Tue 26 Jan 2010
Inevitably, as more people read my fledgling newspaper wine column, I was asked to attend or conduct wine tastings. I accepted these invitations because, while I made no money from the effort, I was given the chance to taste great wines. Sometimes at these tastings the wines were prescribed, and sometimes I was invited to put together a group of wines for the event.
By the Winter and Spring of 1985, I was giving tastings for the local chapter of Les Amis du Vin, usually in the upstairs room at John Grisanti’s restaurant, and for Les Femmes du Vin, a group of young professional women interested in learning about wine. I also did a series of wine classes at the Oliver-Britt House, a bed-and-breakfast establishment in Oxford, Miss., the hour-long drive from Senatobia necessitated because Tate County, where we lived, was dry. Remember, though, I was still getting or buying most of my wine in Memphis. Inevitably, again, I often relied on the generosity of Shields Hood, wine manager at Athens Distributing, and “Big John” Grisanti for wines to feature at tastings.
Looking through my album of labels and notes from 25 years ago, I can piece together some of these events. For example, on Jan. 8, 1985, I attended a meeting of Les Amis du Vin that featured 12 cabernet-based wines tasted blind. The ones I recorded in my album were Zaca Mesa Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, California; Konocti Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Lake County; Chevalier Lascombes 1981, Medoc; and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Napa Valley (“clearly the best … fabulous spicy black currant nose — lots of depth and complexity”).
One night, at my class at the Oliver-Britt House, we tried, among other wines, Chateau Lynch-Moussas 1981, Pauillac, and Carneros Creek Winery Fay/Turnbull Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley, the latter a beautifully-made, expressive cabernet.
For the women of Les Femmes du Vin, on April 21, I assembled a sterling group of red wines from Bordeaux: Vieux Chateau Certan 1982, Pomerol; Chateau Branaire Ducru 1981, Saint-Julien; Chateau d’Issan 1979, Margaux; Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1978, Paulliac; Chateau Gruaud-Larose 1976, Saint-Julien (my favorite); and Chateau Leoville-Barton 1975, Saint-Julien (second favorite). I seem to remember that Shields Hood and “Big John” Grisanti both contributed wines to this important and educational tasting. The experience, the education were my compensation, though getting to spend some time with intelligent, well-spoken, attractive and pretty damned hard-drinking women only added to the allure.
On some occasion that Spring — I didn’t record which one — I did a little seminar on white Burgundy, tasting and talking about this quartet: Chassagne-Montrachet 1983, Leonard de Saint-Aubin; Puligny-Montrachet 1983, A. Noirot-Carriere; Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume 1983, Chateau de Maligny; and Domaine de la Maladiere Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 1983, William Fevre. The two village wines didn’t stand much of a chance against the superb Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis.
Best, however, was the group of five wines that I presented to my small class at the Oliver-Britt House the last night of the series. I wanted to conclude with a sort of blow-out, and that’s what we did, courtesy, as always, of my benefactors. Here was the line-up: Chateau Branaire-Ducru 1981, Saint-Julien; Chateau Nenin 1981, Pomerol; Chateau Petit-Figeac 1981, St.Emilion Grand Cru; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Stag’s Leap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Napa Valley; and, the triumph, the best wine I tasted in the first four months of 1985, Chateau Margaux 1981, from the Bordeaux commune Margaux.
The variable though frequently excellent year, 1981, was seriously overwhelmed by the magnificent 1982; ’81 was more classic, the wines a little tighter and leaner. Margaux was coming off two bad decades, making a dramatic turn-around, under the recent ownership of the Mentzelopoulos family, in 1978. The wine of Chateau Margaux is dominated by cabernet sauvignon, sometimes as much as 85 percent, followed by decreasing portions of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Robert M. Parker Jr. described Margaux 1981 as “outstanding,” though without the “power and weight” of the 1982, ’83 or ’86. In The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), Michael Broadbent writes that “recent” tastings of Margaux ’81, that is in the late 1980s, gave the impression of a wine “still deep, youthful; good crisp fruit, opening up well; dry, fullish, lean, raw but flavoury.” (Flavoury?) Out of five stars, Broadbent gave Margaux ’81 a score of **(*), a more temperate response than Parker’s rating of 91.
My notes from that night, in the Spring of 1985: “Wow! Incredibly good, even this young — deep purple; fragrant berryish/cassis nose; deep, but elegant, wonderful tone and balance, yet tannic, fruit already emerging. Favorite of the evening and maybe the course.” No “maybe” about it! This was a great wine.
The point, as I think I have said in previous entries of The Chronicle, is not to say, “Ha-ha, here are the wines I was tasting 25 years ago that you didn’t,” but to reveal the course of my education — especially in Bordeaux — and how rapidly it accelerated after I started writing a newspaper column and had met people whose aid and influence were invaluable. I was lucky enough to be the right person in the right place at the right time.