Every fall the wine distribution community of New York City goes through its biannual “Portfolio Tastings.” In rented catering halls and hotel conference rooms across the city, each distributor pours samples of virtually every single wine that he sells for an invited crowd of anyone who has anything to do with the buying or selling of wine. These events are widely panned as a waste of time by much of the professional wine industry; the argument being that no one could possibly taste that many wines in that short span of time and be able to tell the difference.
And that is exactly why I think these events are brilliant.
What better way to locate that hard-tofind-gem than to taste 60 wines in 60 minutes? The so-so vino will all blend together indistinguishably.Then, when you smell and taste that truly special juice, it will pop out like a taste bud version of those posters you have to stare at for an hour, until the blurry outline of a pirate ship jumps out in 3-D.
This fall, I was on the hunt for the Jolly Roger, and I was damned if I wasn’t going to find her.
I had been to four portfolio tastings in six days. My tongue felt like the bottom of a taxicab and my teeth were a permanent pale purple. I sidled in to the Frederick Wildman tasting at Guastavino’s, under the 59th Street Bridge, bleary but up for the challenge.
A tenth of the way into my journey and the blanding of my palate had set in. I made my way from one wine to the next, thinking the same thing to myself, over and over again: all of these wines taste exactly how I expect them to.
Making good wine is beyond difficult, but even more difficult is the task of making good wine and money. Giving the people what they want (or what the wine maker thinks the people want) has been the post–Robert Parker wine credo for the entire wine industry. While this provides a certain amount of quality control in some situations, it also makes the wineproducing community afraid for their livelihoods if the tipple they produce doesn’t taste the way it is “supposed” to taste.
A Pinot Noir from Burgundy now tastes like a Pinot Noir from California, I began to realize as I sipped on the sixth red wine from Cote de Nuit that tasted like a cherry-vanilla bomb.
“God, how boring,” I thought, “and sad.”
I had just tasted my 53rd wine when a small, round woman with a kind face poured a tiny bit of red juice into my glass.
“This is the oh-four,” She explained, “the oh-five is like a block of uncarved wood right now. It needs time to find itself.”
I nodded, sort-of knowing what she was talking about, sort-of thinking she was full of it.
Then I smelled it.
I was suddenly in the middle of a rose orchard, surrounded by velvety petals that filled the air with perfume. Then an Englishman’s study, with worn leather furniture and hunting trophies on the wall. Then a kitchen, over a sizzling pan of Steak au Poivre.
I sipped the wine and closed my eyes. Black pepper, currants, pipe tobacco and dill all swirled together in my mouth. In slow motion, I moved the wine to the middle of my palate and tasted jasmine and lavender. As it passed into the back of my throat, I caught more black pepper, smoky leather and musk.
Then, it was gone. I opened my eyes and smiled my wide, grapey smile at the woman who stared at me, knowingly.
“That,” I said, my voice quivering, “is what wine is supposed to taste like.”
“I know,” she said quietly, “I know.”
This was a rock-star wine. Not the lead singer of Maroon 5 or Nickelback, either. This wine was Jimmi effing Hendrix. This wine played Altamont and Woodstock. The first one.
This wine was Domaine du Chateau de Chorey Beaune 1er Cru “Les Cras” Veille Vignes. Retailing between $45 and $50 a bottle, it is not an “everyday” vino. Even for those of us pinching our pennies, a cause for celebration should be rewarded with something special and extraordinary. Available at Crush Wine and Spirits on East 57th between Lexington and Third avenues, or from Zachys online wine store (zachys.com), this wine is all of that and more.