Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"All you have to go on is, do you like it or not?”
Eddie Osterland, one of 29 master sommeliers in the U.S., left New York because he wanted to raise his daughter in less aggressive surroundings, and he chose San Diego because “this is a beautiful city, obviously, as far as weather is concerned. And there are a lot of people who don’t know that much about wine. So here’s a guy who teaches it, in a place that’s got six million people that I wouldn’t consider a super-sophisticated market. So I moved here because I thought I could make a difference.”
Master sommelier Eddie Osterland: "There are certain places where you need to stop and taste the wines."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Osterland is the only American graduate of the University of Bordeaux’s Institut d’Oenologie in France currently living in America. He is a master of wine, a genial, casual missionary for the grape.
The title of master sommelier is given stingily. To earn it, candidates must pass a three-part test. The first “has to do with your knowledge of wines of the world from reading sources. The second section is called the practical section. That’s where you sit down in front of maybe four people at a dining room table, and they are ordering this gargantuan menu of about eight or nine courses, and they ask you to select wines, why you would have it, what year, etc. They’ll have rebuttals, like,‘Oh, we would never have white Bordeaux with salmon. Do you have anything else you would recommend?’
Gary Sehnert: "The note of familiarity (WhiteZin) is hitting for you is Coca-Cola. It’s sweet, not a lot of acidity, and good cold."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Then the thing winds up with a blind tasting of six wines, and I believe that’s the hardest part, because you have to name all six wines. You don’t have to name what year they were made, but you’ve got to get all the countries and grape varieties and approximate age: this is from there and this is why and this is what I see in it. And it separates a lot of people out, because even if you’re a really good taster, when you’re put down with a stopwatch, you have 25 minutes to talk about these six wines, and when time’s up, you have to name them all.”
David Derby: "If I say, ‘I think American Pinot Noir is as good as Burgundy,’ all of a sudden, they grab all these great Burgundies to try to disprove that point."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
When you consider the number of varietals familiar to even the grocery store wine shopper — Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chianti, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay, to name a few — and the number of wine-producing countries — France, the U.S., Spain, Italy, South Africa, Australia, and Germany, to name a few more — the magnitude of such an accomplishment becomes clearer.
The difference Eddie hopes to make is the same one he made in Honolulu and New York. “In both those towns, I taught the same course. It’s a one-night course, called Grape Escape 1. It lasts about three hours, and what we do is we blind taste 12 wines, and we serve it to you in pairs, this one against this one, and so on. I start with champagne and move right on through the dessert wines, all the major grape varieties of the world.”
The Wine Sellar generally charges a fixed price for six wines, ranging from S12.50 to $50, and offers lunch for an additional $7.50.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The course aims at beginners, people who indicate their contempt of wine snobbery by adopting a lofty tone and mimicking a critic’s description: “A cheeky little wine, bold and assertive on the nose, yet teasing and withdrawn on the palate, seducing the mouth toward the finish.” They may have heard a few terms here and there, but their suspicion is that it’s all so much gibberish. “They tend to read these magazines, like the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker, and think, ‘Gosh, I didn’t get this, all these crazy nuances of cinnamon and anise in this wine,’ and you don’t have to. All you have to go on is, do you like it or not?”
"There are so few women that are collecting wine. There are a few other women who go to these tastings."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
This is not to say that wine drinking is absolutely subjective. Different wines have different objective characteristics, and some have more to offer, if you know what to look for. Eddie’s class tries to give people the tools to investigate a wine. “I try to teach people how to smell, taste a wine. How to use the nose, how to use the palate, how to really deductively deduce where a wine would come from, France or California. I take the best of what I learned in four years in France, and I throw it out in one night. If people like that course, I say, ‘Well, there’s another one...’ "
“You only have one spin around this planet,” Eddie says, “and I tell people, ‘On your way around, there are certain places where you need to stop and taste the wines... before you die. If you do, you will have been well-rounded in your experience of wine, and invariably you’re going to find four or five of them that will blow your mind, and they’ll be with you for life.’ " With you for life. Eddie’s classes lay the foundation for a habit of thinking, one that echoes his own. “Food is a treat, and it should be as good as it can be if you have the time to prepare or find it. Most people don’t slow down to smell the roses. Wine lovers find the time to sit down and worship a glass of great wine. People who are into wine can justify spending a lot of money on wine and food, and not too many people do that, because it doesn’t seem to be very frugal.”
Everyone must eat. Everyone wishes for pleasure. As long as eating is a necessity, why not make it as pleasant as possible? And wine can do this in a way no other beverage can. “Wine possesses acidity. It’s this tartness; it’s like squeezing a lemon on your fish — why would you do that? Because it picks up the flavor. There’s acidity in wine. There’s no acidity in beer or iced teas or any other beverage." It’s a matter of learning to appreciate wine and to match wine with food, and this is the point of Eddie’s class.
People do find other ways of entering the world of wine, travel being a common one. Amy Weinberg, a La Jolla resident in her late 20s, is enthusiastic to the point of being bouncy, an enthusiasm accentuated by wide eyes and a lilt that creeps into her voice. “I went to Europe the year after I graduated from high school. And in certain countries you drink beer, and in other countries you drink wine. I’d never liked red wine, and then you get to Italy, and that’s all you get. And obviously, we’re 18, if that’s what was on the table, yeah, that’s what we’ll drink, sure. And then I realized wine is really good; I mean, here, all the red wine I’d ever had before was really cheap stuff. Their table wine, I liked it.”
The interest followed her to France. “I remember one day it was pouring rain, and whatever activity we were supposed to do, we couldn’t do it. So we decided to have a little wine tasting. We bought a couple whites and a couple reds, a $3 one from the gas station, a $20 one from somewhere else. We bagged them [to hide the labels], and you had to rate them from best to least. I had them in order of price all the way down. I knew nothing about wine, and I was, like, ‘Wow, this one’s really good!’ ”
Once in college, Amy’s relationship with alcohol was conventional. “I drank beer; I drank whatever anyone else drank. But I always liked wine. I liked cooking and having small dinner parties, and wine was always kind of fun.”
This collegiate flirtation might have remained just that, had it not been for an ill-fated bit of home decorating about two years ago. “I was living in this house, I was on the water, and I got this little wine rack. I had a kitchen table that matched the wine rack. I was living on the beach, it was nice and sunny. I put the table in a sunny spot, with the wine rack on top of it. I wanted to fill it with nice bottles — a decorative thing, so it looked nice. I decided to get good wine, $ 10 to $ 15 a bottle.
“But the sun came in and cooked all the wine. It boiled over, leaked, and it was really disappointing. That’s a lot of wine to have ruined, a lot of money. I was really upset, and I said, ‘I want a place that I can put my wine where it will be safe. You can’t just put it in your refrigerator. And then I found out that there are wine cellars, like the Eurocave [a freestanding unit that keeps wine at a certain temperature and humidity].
"I decided I wanted to get one of these little undercabinets, a Wine Steward. I didn’t want to collect. I had this 50-bottle Wine Steward, and I’m thinking, ‘In my whole life. I’ll never have 50 bottles. Maybe 12. Why would I have 50 bottles of wine?’ ”
Why indeed? And yet, “It’s funny. No matter how much space you procure, it seems you always fill it up and need more.” A friend began posting questions for her on the Internet about how to store bottles — and what bottles to store — and Amy soon had her first encounter with the social nature of wine collectors. The man who was answering her questions turned out to be local sci-fi fantasy author Ray Feist. “He said, 'Wow, you sound like you know a lot about wine and are really interested. Why don’t you come to one of our lunches?’ ”
After that, Amy’s collecting began to snowball, and she soon procured a used 200-bottle Eurocave. “I had something that holds 200 bottles, and I said, 'Yeah, maybe ten years from now.’ But that thing was full in no time. There were just so many good wines.* 'I’ve got to have that, I’ve got to have that,’ three or four bottles, four or five bottles...” Besides the Eurocave, Amy now rents two lockers at the WineSellar and Brasserie.
These same lockers provided my introduction to wine collecting. Before I moved to San Diego, I lived with Darin Marx, a friend who collected. To his wife’s chagrin, Darin didn’t own a refrigerator, at least not one for storing food (we ate out a lot). He had purchased a regulator — wine does not respond well to the temperature fluctuations of a normal fridge — and created a cellar for himself, a place to store his impressive collection of Burgundies. Darin proved a generous host, and I am sure I stayed too long, but it was hard to leave such a good thing.
Upon settling in San Diego, I felt the need to find something akin to Darin’s regular haunt, the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara. The proprietor up there had recommended the WineSellar. I was surprised to find a wine shop in the heart of industrial Mira Mesa, but the reasoning behind such a location soon became clear.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant, before becoming a wine store, the WineSellar was a storage facility, three stories of dimly lit, cement and steel, temperature-controlled lockers, stuffed and overstuffed with the collections of San Diego’s wine lovers. The lockers now range in size from 5 to 1500 cases, locked cages with substantial steel grating on their doors. The mere sight of such abundance pulled me in. I soon had a case in the community locker. The pleasure in the investment, the idea of treasure stored away for future use was enormous. The wine was not abstract wealth; it was concrete. tangible, tasteable. The principal appeal of collecting is not stockpiling, but for a relative youngster like me, any exercise of delayed gratification provides a certain satisfaction. (Well-aged wine is the principal appeal; more on that later.)
Youthful impatience is one reason few people under 30 collect The expense involved is another. Wine can be a costly love affair, as Eddie explains. “I think what I like about wine people is that they understand the world of subtlety, and they’re willing to pay for it. In other words, if you have a $30 bottle and a $15 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, the $30 bottle is twice as expensive, but it’s not twice as good. It’s a little something, a little silly millimeter of difference, and the wine-knowledgeable person will taste it, see that it's just that much better, and pay twice as much to get that much more. That’s the subtlety I’m talking about. People who drink wine are always driving to see if the next bottle they taste is better than what they’ve had.”
That collecting such as this could soon get out of hand is apparent to anybody living paycheck to paycheck. What is less clear to Amy is why “from my experience, there are very few women collectors. There are women who are into wine, but women who collect wine? I haven’t found one.”
As she began to collect, Amy discovered a group of collectors who gather every Friday afternoon at Vintage Wines, on Miramar Road, to taste and talk wine. “They took me in. [Being a woman] has given me an advantage in a way, and in a way, it’s given me a disadvantage. I think one of the reasons I’ve had such a success is that there are so few women that do it; the women who do it are in. I am there truly for the sake of collecting wine. There are a few other women who go to these tastings, but the majority of them are married. Their husbands go, and they go with them. They do enjoy wine; I’m not saying they’re just tagging along, but they’re not the collector.”
Eddie, who has the advantage of knowing all his customers, has a different take. “It’s mostly male, but probably one third of the collectors are women. Women, in my opinion, some of them are much more attuned to the world of subtlety. They wear perfume, they do makeup, they’re constantly changing their hair, and they really think about that, j^ot of times, men are happy with one flavor. Women are easier to get to try something different and challenging, stimulating, to make a discovery.”
Whatever the reason, Amy was lucky to be taken into a group of experienced collectors. Eddie’s classes may provide a great beginning, but regular conversation about wine over wine is the best way to advance understanding. So says David Derby, a Wine Sellar employee whose boyish face belies a long career in wine tasting. “There’s nothing like learning about wine over a glass. You need that (sensory experience]; questions will arise. What’s going on here with this? Why is it tasting this way? Why is it different now than it was an hour ago? All the questions are natural. Otherwise, you might as well read a book, which isn’t bad, but when I read books, all I got were questions to ask the mentor. I read about this, what’s it all about?’ ”
David, who started in wine around age 16, after a French girlfriend persuaded him to try a few bottles that were better than the jug wine he’d been exposed to previously, was blessed in the mentor department; he has had several. Mentors are one of the best things that can happen to a new collector; not paid professionals, but not peers. David describes the ideal as “someone that has old wine, old wine to share with you, to put in front of you and say, ‘Oh, try this, and try this.’ (It’s good if they’re) people who are still growing and still remember when they knew less.
In David’s case, they were “a couple of old coots who thought it would be cute to see someone drink wines. They started collecting when they were my age, so they had wines that were 30,40 years old. And they’re, like, ‘Oh, let’s pull out this.’ One guy was 85 years old when I met him, and ail he wanted me to do was help him pack up wine to ship to Christie’s (auction) in Chicago. We would spend the whole weekend eating and drinking, and you had to listen to his stories, but the stories were great 'Oh, I was at this chateau...’ And if he’s pouring the ’47 Cheval Blanc, I’ll listen.”
Collectors like these "realize they have far more wine than they could ever possibly drink, including entertaining, and when they send it off to auction, it’s, like, ‘If I send it off to auction, they’ll send me a check for money.’ And they both had more money than they could possibly spend already.”
To solve their enviable crisis, they found proteges. “A mentor will choose someone who agrees with him and vice versa. Hopefully, when I’m older — I hope I’ll have some wine left by then — there’s going to be someone who agrees with my philosophies enough to take that to an extra level, which is why I will choose them as a protege. That’s why I’m stuck with some of the ideas I have, because I had them beaten into me. If I say, ‘I think American Pinot Noir is as good as Burgundy,’ all of a sudden, they grab all these great Burgundies to try to disprove that point."
Another way is to work around wine, which David did. While employed at the Jefferson House restaurant in Philadelphia, David fell under the tutelage of general manager Tom Groff.
“Each day, when I would come in to work, there would be a set of three to five glasses. You had to look at each glass, the color, the smell, and you had to say what varietal it was, what country you thought it was from, and anything else.” Similar to sitting for the master sommelier exam several times a week.
“If I could name all five varietals, got three of the countries right, three or four of the ages, he’d say, ‘You’re doing well today.’ And that determined what we were going to drink after work. Sometimes we drank something very young and casual, but sometimes he’d pull out a nice 20-year-old Bordeaux. The second half of the game was having to speak about the evening wine for a full minute, which doesn’t sound very long at all. And so you’re trying to think of things to say after ‘It’s red.’ You get into crimson and shades of blood or brick or tawny; you just had to keep going, really start digging out adjectives. That helped teach you to look at the wines a little more closely.”
Though it’s been a while since those days, I ask David to do the honors for the bottle we are sharing, an interesting task since he received the bottle as a gift, and it has no label. “Nebbiolo, because it does have a little bit of that orange rim to it [referring to the color where the top of the wine comes in contact with the glass). It looks like it has a little bit of age to it, because you can see how far it comes in before it gets to that dark center (the color sits like a large mass of suspended particles in clear fluid). I'm guessing this is more than six years old. With Nebbiolo, it’s hard, because that orangeness always makes the wine look older than it is.
A lot of rust color. Definitely not an American Nebbiolo, too much color. On the nose, rather fresh. Orange rind, ground almonds...very unusual. It does have a sort of mushroomy taste, more on the palate than on the nose. The interesting thing about this wine is that you have the nose of the wine, which is very bright and very lively. On the other hand, you have the flavor, which is coming from the nx»Ls, and that’s where the mush-roomy, rich tarriness is coming through. A lot of length and depth.”
Mentors like David’s are rare, and a certain degree of wine knowledge is needed before acquiring one. Where to begin? Amy learned some things on the Internet, but she doesn’t hold this to be the proper first classroom of wine. The best place to begin is where she began in France and where David began with the French — a wine tasting. Even if it isn’t Eddie’s course, it’s an excellent first step.
The most regular tastings I have found are held on Saturday afternoons at the Wine Sellar and on Friday afternoons at Vintage Wines. The Wine Sellar generally charges a fixed price for six wines, ranging from S12.50 to $50, and offers lunch for an additional $7.50. People often come in groups and sit at the tables, but the best place to meet, get acquainted, and start learning is at the bar. In the right setting, wine people are extremely social. “If you don’t try to show off,” advises David, “and ask a lot of questions and show a real interest, a lot of people will enjoy sharing what they know about wine.” Lunch, besides being inexpensive and delicious, also offers an opportunity to discover the marked difference food makes in the experience of a particular wine.
Not everyone treats the Saturday tastings as a learning experience, however. Gary Sehnert, a buyer for the Wine-Sellar, laments, “Our Chardonnay and Merlot tastings will sell out in advance, and I’m happy about that. However, when we do an Italian wine tasting, or wines of the Rhone, we may sell it out, but other times we might fill the place only halfway up, which to me is exactly the inverse of what it should be.”
The problem is that people are sticking to the familiar, when they ought to be experimenting. “Tastings are great, because you’re not committing yourself to anything. The whole purpose is to try several things of which you will find one or two that you like, and you get to compare and contrast as well. You start to see the subtle differences, to find out where your palate lies. You have to live with a glass a little while, to find out if you’re going to like it. This now becomes play. The whole idea is not that you’re going to love every one of these six wines, the whole idea is that you’re going to find out what you like and what you don’t like.” Inexhaustible play, at that. Changes in your palate, changes in vintages, and the enormous array of varietals and producers guarantee that the pursuit of pleasure need never come to an end.
The Saturday lunch tastings are relaxed in spirit but still elegant, occurring as they do in a fine restaurant. On the other hand, a visit to Vintage Wines offers few of the trappings of a cultural experience. The soul hesitates before turning left at the Carl’s Jr. on Miramar Road, then right again into the mini-mall—can anything good come out of a place named Commerce Avenue? Down the hill and into a parking space next to the first hint that this is a wine lover’s mecca, a ’68 Mustang with a license plate that reads “Zinfans.” Only a true devotee would align himself so publicly with Zinfandel, that most misunderstood of grapes. “There are still some people who don’t realize that Zinfandel is a red grape,” says David, referring to the general familiarity with Zin’s poorer cousin. White Zinfandel.
White Zin is the black sheep of the wine world, the boorish dinner guest that nonetheless gets more invitations than anybody else. Wine drinkers look back on younger days spent with White Zin the way they might look back on teenage beer bashes, with a sort of amused regret. Yes, it was dumb, but it was fun, and we can all laugh about it now. Countless jokes and disparaging comparisons surround it, yet it remains hugely popular among the uninitiated. For many, it acts as a roadblock to the rest of the varietals. If I need wine, the thought goes, I buy White Zin. I like it, I know it, so why leave it?
Gary is not surprised. “It’s like McDonald’s, you get stuck in a place because you know it’s safe. We’re all raised on ice-cold sweet beverages. The note of familiarity (WhiteZin) is hitting for you is Coca-Cola. It’s sweet, not a lot of acidity, and good cold, which is fine, but it’s not what we’re talking about.” The old “objective character of the wine/sub-jective experience of the drinker” debate surfaces again, hut Gary is sensitive to this.
“You can (criticize White Zin) without condescension. The way I usually do it is to say, ‘I’ve had a couple of good White Zinfandels that were well-made, fine wines.’ There are certain criteria that make a wine a fine wine: balance, length (of taste on the palate], richness, intensity, and complexity. Now, most White Zinfandels, certainly Sutter Home, do not have these characteristics. They suffer from a flaw, the technical term for it is flabbiness, which means that the acidity is not high enough to balance the sweetness. Great German wines, great Rieslings, can be quite sweet, but the acidity is way up there, and it hits you on both notes, tart and sweet, and it’s not cloyingly sweet at all. The first time most people have a really good German, that has even a little residual sugar in it, they will see what we’re talking about here.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink White Zin; it’s a great picnic wine, lust don’t think you’re having the finest example of winemaking. What you have is a pleasant flavor and a degree of sweetness that is often inappropriate with food."
Red Zinfandel, on the other hand, can be spectacular. According to Eddie, “You can ask anybody who’s been drinking wine for a while, what was the first wine that turned your attention to it, and almost everyone can focus back to a wine like that and say, ‘Oh, I had a bottle of X.’ ” Eddie’s was a German Riesling. “I was a busboy, 22 years old, running through some restaurant, and some maitre d’ said, ‘Here, Eddie, you’ll drink anything,’ and I whistled it out of an old-fashioned glass, and I just stopped in my tracks and said, ‘What is that?’ ”
Mine was a Red Zin, one of several produced by Ravens-wood, ordered at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Ihe memory of my delight in that spicy-fruity wine brought what had been a simmering interest to a low boil and started me thinking about spending more than five bucks a bottle. It also started me on a quest to find one of the rarer Ravenswoods, the Dickerson Old Vines release. Bottles like these are sold before they hit the shelves, and it became a beginner’s Holy Grail for me, the wine I must find.
I was sold on the idea of finding a benchmark wine, one I could use to judge all Zins to follow, a technique espoused by David. “If I can try a 20-year-old first-growth Bordeaux and know that that’s the bull’s-eye, and then you show me something that costs a fraction of that, and it’s just as good, I’ll say, ‘This is a good deal.’ But if I try a $20 wine, and this one costs $100, it should he five times as good, and it’s not going to happen. So if I go for the bull’s-eye first, that will make it easier to deal with.” So far! I had failed in my quest, but fruition was nearer than I thought. Back to Vintage Wines and through the tinted glass doors.
I have said that Vintage offers few cultural trappings. It is not a museum store; the merchandise is not lit for maximum salability, it is bathed in fluorescent light. The floors are not polished hardwood, they are office carpet. What Vintage Wines does have, what all wine stores have, is a product of considerable aesthetic appeal. The WincSellar, dressed up a bit since it serves as the entrance to a restaurant, offers a similar experience, as Ciary explains. “You walk into a shop, and you see all these names you can’t pronounce and the interesting labels and the vintages changing and the point of sale with scores tin it and all this wine poetry, and it’s intriguing, but you go, ’Whoa, this is too much.’ ”
Gary has a point, but for someone with an interest in wine (me), the effect has always been wonderful, pacifying. Cases in wooden boxes stand about, the image of the label burnt into the side. These cases, especially the ones hailing from ancient chateaus, give the feeling of entering into a tradition, an ancient art that has not disappeared but has endured and improved. In this way, it is not unlike entering a cathedral, a beautiful house for something venerable yet vital. So many bottles, case upon case, forming row upon row, elegant and weighty with a double promise — the promise of the bottle and the promise of a very particular experience, not to be repeated.
David describes this particularity. “One of the things about wine people is they’re into noticing how individual something is. They’re looking for variety, they’re not like people who smoke Marlboros or drink Bombay Gin.” Wine is different because it differs on so many levels: between varietals, between regions, between vineyards and vintners, between vintages, and even between the same bottle at different times.
David continues, “I think one of the reasons that people like wine is because it’s never definitive, Let’s say you buy a case of whatever, and you fall in love with it. That wine will not remain the same. Even though you say, I've had that Chateau X at vintage Y when it was 2 years old, 4 years old, 10 years old, 15 years old, 20 years old.’ These are all separate bottles. They are different experiences, let alone who you drank them with, what you did, and everything else. The actual wine evolves. It changes; it doesn’t remain constant. And your knowledge and appreciation of wine has evolved, so there’s no 'been there, done that’ kind of feeling.
“When we did the tasting of six ’66 Bordeaux in ’96 [at the Wine Sellar], and Gary let me do the talking, I got to say, ‘I tried this wine when it was 10 years old, I tried it when it was 15, 20, and now I’m trying it at 30. I know these wines. It’s like watching a child grow up; that’s special.’ ’’
This change with time, this magic of age, is the most mystical aspect ol wine and receives the most sideways looks from non-wine drinkers. I asked Eddie to describe in basic terms what happens to wine as it ages, and this is as basic as he got. “Like a rosebud, it isn’t much when it’s young as far as offering you anything to smell, but when the rose opens up, ta-da, things happen. Wines that have a lot of tannin, that are tight, need to spend some time so they can soften and open up."
Okay, that’s lovely, but I know why a rose opens. It draws from the plant, which draws from the sun and the soil. What’s the analogous process with wine? “There’s an interplay with oxygen that gets in the bottle slowly, a very slow oxidation process, where the wine is ripening, softening. Tannins are dropping out. forming sediments, dropping to the bottom of the bottle, the wine is becoming more supple, more easy to drink.” ( I his is why wine is corked; a semi-permeable membrane is required for development.)
Devotion to this development is a big part of what drives many collectors, collectors like those seated in Vintage’s backroom on Friday afternoon. The backroom lacks even the ornamentation of the bottles; the fluorescent lights beat down on cream walls, gray carpet flecked with burgundy, gray chairs, and white tablecloths. Wooden and cardboard cases are stacked in the hack, empty cases line one wall, boxes of wine glasses lie here and there. A dolly stands in one corner, near the wine bar — a long box of stainless steel fronted with glass. Inside stand the afternoon’s bottles, six white and six red, plastic tubes running from their mouths to the spigots protruding above the glass front. On top of the wine bar stands the room’s music collection. I.ed Zeppelin croons from the stereo. People who come here do not come to he overcome by ambiance; they come to taste wine.
The room’s highlight is the hall of fame, a bookshelf lined with bottles from past events; Chateau Latour ’35, ’45, ’54, ’59, ’67, and 70, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ’59-’62, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild ’49 — all great Bordeaux. Beside these stand great Burgundies, Petite Sirahs, and even a ('.race Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from ’92, looking painfully young among the legends. But the room’s unpretentious air creeps in here as well — the “Hall of Fame" sign is a computer printout, and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc labeled “Cat’s Pee on a Mulberry Bush" stands among the giants (I am told it’s a decent wine).
As usual, there are 12 wines available for tasting. The afternoon is already underway by the time I arrive. Most people have either skipped to the reds or are pausing over one or two whites before moving on. I don’t notice anybody sampling all six whites. A sign behind the cash register out front reads, “Ail wine would be red if it could,” reflecting what seems to be the general sentiment. It is something of a generalization to say that whites tend to be less age-worthy than reds, but as a generalization, it will stand, and it may explain the apparent lack of interest among the collectors who have gathered here.
Since red is by far the more popular color of the day, I will list only the reds: a 1994 Kenwood Pinot Noir, a 1994 Villa Mt. Eden Zinfandel ('.rand Reserve, a 1993 Simonsig Tiara, a 1992 Penfold’s Shiraz, a 1993 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 1990 Chateau Lynch-Bages Bordeaux from Pauillac.
Amy has promised to meet me here, but she is nowhere to be seen, so I remember her advice and take a seat at one end of the room’s long table. “where the cool people sit." The men at this end are younger, closer to my age. They are also quieter. The comments are either tentative or a shade overbold. “This Pinot really changes after 45 minutes in the glass.” “ The Simonsig is shot.”
Down at the other end, the spirit is more relaxed and the median age is more advanced. The men are dressed casually, when a member of the group shows up in more formal attire, he is razzed. Comments are often sarcastic, and opinions are often contradicted, hut eventually, the Etude draws some mild praise, together with the Lynch-Bages. These are the people who took Amy in; veteran tasters who would rather spend Friday afternoon tasting wine than sitting in traffic. A number of gentlemen come and go, and Amy does arrive after a while, but three men remain constant: Steve, Ken, and Dean. First impressions mark Steve as the enthusiast of the trio, Ken the crinkle-eyed critic, and Dean the mild smiler. They are joined by a fourth, Frank, about an hour into the afternoon, which began around 4:00.
After a couple of hours of tasting and talking, a proposal is made to go in on a bottle of ’86 Beringer Cab. Twelve people, myself included, chip in five bucks for a taste. The pleasure of a well-made Cab that is nearing its peak and is hard to find is easily worth the $5; the more expensive the bottle, the more sense the procedure makes. “let’s say you want a $ 150 bottle,” says David. “You or I could not afford a $150 bottle; that’s reasonable. But if we talk to ten people and say,’look, for $15, would you try one-tenth of this wine?’ $15 to experience a $150 bottle, that’s reasonable.” This communal payment in the pursuit of great wine is the first benefit of having a group, but not the only one.
David again: “If you get into a group, and you have a tasting, let’s say it’s 1994 Zinfandes. Bring a Zinfandel from 1994; you’re in the tasting. But then let’s say the group has another tasting, and it’s Bordeaux from 1982. I may have only 1 or 2 of those, or I might go out and buy I, and that might be $50, but if there’s 15 people at the tasting, I’m trying 15 ’82 Bordeaux for the price of 1.”
Another benefit, especially for the beginner, is the opportunity to try wine you don’t have and may never have. Ken suggests a vertical tasting of the Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cab, ’73-’84. Frank volunteers his house. Argument over the starting time ensues, but what matters is settled. Tomorrow, a tasting of 12 years of America’s first great winery. Just like that.
“This one’s on the house,” says someone, I don’t catch who. Suddenly, my grail has appeared, a 1990 Dickerson Old Vines Ravenswood Zinfandel. The glasses are poured and passed among the regulars. To have come so close...but these wine drinkers are a social bunch, and if they enjoy anything as much as wine, it’s seeing someone else enjoy it with them. “A great wine has to be shared,” says Eddie. Steve pours me a taste from his glass.
I am too much of a beginner to commit my description of the Zin to print, but I have found my benchmark.
I get home around eight, well-pleased with my afternoon, but already casting ahead to tomorrow’s event. ’The tasting is held on Frank’s back deck, on a table we haul out from the living room. Twelve bottles lined up in the center of the table. Twelve glasses in front of each taster.
Conversation is slow at first as we make our way through our first 12 tastes. “Nothing wrong with ’74. It’s got some acid, but the fruit’s there.”
“ 73 is a pretty nice wine.” “ ’84’s not bad.”
“ ’75 is a problem."
“ ’80 is your weedy style.” “This guy makes one consistent style, doesn’t he? I’ve just gone through ten, and I swear..."
Steve turns to me. “It’s nice to sec that BV maintained a style from 73 to ’84. That’s what you do with verticals, you see how the producer was affected by the conditions of the year and how truly they held to their style. This is right there. The year is so typical of each one of these bottles. A lot of times, what they’ll do is adjust their style to handle the kind of fruit they were working with that year, but this guy, he stayed right with his style and let the years do what they would to the bottles. You never really get to understand wine and what happens from year to year unless you do this.”
Lucky for me I am here. “I tell you what,” continues Steve, “you’ll never do this again in your lifetime. You can’t. To do this at any place would cost you 500 bucks, and only from those people who have it and want to share it. Ken needs to drink his wine. The lesson here is make sure you know who you’re befriending.” The evening’s eventual winners are the 73, the 78, and the ’82, but those conclusions are not arrived at until three vintages from Rutherford’s non-reserve have been pulled for comparison. We wind up with a couple of bottles of port, and by night’s end. the table is packed with glassware. The evening is glorious, starting at 4:00, full of wine and food brought by everyone: beef, pork, cheese, grilled vegetables, and mountains of bread. I am not a total failure; I manage to discern that the ’80 and ’83 are sub-par and the ’82 is excellent.
I also get a chance to set up interviews with Ivan, Steve, and Ken. I met Dean on his back porch, overlooking a golf course, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. At the Friday tasting, he told me, “We don’t collect wine; we buy it and drink it when it’s ready.” Today, he comments on that. “Part of the winemaking process is that it continues to develop in the bottle, so you have to store the wine at the right temperature and the right humidity. Humidity just keeps the cork from drying out. Reds tend to prefer slightly warmer, 60 degrees; whites a little cooler, 55.”
As we speak, we drink an example, a Riesling. “This wine, when it was first released in 1990, the fruit flavors were not nearly so rich or sweet. They were there, but you had in the mouth a lot more of the flint and the mineral. Now, as you let the wine roll around your mouth, you get the mineral, the sweet, the mineral, the sweet, and you’re tasting more flower in there; the wine has developed.”
How can he tell if a particular wine will develop well? “It’s the balance of the fruit and the acid. If the acid is pretty heavy, that helps; that says it’s going to last. But the second thing is, This wine changed in flavor just sitting here in the glass I low long it takes lo wake op given you a clue as to how long it'k going to last. For instance, the Etude Cab on Friday. When it first sat in the glass, it was fairly nondescript. Alter an hour, it started showing some very nice blackberry, and by the end of the evening, it was showing lots of very nice blackberry.” This indicates that there is still quite a bit of time before the wine peaks.
Of course, you could wait and buy the wine when it is ready, but this presents certain problems “One of the first older bottles I bought was for a Christmas dinner with the family, and I paid two to three times what the current release cost. And then as you started trying that more frequently, you found that the really nice ones were all bought up upon release.”
So Dean started buying Bordeaux by the case. “I would set myself a limit, no more than $10 a bottle or something like that, and then I had a book that I kept my tasting notes in, and I'd go through and taste each wine each year and go through the case and ask, ‘How long did it develop?’”
This is best done in a group, and not just because it's good to drink with friends. Everybody’s palate is different. Certain people are more sensitive to this thing or to that thing, and so they’ll detect it, and once somebody points it out to you, you see it.” Il also helps to he familiar with the palates of the others in the group. “One of the guys [at the BV tasting] was talking about the Wine Spectator, saying that it drives them nuts because they keep changing who's doing the rating, who's writing the description, so as a consequence, you have no frame of reference when you're reading it. [If you know] this guy likes this, and this other guy likes that, they’re going to he really good at identifying that style. When Steve is talking about Rhones, I really listen That guy’s palate on Rhones is so much better than mine, no contest. I understand him and really listen. When he’s talking about burgundies, I'm talking to somebody else." Dean is the burgundy man, having arrived there from bordeaux partly because he stopped cooking everything on the grill. “I like the fruit, I prefer softer tannins, and I also really like some of the more perfumed aromas versus just the hard, jammy ones.” Still, burgundy is not all dial occupies his locker al the Wine Sellar “I probably have 25 different dessert wines, about 50 different whites, and 150 different reds, so I’ve got lots of choices, What are you going lo be doing? What are you going to be eating? Is this something you want to concentrate on or play with?”
Whatever the intention, tastings still have rules. “You know it's totally social[and not principally about wine] when the women show up with seven layers of perfume that masks anything the wine could ever develop even if you held the wine right up to your nose. I have heard a lot of people say, ‘Hey, guys, no cologne; women, no perfume. Don’t have a cigarette in the car before you come in, because your hair and your clothes have absorbed all that smoke and you’re going to come in and reek for the next 15 minutes, and you know, I really didn’t pay this money to come smell you.’ If you wear the same cologne all the time, it takes more and more and more for you to smell it. It doesn't take more for everybody else to smell it.” A warning to beginners looking to impress.
Once more at Vintage, over a bottle of *87 Hess Collection Cab, I asked Steve and Ken for advice on beginning a collection, as much for myself as for this story. Steve rediscovered his love of wine here, taking Eddie’s course. “What really triggered it was I was sitting here, and we did a tasting of’89 Bordeaux, and I was sitting next to this guy, and we started tasting them, and I’m saying, ‘Boy, these are good!’ And the guy gets up in the middle of the tasting, goes in there (to the salesroom], and I don’t know how many cases he bought; he comes back in and sits down, he’s grinning from ear to ear. And I say, 'Man, I have got to get some of these.’ That was the first time I was overwhelmed by quality wine.” I his was about five years ago.
Since then, Steve has become a devotee of Vintage Fridays. “Come here on Friday night, and you’re going to hear more opinions than you’ve ever thought of in your life, and that’s the fun of it. It’s a back-and-forth type thing, to get to understand the wine, to get to understand the people and why they like the wine the way they do. If I were to give advice to somebody who wanted to start collecting, I’d say taste, taste, taste, taste, and then taste a hundred times more. And don’t buy anything unless you’ve tasted it, because just because somebody says it’s a good wine, it may not suit you.”
Not even Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator “Read the Spectator, read Parker,” answers Ken. “The more opinions you read, the better off you’re going to be, because you’ll understand the opinions—and that’s all they are, opinions. The Bible is what you put in your mouth. Drink a lot, make mistakes. Buy wine, put it in your cellar, let it go over the hill; at least you know you missed it, and you learned something."
Buy how much wine? “A minimum of three bottles," says Steve. “If you’re going to taste it as it matures in the bottle, it takes you at least three to do that.” Also cases? Ken: “I would say you need to do both. A good year of Lafite, buy two or three bottles. You can afford that. You want a wine that’s going to get some age on it for special occasions. You’re not going to drink a bottle of it every year to watch it evolve. At the same time, buy a case of whatever you can afford, and watch it evolve.”
“It’s good to do that,” agrees Steve. “If you’ve got ’89 Bordeaux, you wouldn’t get a case each often different wines, but you might get a case of maybe two of them, and the other ones you get three bottles.
“You’ve got to taste a lot of wines. The most readily available is California Cabernet. Go to every tasting you can do, end up with five cases of six bottles each of California Cabs that you want to stash for at least five years, and see what happens when they get to be ten years old.”
And hold your own tastings. Ken advises, “Have themes to what you do. Find a year of California Cab you like, do a horizontal tasting. Two or three bottles of a dozen different wineries that you like that year. If you’ve got two or three wineries you really like, buy those every year, even in off years. To keep a vertical alive.” “You’re not buying it to drink it,” concludes Steve, “you’re buying it to compare, taste, and understand. Think about everything else that you would ever collect or any hobby that you would sit and enjoy as much as wine tasting. And the variety is endless."