A number of people have asked about the cellar," said David Marino to the roughly 60 people gathered on his patio in the fading light of an April sunset. "About a year and a half ago, all that was here was a six-foot retaining wall and a hillside behind it. We spent six months excavating; we moved 400 cubic yards of material off the site via a series of four conveyor belts." To fashion the 650-square-foot concrete structure, "We poured about 20 trucks' worth of material; the ceiling alone took 5 trucks." (Of course, the ceiling was 20 inches thick and formed an upper deck, complete with a grand-scale fountain.) The exterior of the structure -- that part of it that wasn't built into the hillside -- had been finished to blend seamlessly with the existing, historic Spanish home overlooking the bay. Half of the interior was a tasting room outfitted with a massive table; a glass wall separated it from the rack-lined, temperature-controlled cellar proper.
The evening's Bordeaux were in the tasting room, seven of them, hailing from six vintages: 1982, '86, '88, '89, '90, and 2000. What they had in common -- with each other and with the 11 other wines being tasted that evening -- was that they had each been awarded 100 points by some organ of the wine press, most likely Parker, Tanzer, or Wine Spectator. The price of admission to this tasting: one bottle of 100-point wine -- unless, like me, you had a generous friend willing to drag you along and split tastes with you.
My host and I stood on the upper deck. Before the tasting began, we had collected various stickers, which guaranteed us tastes of ten wines. Everybody got a shot at the '86 and '88 Chateau Mouton-Rothschilds and the '01 Sauternes from Rieussec. The remaining seven were up to us, and we took all four of the upper-deck offerings: a '90 Musigny from Comte Georges de Vogue, an '03 Mitolo Shiraz, an '02 Pirramimma Grenache, and a '94 red blend from California's Harlan Estate. The Harlan made the best showing, but the Grenache (slipping in with 100 points from the L.A. Times' Dan Berger) was far and away the bargain of the bunch (estimated cost: $16, to the Harlan's $699).
From there, we descended past the tables of hors d'oeuvres to the Marinos' living room for a couple of Rhones under a cathedral ceiling: '89 Chapoutier Ermitage "Le Pavillion" and '90 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage "La Chappelle." The Jaboulet was, to my mind, the champ of the evening, narrowly edging out the Chapoutier by virtue of its big nose and thick middle. After that, we crowded into the buzzing tasting room for our two Moutons and an '89 Chateau La Mission-Haut-Brion that beat them both for complexity and structure. We finished with the Sauternes, a transporting end to a remarkable evening.
More than 20 of the donated 100-pointers never got opened; these were put into lots and marked for auction at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts Vintage Weekend. "We built one mixed case," says museum director Arthur Ollman, "and we had a six-bottle lot, a two-bottle lot, and one stand-alone." This was the 100-point tasting's third go-round, and each year, like the rest of the Weekend, the numbers have grown. "In the past, we've built just one case and tasted all the rest."
The Vintage Weekend began seven years ago. "Museums are always looking for new audiences," says Ollman. "We live by the contributions of others. We need events that will attract people who have a great capacity for giving." And serious wine collectors -- the sort who build 3000-bottle wine cellars -- tend to have that capacity.
"I happen to love wine," continues Ollman. "I would go to a lot of tastings, and I would rarely see somebody there who was a patron of mine. That was disheartening, because we find that the demographics of people who are passionate about wine look quite similar to those of people who are passionate about art. They had similar educations to the people who supported us. They had similar professions, lived in similar neighborhoods, vacationed in similar places, and they were passionate about a highly creative form of production -- winemaking. The decisions necessary to make great wine are interpretative decisions -- not unlike the decisions an artist makes. So it was also heartening, because it was a lot of new territory. Our hypothesis was that these were exactly the sort of people who would support the institution and be excited about what we're doing."
The hypothesis was correct in ways Ollman hadn't dreamed of. The first event, a one-night auction, "attracted about 200 people, a number of whom I had never seen before. Patrons brought their friends who weren't interested in art. It wasn't lost on me that we made thousands of dollars that night which would have never come into our institution." He adds, "Not only has this brought people into our institution who wouldn't otherwise have come, but it's brought leadership. The president and vice president of the board came in through the wine auction and stayed in."
Now, it's a three-day event -- four, if you count the 100-point tasting. This year's Friday night dinner featured Ed Sbragia of Beringer, pouring wines from his private collection for a dinner catered by Patrick Ponsaty at the Westgate's Fountainbleu Room. Saturday's auction -- held at the museum to highlight the venue as well as the wines -- included "18 vintners pouring wines from all over -- Australia, South America, South Africa, Europe, and the U.S." And for folks who bought an eight-person table for $5000 on Friday night, there was a special Sunday lunch at the Pamplemousse Grille, followed by a tour of three Del Mar private wine cellars -- the last of which belonged to the Pamplemousse's own Jeffrey Strauss.
The 100-point tasting, brainchild of board member and wine aficionado Michael Thiemann, has proven to be a particularly successful draw. Explains Ollman, "We were looking for a way to get very high-end wines, and it turned out that there were a number of people who were attracted to the idea. Most of them, I think, are wise enough in wine matters to know that there is probably no discernible difference between a 98-point wine and a 100-point wine and that it's easy to disagree with the judgments of those famous critics. But if you do a 100-point tasting, you're bound to taste some pretty darned good wines, you'll probably get to taste a few extraordinary wines, and you'll certainly taste some interesting wines. At the very least, you'll get to taste some famous bottles."
The tasting, dinner, auction, and tour now make for one of the largest -- and probably the longest -- wine-related events in San Diego. "My ideal," concludes Ollman, "would be to do what the High Museum in Atlanta did. They have this intense seven-day bacchanal that is the biggest fundraiser -- and one of the biggest parties -- in Atlanta. They have many tastings and winemaker dinners, experts from all over the world come in, and there are hundreds of vintners pouring wine. You have to choose your events, because there are five or six going on at any one time. But we're going to crawl before we run."