Thu 4 Jun 2009
I promised to keep this Chronicle of the 100 most significant (not necessarily the best) wines that I encountered during my education about wine more current, but things have a habit of getting away from me, there are many wines and many meals and dishes to write about and, well, here it is, more than two months since I last entered a post on this subject. Before I get to the wines in question for this post, I want to pause to make note of two men who had a profound influence on my education about wine, Shields Hood and John “Big John” Grisanti, both of whom I met during the late Spring or early Summer of 1984.
Late in 1983 and early in 1984, I wrote a couple of articles about wine for a local magazine, not thinking that they would necessarily lead to anything. Then, in May 1984, my former father-in-law, Ed Harrison, took me to a wine tasting at his church, saying that he had met someone at a previous event whom he thought I should know. As we stood in front of one table, sampling a few wines, Shields Hood stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking for you!” Shields, who is from Leland, a small town deep in the Mississippi Delta (and he had the accent to match), was wine manager for a large distributor in Memphis. We struck a relationship and then a friendship that lasted about 18 years, until I lost touch with him. He was extremely generous, setting up tastings and appointments for me, opening untold amounts of wines to try, helping me with wines that I presented to different groups around town. Shields was (and still is) heavily involved with the Society of Wine Educators, serving as the organization’s president for several terms, and he was an influential, popular and funny wine teacher in Memphis. He was the first person I ever heard say, in public, “Hey, I could date a wine like this!”
Shields now lives in New Market, Va., and works as senior adviser to the Society of Wine Educators in Washington as well as in sales and marketing for several wine and liquor companies.
Not long after my first regular newspaper wine column was published, I received a telephone call at home; this was when we lived in Senatobia, Miss., about 40 miles south of Memphis.
A deep, gruff voice barked, “Koeppel?”
“Um, yes, that’s me.”
“This is Big John Grisanti. Get up here to my restaurant tonight. I got some wines for you to taste.”
“Uh … ”
“Make it seven o’clock.”
“Uh … ”
Thus my introduction to a man who was larger than life in every way.
Big John was a second-generation restaurateur, a raconteur, a connoisseur, a major donor to charitable causes. Always a master of the flamboyant gesture, he held two world records (in the late 1970s and early ’80s) for the most expensive single bottles of wine bought at auction, $18,000 for a jeraboam of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1864 and $31,000 for a standard bottle of Lafite 1822. He turned around and auctioned each bottle by the sip, raising over $100,000 for St. Jude Children’s research Hospital.
Big John — who could, as I learned, be irascible and quick-tempered as well as kind — took me in hand and set about making my knowledge of wine deeper and wider. (I eventually learned that he had vetted the columns I submitted to an editor at the newspaper and was instrumental in my getting that job.) We would walk through the warehouse next to his well-known Italian restaurant — now the site of a Walgreens — and he would fill a carton with bottles for me to take home. “Here, Koeppel, you need to try this and this and, let’s see, this.” Or we would sit in a back booth in the restaurant, tasting glass after glass of wine, with a platter of ravioli in front of us. Or — the thrill of thrills — he would call me on a Sunday morning and say, “Koeppel, I need you to come over to the house this afternoon and pick out some wines for some people I’m gonna have over for a tasting in the cellar.” That cellar is where I had my first taste of Mouton-Rothschild, my first great Burgundy, my first aged French Champagne. You’ll be reading about a few of those wines in the coming months.
Generosity, unfortunately, does not guarantee longevity. Big John Grisanti died of cancer in March 1995. He was 66.
What was remarkable, in those months in 1984 after my first newspaper wine columns were published, is how quickly my experience of tasting wine increased. Suddenly I went from being a guy who bought two wines a week to a guy who was invited to wine events, to lunches with winemakers, to private tastings of old Bordeaux. My notebooks soon became inadequate, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned saving labels because I was tasting too many wines to keep up; it was a tedious chore anyway.
In looking through those almost ancient records now, I see that I will have to be selective in choosing the wines for this Chronicle, because I was tasting so many important or significant or educational wines. For example, in turning the pages of this second notebook, a three-ring, loose-leaf folder, I’m struck by the excitement of that time in 1984. For example, in June, Shields Hood asked me to attend a tasting of Bordeaux from 1981, now one of those “forgotten vintages” because it preceded the fabulous 1982, at his warehouse, among which we tried Chateaux Lynch-Moussas, Chasse-Spleen and Les Ormes de Pez. In September, I gave the first of what would be several tastings for the local woman’s wine group, Les Femmes du Vin — those were some events; among the wines were the Louis Latour Pernand-Vergelesses 1979; the Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir 1979, Los Carneros; Chateau Gloria 1981, St-Julien; and Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Mendocino, all excellent wines in their ways, but especially the B.V. Pinot and the Ridge Cabernet.
But I’m no fool, at least not too much of one. On September 11, 1984, Les Amis du Vin held a tasting of Lafite-Rothschild 1978, ’77, ’76, ’75, ’74 and ’70, all drawn from Big John Grisanti’s cellar. If Lafite 1970 and ’75 weren’t the best wines I encountered in 1984, a great year of revelation and experience, I’ll be a monkey’s Egri Bikavér.