattered among the vines.) It stank like rotten rhubarb when it first splashed into the glass, but lo and behold -- after a few minutes, everyone was giving it credit for its tannin and acidity. Then, to quote the tasting note left on the board by attendee Aidan: "Leave it longer still, and a curious, black-fruited sweetness came out, like dried figs or old raisins...it drank well continuously."
It was a wine of special interest to the offline's organizer, David Brown. Brown is 26 and has been dabbling in wine for only about a year. "I just found it really neat, how it evolved in the glass. I've never had that experience. I've never had that much old wine before; it was really eye-opening." And that, for Brown, is the point of these offlines: experience of the sort you might otherwise never obtain. "I don't care about how much the wine costs; I don't care about how expensive the dinner is. It's about how much I can learn from these people, because most of them have been doing it for as long as I've been alive. And people are willing to bring wines that I might otherwise never have a chance to drink."
The Mount Eden was one such rarity; the next wine was another: Domaine Romanee-Conti Grands Echezeaux 1997. DRC is something of a holy grail for Pinot lovers in general and red Burgundy lovers in particular, and here it was, one bottle among many -- the grand superfluity of oenophiles. For me, it was the highlight of the evening, if only for the way it married richness and delicacy, its wondrous flavors carried almost carelessly along. (Somebody take the glass away from the wine columnist.)
Because of what he might learn, Brown doesn't mind splurging on whatever bottle he brings to the table, and his offering for the Savory offline made that clear: an Omega Pinot Noir from Sine Qua Non, possibly the ne plus ultra of cult California wineries. Wines that sell for $65 to $90 off the mailing list routinely fetch $400 to $500 a bottle on the secondary market. Brown found his at auction (he got a good deal); a spot on the list is still a long way off. "The waiting list is about five years long right now. I do have a half-dozen bottles of SQN in my cellar -- all secondary purchase." Another board member "has been very kind to me, selling it just above list price." For now, "It's kind of 'Sit and wait and be patient and go to pay-it-forward offlines while I can.'"
Pay-it-forward refers to people who are not on the list attending a dinner hosted by people who are on the list. "It's very common. There's a rolling offline for another Pinot, Kosta Browne -- they do mostly Sonoma and Russian River wines. There are a lot of different themes that people have on the board." Varietal themes like the Pinot offline are common, and Brown is pulling together a Rhone offline for February. "I don't have a lot of experience with Rhone wines, so what better way to learn more about it? I already have a waiting list." (That last bit might be surprising to some -- San Diego does not have a robust reputation when it comes to these sorts of events. But, says Brown, "I think there is a community; I think they were lacking someone who was crazy enough -- or who had time enough -- to organize it. I think the interest is there.")
As it is, says Brown, "because there are 18 people coming, there was talk of doubling up the bottles. But then, I'm thinking, that's 36 bottles of wine. To me, that seems a little unnecessary. This morning, I decided to post and say, 'Eight people, or couples, are going to bring two bottles of red, four couples are bringing two bottles of white, and then four are bringing a single bottle of Sauternes for the foie gras course.' I feel like it kind of cuts down on the waste -- I really can't stand to waste wine. It's not about, 'Oh, I brought this' -- it's about having enough wine for everybody to drink without wasting it."
That mindset was made visible at Savory -- the evening included some memorably unopened bottles. Sea Smoke's "Ten," a Bondi Home Ranch from Martinelli, and Brown's magnum of SQN Omega. After a certain point, no one wanted to open them just to open them. Steve even gave Brown a piece of advice, suggesting that he need not bring something so grand to an offline. "You don't need to impress us," he said. "That was probably the best piece of feedback I got that night," said Brown afterwards. "It made me realize that, as much as a lot of the people who are involved in wine treat it as a status symbol, people like Steve...make it a lot more real. It lets you know that they're really passionate about it. It lets you know that people are not just about what's on the label. I really appreciate comments like that; it's the kind of feedback that helps you grow. Because of the name and the size of the bottle, it can kind of come off like I'm the new guy trying to impress people, even though I wasn't trying to do that."