The Chronicle


Rodney Strong planted vines in Sonoma in 1959, when the county could claim only a dozen wineries and the primary crop was prunes. Originally from rural Washington state, Strong improbably became a dancer and choreographer, performing on Broadway and in many theaters around the world. He discovered fine wine in Paris, and when he decided in retire from the stage in 1959 (the same year he married), he headed to California. In The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest (Alfred A. Knopf, fourth edition, 1998), Norman Roby and Charles Olken write, with understatement, that Rodney Strong Vineyards “has gone through more changes than most.” Strong was a pioneer in Sonoma County, a pretty good winemaker and a powerful advocate of the county’s wine industry, but a businessman he was not.

In 1961, Strong opened a tasting room across the Bay from San Francisco called Tiburon Vintners, soon moving it to Sonoma County where the enterprise became Windsor Vineyards, a wine mail-order business. The success of Windsor allowed Strong to purchase vineyards throughout the county, and by 1970, he owned about 5,000 acres; that year, he renamed the winery Sonoma Vineyards. However, as Anthony Dias Blue says succinctly in American Wine: A Comprehensive Guide (Doubleday, 1985) — how many of you still have this valuable book on your shelves? –”he expanded too fast and much too expensively.” During the decade of the 1970s, the winery reached production of 500,000 cases annually and “always seemed to be struggling,” say Roby and Olken.

There followed a rapid series of ownership changes. Control of Sonoma Vineyards went to New York-based Renfield Imports in 1984, a move accompanied by the visibility-improving name change to Rodney Strong Vineyards, selling property and consolidating the line-up. Then Renfield was acquired by Schenley, which was subsequently absorbed by Guinness. Finally, the Klein family, owner of California-based Klein Foods, bought the winery in 1989; Tom Klein remains the owner today. Rodney Strong stayed on for many years as winery figurehead and representative, and I will testify to the silver-haired and silver-tongued former dancer’s charm and charisma. Strong died in March 2006 at the age of 78.

Rodney Strong’s best wine was the Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon made from a single vineyard in the Alexander Valley. Sometime in the early Summer of 1985, my friend and mentor John Grisanti went through the warehouse next to his eponymous restaurant in Memphis and picked out 12 bottles of California wine that he sent home with me. Among them were Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon from 1976 and 1977. What I remember chiefly about these wines were their fine balance, harmony and integration, their sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint.

We drank the Alexander’s Crown 1976 on July 27 and 28. Here are my notes: “medium ruby to mahogany; ripe cab. nose, dusty, dry, mint and spice; full body, fruit predominant, but still some tannin, very complex with layers of fruit and spice (but not quite up to the ’74) long finish, Excellent wine.” Unfortunately, I cannot find notes of where and when I tasted the Alexander’s Crown 1974, but that was the legendary breakout year for cabernet sauvignon in California.

We didn’t delay in consuming the Alexander’s Crown 1977; it’s turn came on July 28 and 29, first opened with dinner on the 28th. Here are my notes: “Med. ruby, just barely fading; deep nose, dusty, fruity; less tannin than the ’76, but still some ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ — smooth and full in the mouth, but tannic backbone — excellent finish — elegant wine.” Dinner that night, prepared by my former wife, Mary-Catherine, was escargot in tarragon butter, gazpacho, steak with two sauces and peach crepes. (This is the woman who, when she cooked dinner for me for the first time — we were 19-year-old college students — scared me witless by putting a whole artichoke on a plate in front of my callow self. I was used to canned peas.)

Vintages 1976 and ’77 were not great. They were drought years that demanded a great deal of skill from farmers and winemakers, and not a lot of wines were successful, particularly compared to ’74 and the next year, ’78. Still, the Alexander’s Crown Cabernets made by Rodney Strong managed to be not just delicious but compelling.

Here’s a roster of some of the other wines we drank (or tasted) in July 1985:
<>Mayacamas Pinot Noir 1980. Sadly, a bad bottle.
<>DRC Romanee-Conti 1973. A dud.
<>Petri American Burgundy. “Actually a little better than I expected.”
<>Storybook Mountain Zinfandel 1982, Sonoma County. “Just what zinfandel should be.”
<>Sea Ridge Chardonnay 1982, Sonoma County. “Unfocused and undefined.”
<>Mastantuono Templeton Zinfandel 1981, Dante Dusi Vineyards, San Luis Obispo. “Heavy, harsh.”
<>Storybook Mountain Estate Reserve Zinfandel 1981, Napa Valley. “Needs time.”
<>Tudal Chardonnay 1982, Edna Valley. “Excellent chardonnay — lush, creamy, green apple-citrus nose (medium gold color) — perfect balance between fruit & acid, medium body, citrus pineapple, buttery, smoky. Drank this with a meal of curry lemon soup, chicken with ginger & honey, fried bananas, sauteed green onions. Wonderful meal & wine.” The family-owned Tudal Winery was — actually still is — in Napa Valley, north of St. Helena, so this wine was likely made from purchased grapes. Nowadays, I would not be so inclined to consider “wonderful” a chardonnay that was smoky and buttery.

Image of Rodney Strong from sfgate.com.

It’s July 23, 1985. The wine is the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968, Monterey County, one from a case of wines that John Grisanti gave me from the warehouse next to his restaurant. (Big John died in 1995; his family sold the property to Walgreens.)

Mirassou was once a distinguished, if not a great, name in the history of California wine. The family’s beginnings in Monterey County go back to 1854, and while for the better part of a century the product of their vineyards was bulk wine, in the 1950s efforts were made to increase quality. In 1966, Mirassou first bottled its own wines; the “Third Harvest” designation on the label of the wine featured today refers to that momentous year. Whatever the intentions, Mirassou’s wines generally seemed more competent than competitive, though the family worked hard to improve quality. Particularly notable was a series of chardonnays, especially those bottled under the “Harvest Reserve” and “Showcase Selection” labels. Also consistently well-made and enjoyable were the “White Burgundy,” made primarily from pinot blanc grapes, and the Early Harvest Gewurztraminer, of which I drank many bottles in the 1980s.

Gallo bought the Mirassou brand and inventory late in 2002; the family retained the winery and vineyards. The wines that bear this pioneering name are made in Modesto and unfortunately reflect the blandest common denominator of the California wine industry.

Here are my notes on the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968:

“This one made a valiant effort, but it was just too old. Brick red-mahogany color; autumnal; bottle-stink, musty, smell of decay; musty, earthy, dead leaves, but after an hour it pulled itself together and became, for about 15-20 minutes, a fine wine in glorious decline, then began to fall apart and slumped back into decay. Must have peaked 5-7 years ago.”

Monterey County is not known as a great region for zinfandel, and in the 1980s Mirassou shifted its source for the grape to its Santa Clara vineyard. More to the point, however, is this lesson: Give a bottle of wine a chance to perform. Older wines sometimes need time and gentle persuasion to sift through the fog of age and bear, as it were, fruit again. Young wines often require the same consideration. One of the hazards of the wine tasting trade is the haste with which we are forced to make decisions about wines that would behave considerably differently if given the opportunity. That’s why one of my favorite methods of tasting is to stand in the kitchen with four or five wines, tasting gradually, going back to each over and again, spending time to let them unfold. It can take an hour, but good wines deserve the attention. Sometimes I do this blind, especially if I’m comparing wines of the same grape or genre, and sometimes not.

In any case, I hope this selection of “100 Wines: A Chronicle” illustrates the principle that we can learn as much from “bad” wines as from “good” ones.

June 19, 1985. A dinner at Cafe Meridian, closed long, long ago but at the time very much a restaurant of the moment in Memphis. I don’t know who organized the event, nor do I know who provided the wines, but I was so dazzled by them that I didn’t even record what we ate, clearly a disservice to chef Joseph Carey, who a few years later opened 25 Belvedere, one of the best bistro-style restaurants the city ever entertained. Cafe Meridian served Mediterranean-style cuisine, I think the first in Memphis to do so, and also had the first, or one of the first, of the mesquite grills that became such a necessity for restaurants in the mid- to late-1980s. The food that emerged from those grills may have been smoky, musky and flavorful, but, lord have mercy, it made your clothes and hair stink. If you got home and hung a jacket back in a closet, the next morning all the clothes would smell like mesquite smoke.

Anyway, these were the wines the group — whatever the group was — consumed on this occasion: Hospices de Beaune Meursault-Charmes Cuvée Albert-Grivault 1982, made by Joseph Drouhin; Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes; and Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976, Amador County. Can you imagine what such wines would cost today? Well, look on the Internet for Yquem ’75, and you’ll find prices ranging from $500 to $2,000 for a standard 750 milliliter bottle.

The Hospices de Beaune Albert-Grivault Meursault-Charmes 1982 was the best white wine I had tasted in my life, up to that point. Here are my notes from that night, almost 25 years ago: “Pale medium gold” — all right, that seems like an oxymoron — “exquisite nose, fruity, some wood, complex, blossoming in the glass; oak, smooth but with a bite, medium body, exceptional balance, unctuous, rich and oily, lots of room to grow.”

The Hospices de Beaune is a charity hospital founded in the city of Beaune (the heart of Burgundy) in 1443; the building is a treasure of 15th Century French flamboyant architecture. The not-for-profit organization owns about 61 hectares (around 156 acres) of donated vineyard land, mostly Grand Cru and Premier Cru, and every November, since 1851, barrels of the wines made from those vines are auctioned, at an extravagant three-day event, to benefit the hospital’s services to the poor, these days rendered in modern facilities. The original Hospices de beaune is now a museum. Christie’s has run the auction since 2005.

Meursault contains no Grand Cru vineyards but as many as 29 (depending on who is counting) Premier Crus, some of which can be both pinot noir and chardonnay. Les Charmes is perhaps the best-known of Meursault’s Premier Crus, and it’s the largest, though connoisseurs may give the edge to Les Perrières or Les Genevrières.

Here is where I wish I had a menu from this far-off dinner or at least had recorded what we ate. It seems pretty obvious that Chateau d’Yquem served as a dessert wine, but the Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976? At 15.4 percent alcohol? To what stupendous entree did this blockbuster serve as accompaniment?

That “II” in the wine’s nomenclature requires explanation. In 1976, this patch of old vine zinfandel grapes on the Esola Ranch in the Sierra Foothills, “matured well beyond normal ripeness,” as the text on the side label informs us, going on, “Seven and a half barrels were bottled in March” — making Late Harvest I Zinfandel — “while the main crop was given additional barrel age to ferment more of the residual sugar.” In other words, “I” retained enough residual sugar to be a sweet wine, while “II” came out dry. The label tells use that at harvest, the r.s. was 25.5 percent (by weight), but the r.s. in the finished wine was 0.21 percent, far below the detectable level for sweetness. All that extra ripeness went toward making “II” a tower of intensity and concentration. Here are my notes: “Oh my goodness! Deep purple; rich, ripe, fruity, dusty nose; dense, intense, incredible fruit, spice, faint chocolate, almost unfathomable, at its peak, absolutely terrific — still time to grow.”

Chateau d’Yquem scarcely needs any introduction, as people say before they launch into a long introduction of someone everybody knows, but, still, here’s a little background about this legendary property, one of the most famous producers in the world of a highly-sought after and expensive wine, as it happens, a sweet or dessert wine. The chateau itself is one of the oldest in Bordeaux, parts of it dating back to the 14th Century. Before that, in the 12th Century, it was the property of Eleanor of Aquitaine and hence, after her marriage to Henri II, part of England, until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. Through both direct descent and marriage, Yquem remained in the same family from 1593 to 1996, when in a hostile move, the family and relatives of Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, who had run the estate since 1968, sold their majority shares to LVMH for around $100 million. Comte Alexandre was allowed to stay as manager until 2004, when he was ousted in favor of Pierre Lurton, manager of Ch. Cheval-Blanc in St. Emilion. And you thought the rarefied world of fine wine was above petty politics and family squabbles! The estate or property itself is Chateau d’Yquem; the wine is Yquem (“ee-kem”).

Here are my notes: “Medium gold color; subdued nose, just a little melony-apricot, more subtle than I thought it would be; sweet round melony fruit, but a stiff backbone of acid, far from cloying but still sweet, complex & gratifyingly puzzling — a great experience.”

Clearly I didn’t quite know how to wrap my nose and mouth and perception around this wine from a great vintage for Yquem. On the other hand, these wines tend not to show well — or to show themselves reticently and in their own manner — in the first decade. I was lucky enough to taste Chateau d’Yquem 1975 in 1995, and with another 10 years of age it was glorious.

In case you’re wondering how I retained the labels for wines encountered at special dinners and tastings, well, I asked if I could take empty bottles home so I could soak off the labels. Nobody ever seemed to mind. A couple of years later, at a dinner whose menu was organized around the sparkling wines of Schramsberg — this was at another long-gone restaurant, Dux, in The Peabody Hotel — I asked for empty bottles and the wine manager just brought me a box with all the wines we had tasted, I mean, full bottles. I’m sure that was the only time such a thing occurred. It wouldn’t be long before I was tasting so many wines that I abandoned the practice of saving labels.

Image of Hospices-de-beaune from roy.closedistant.com. Image of Chateau d’Yquem from thegrandcrew.

Philippine de Rothschild was going to be in town for the opening, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, of an exhibition of the labels and label art that adorn bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the great property in the Pauillac commune of Bordeaux. Though I contributed my weekly wine column to The Commercial Appeal newspaper on a free-lance basis, and had been doing so for not quite a year, my editor asked me to cover the event and conduct an interview with the daughter of chateau owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The Baron died in 1988, and his daughter inherited the title and the estate, along with other chateaux and the family business in Bordeaux. The chateau, whose roots go back to the 1720s and the de Brane family (their name survives in Chateau Brane-Cantenac), was acquired by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1853. Philippe de Rothschild took charge in 1922, when he was 20; even then he was a powerful and transforming figure.

Early in June, “Big John” Grisanti, who had been generous with his time and his wine, asked me if I had ever tasted wine from Mouton-Rothschild.

“Uh, no.”

“Well, hell, boy, how are you gonna write about the wine if you’ve never tasted the wine? Get over to my house Sunday afternoon and let’s try some.”

Would you have refused?

So, on a brilliant Sunday afternoon I drove to Grisanti’s house in East Memphis and presented myself to him for tutelage. It was just the two of us. Grisanti’s underground cellar, reached by spiral stairs from a hallway off the kitchen, held thousands of bottles of wine and could easily accommodate eight or 10 people, standing. First, on this occasion, to whet (and perhaps wet) our palates, he opened a bottle of the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 1979, Napa Valley, which I recorded in my notes as “one of the absolutely best white wines I have ever tasted.”

Then, he picked five vintages of Mouton for us to try: 1981, ’79, ’78, ’76 and ’73, in that order. Now the decade of the 1970s was not the best for Mouton; the wines lacked the typical Mouton opulence, nervosity and pinpoint minerality, qualities regained in abundance in 1982. Still, tasting these wines, my first encounter with Mouton-Rothschild, was a privilege, and I will forever be grateful to Big John for opening his cellar to me on this and other occasions. Here are my notes from that day.
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1981: “Deep purple; wonderful flowery spicy cedar nose; expanding tannin, deep intense flavor with fruit waiting to emerge. Mouth-filling with a long finish. Decades of life ahead.” This is #32 of my Chronicle of 100 Wines.
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1979: “Dark ruby; witch-hazel, earthy, fruit, less cedar; still tannic as hell, fruit is there somewhere — a big wine.”

Clive Coates, who in October 1990 tasted 38 vintages of Mouton, from 1987 back to 1900, found in the ’79 “a suggestion of swimming baths, tanks,” which I assume corresponds to the touch of witch-hazel I noted five years earlier. This is in his majestic Grands Vins; The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines (University of California Press, 1995).
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1978: “Still deep purple; deep and complex nose — spice, blossoming fragrance, cedar, lead pencil; mellowing tannin but still tons of it; slightly astringent, though well-balanced as levels of fruit emerge.”
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1976: “Still keeping the color, medium ruby; milder tannins — fruity and maturing nose; beautiful balance, smooth but still tannic — color just beginning to fade; depth on depth of fruit and spicy layers slowly emerging — years to go.”
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1973: “medium ruby fading to mahogany; slightly sharp on the nose but smooth, soft fruity flavor; a pretty good wine from an off-year, in fact better than many others made in good years, but not quite Mouton — still quite respectable, lacking the usual Mouton depth.”

Baron Philippe de Rothschild campaigned tirelessly to have Mouton elevated from a Second Growth wine in the 1855 Classification to First Growth, a task at which he succeeded — no other wine on the roster has changed position — to be greeted, in the year of official recognition, with the mediocre vintage of 1973. Undaunted, the Baron designed a special label that commemorated, as well as his victory, the death that year of another great man and force of nature, Picasso, and he composed a new motto for the estate: Premier Je Suis Second Je Fus Mouton Ne Change. “First I am, second I was, Mouton does not change.”
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Big John was pretty much a force of nature himself. Certainly his excitement about wine and and his pedagogical bent were boundless and infectious, and once he started opening bottles in his cellar, it was difficult for him to stop. After the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc ’79 and the five vintages of Mouton, Grisanti started plucking other bottles from the shelves, and we went on to a succulent Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1982, Santa Barbara County; a stunningly subtle, supple and sweetly autumnal Clos-Vougeot 1971, from Bernard Grivelet (actually the greatest wine of the afternoon and still one of the greatest Burgundies I have ever tasted — and #33 of this Chronicle of 100 Wines); and — still acknowledged as one of the best wines of the vintage –a Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Napa Valley.

Earlier, as we sat in the cellar tasting Mouton, Grisanti’s wife came down the stairs, measuring cup in hand, and said that she needed some red wine for the spaghetti gravy. “Sure, honey,” said Big John, pouring out a cup of whatever Mouton he had in his hand, “this’ll do just fine.”

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On May 29, 1985, we attended a dinner hosted by Les Amis du Vin at Grisanti’s East, “Big John” Grisanti’s restaurant in Germantown, the city that abuts Memphis to the east. Fifty years ago, Germantown was mainly horse farms, with one intersection where the old town was. Even in the 1970s, it seemed as if it took forever to drive from Midtown Memphis to Germantown, and what is now Germantown Road, a six-lane thoroughfare lined with fast-food emporiums, shopping centers and malls and office buildings, was a two-lane highway that ran north and south between cotton fields.

Anyway, it’s possible that in a box in the attic I have a menu from this dinner, but all I show in my wine label notebook is one label and description, and these are for Chateau La Tour Blanche 1976, Sauternes Premier Cru Classe, served in half-bottles with frogs’ legs sauteed in butter with a hazelnut sauce. The match was a stroke of genius on the part of chef Peter Katsotis (Big John’s son-in-law) and whoever provided the wine.

Here are my notes from that night: “A remarkable pairing — this wine with frogs’ legs cooked in butter & nut sauce — surprisingly, it worked. Medium gold color — Buttered toast nose, fruity, touch of raisin; beautifully balanced, not as sweet as I had expected, more mellow and round, lingering sweetness on the tongue and throat, subdued.”

In The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), a revised and expanded version of The Great Vintage Wine Book of 1982, Michael Broadbent records tasting what sound like remarkable bottles of La Tour Blanche
from 1869 (Broadbent gave this five stars in 1892; the wine was 113 years old!); 1899 (three stars in 1981); 1900 (three stars in 1989); 1904 (three stars in 1985); 1921 (“perfection” and five stars in 1987) and so on. With more recent vintages, however, that is, in the 1970s and ’80s, Broadbent’s notes are more circumspect and ambivalent. As Robert M. Parker Jr. writes in the third edition of Bordeaux (Simon & Schuster, 1998), “Since 1910 the Ministry of Agriculture has run La Tour Blanche and until the mid-1980s seemed content to produce wines that at best could be called mediocre.”

And there was I, at this dinner in 1985, wowed by a glass of La Tour Blanche ’76 and a dish of frogs’ legs. Did I know what the hell I was doing? Who knows? I remember, however, 25 years later, how thrilling the experience was, how risky and satisfying the combination seemed and still does.

And just so you don’t get the idea that back in 1985 I was swanning around all the time trying great Bordeaux and Burgundy at tasting events and dinners, here’s a list of some of the wines we drank at home in April and May that year:

<>Shadow Creek Brut nv, Sonoma County.
<>Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon 1082, Yakima Vally.
<>Mirassou White Zinfandel 1984, Monterey County. (!!!!!)
<>Chateau de La Chaize Brouilly 1983.
<>Cribari Extra Dry California Champagne. (!!!!!)
<>Clos du Bois Merlot 1980, Napa Valley.
<>Petri American Burgundy nv (!!!!!)

Always the reckless experimenter, eh?

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.

Founded in 1854 in Santa Clara Valley, Mirassou was once a venerable name in California. Having been farmers and bulk wine producers for four generations, the family in 1966 turned to bottling wines from their own vineyards and entering the competitive lists of the state’s growing wine industry. These efforts were not always successful, yet particularly in the white wine area, with gewurztraminer; “White Burgundy,” made from pinot blanc; and the “Harvest Reserve” chardonnay, the Mirassou family could be proud of its achievement. I tried many of these wines in the 1980s, including this Mirassou Harvest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 from Monterey County. As you can see from the label, the winery made 3,000 cases of the wine.

We drank this bottle on Dec. 9 and 10, 1984. I paid $10 for it. My notes read thus:

“Interesting and complex. Deep ruby color; tannic, fruity nose, hints of herbs and flowers; quite a mouthful, almost thick — very complex, almost puzzling, many layers of fruit and spicy, sappy nuance with, at the bottom, a provocative level of what CDK [my son, 17 at the time] called ‘cherry gasoline.’ Long finish. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste.”

“Cherry gasoline,” indeed, way to go, my boy, and surely not to the taste of anyone with a nose and palate for real cabernet sauvignon. A noble failure at five years after harvest? Or just a weird anomaly or indication of how erratic the winemaking could be at Mirassou?

In any case, Gallo bought the brand and the inventory in 2003, and the cheap Mirassou wines are now made in Modesto.

For my birthday on Dec. 7, 1984, we met some friends for dinner at La Tourelle, a French restaurant just off the Overton Square district of shops and bars and restaurants in Memphis. At the time, remember, we still lived in Senatobia, Miss., a small town (in a dry county) south of Memphis, where we taught at the junior college. Most of our entertainment dollars, believe me, were spent in Memphis.

La Tourelle closed in July 2007, just after its 30th anniversary. Located in a wooden Queen Anne house (with a round tower), the restaurant was owned by Glenn and Martha Hays. He was the track coach at the University of Memphis for 36 years and was a devotee of France and French cooking. La Tourelle was an incubator for chefs in Memphis, many of whom passed through that kitchen to open their own restaurants in the city. It was one of the restaurants I wrote about the most in my 20 years of reviewing restaurants for the newspaper here. The Hays still own the thriving bistro-style Cafe 1912, a few blocks south of La Tourelle, which is now Restaurant Iris, presided over by award-winning chef Kelly English.

Anyway, that night, 25 years ago yesterday, we gathered in La Tourelle’s smaller dining room, an intimate space with a fireplace, to celebrate my birthday. It was the first time I had eaten rabbit, an animal we don’t see enough of on restaurant menus, probably because (a) it’s difficult to cook without drying out, and (b) dining on Thumper just messes with people’s heads.

Though I had been writing a newspaper wine column only for five months, the phenomenon had already begun; when a waiter offered a wine list, it was passed to me, usually with the words, “You’re the expert, you choose the wine.” At this point my expertise was more likely a combination of nervous geekdom and bravado, but on this occasion, I ordered a bottle of the Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 1983, the first time, I’m pretty sure, that I had tried a cru Beaujolais. Juliénas is a middle-of-the-road cru Beaujolais, not as delicate as Fleurie, not as spicy as Brouilly, not as robust as Morgon, yet with an appealing fresh, dark, slightly spicy interiority of its own. Actually, it’s my favorite of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, at least in this mood of retrospection, and it was, as my notes attest, terrific with the rabbit fricassee.

The price of this wine on La Tourelle’s list was $11.50, “not a bad price for a restaurant wine,” I wrote in my label album. Ah, those were the days.

One of the traditions maintained by “Big John” Grisanti was that the first time a guest visited his wine cellar at home, he or she could pick a bottle of wine to take with them. The task could be overwhelming, so on the occasion of my first visit, struck dumb by the choices, I allowed Grisanti to choose for me, at which prompting he handed me a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion 1975, a First Growth red wine from the Bordeaux region of Graves. I, in turn, gave the bottle to my (former) father-in-law as a housewarming present; he and my mother-in-law had just moved into a new house in East Memphis. (Now a widower, he still lives there, in his mid-90s every bit the gentleman he was raised to be.) He opened the wine for us to enjoy at the Thanksgiving dinner in November 1984.

Records of vines being cultivated at the estate of Haut Brion go back to 1423. The Pontac family built the chateau depicted on the label in 1550. In his diary entry for April 10, 1663, Samuel Pepys mentions a visit to the Royal Oak Tavern in London where “I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan which hath a good and most particular taste which I never before encountered…..” The estate went through several changes of ownership in the 18th and 19th centuries, and after a period of decline was purchased by the Dillon family in 1935.

Haut Brion was listed as a First Growth in the 1855 Classification of the wines of the Medoc. Whatever variations of quality and fortune it endured through the 20th Century, the estate has performed at the highest level of quality and consistency since 1975. The vineyards at Haut Brion are planted with 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc; the proportion of grapes in each wine differs according to vintage conditions. The “second” wine of Haut Brion is Bahans Haut Brion. The estate also produces one of the region’s greatest white wines. Production of Chateau Haut Brion is about 11,000 cases annually; Bahans Haut Brion is about 7,300 cases and the blanc is 650 cases.

In Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine (Harcourt, 2002), the British auctioneer and writer gives 1975 a four star rating (out of five stars), though he calls the year “irregular” and “certainly interesting, not to say challenging.” His notes on Haut Brion 1975 are ambivalent, though he rather grudgingly comes around to liking the wine by 1995. Robert M. Parker Jr. calls the year “tricky,” with “the overall quality level … distressingly uneven and the number of failures … too numerous to ignore.” Yikes! Haut Brion 1975, however, Parker rates as “a great wine and one of the top dozen or so wines of the vintage.”

My impression of Haut Brion ’75, on Thanksgiving 1984? Here are my original notes: “A great wine. Surprising color, deep brown, like mahogany. Cedar nose, lead pencil, fruity, quite tannic, emerging fruit, exotic, dry but with an underlying core of succulent sweetness. Years to go.”

At the time, in Memphis, the Haut Brion ’75 sold for $100 to $110.

Well, today we don’t have a Bordeaux First Growth to grace the Thanksgiving board. Instead, there are three bottles of my standard Thanksgiving wine, the Ridge Three Valleys, Sonoma County, this from 2007. For this vintage, the blend is zinfandel (75%), petite sirah (8%), syrah (7%), grenache (6%) and carignane (3%). I also have a bottle of Trefethen Riesling 2007, Napa Valley, because I do like a riesling with the Thanksgiving feast. Some bottles of pinot noir — Morgan, Terlato, Sokol Blosser — await in case our guests’ tastes incline that way. All American wines, yes, because this is, after all, a great American celebration.

On the menu: Clementine-Salted Turkey with Redeye Gravy (a Matt and Ted Lee recipe); Sweet Potato Stuffing with Bacon and Thyme; Wild Mushroom-Collard Green Bundles; green beans, roasted carrots and bacon-topped cornbread. There’s a pumpkin pie for dessert, and a pear crisp with candied ginger. If anyone wants a dessert wine, I have a couple of vintages of Dolce and Beringer Nightingale on hand.

All of that should get the job done.

I hope that all of my readers partake of excellent food and excellent wine today, blessed with family and friends, and remember, while you’re at it, all of those who have neither food nor wine, family nor friends, and let us help them at all times of the year.

Number 25 in this chronicle, one-quarter the way through. At this rate, it will take six more years. I’ll try to move along more speedily.
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Now, this, friends, is a wine label. For about a decade, the Chateau Lagrange 1926, from Bordeaux’s Left Bank commune of St.-Julien, was the oldest wine I tasted. I encountered in it October 1984 (I didn’t record the day) at a special dinner at American Harvest, a restaurant in Germantown, a municipality abutting Memphis on the east, owned by John Grisanti and helmed by his son-in-law, Peter Katsotis. The event was organized and hosted by Ed Chidester, then owner of Mt. Moriah Wine & Liquors in Memphis, a store where I regularly went looking for unusual wines.

It constantly amazed me at the time, and was a source of gratification, that even though I had been writing my newspaper wine column only for three months that doors were continually being opened, giving me the opportunity to try all sorts of wines. This was largely due to my new association with “Big John” Grisanti, who promoted me, nurtured me, educated me and, yes, badgered and browbeat me.

I also didn’t record what courses were presented at this dinner, so I can’t tell you what the 58-year-old wine was paired with. It was, not surprisingly, fully mature. A bit of mustiness blew off after a few minutes, and the wine, which displayed a modestly diminished garnet color, stood up like a soldier with a complement of dried spices, that St.-Julien signature of cedar and tobacco, and gently macerated and fading red and black fruit flavors over some mossy earthiness, before making an honorable retreat. What a treat!

Ownership records for Chateau Lagrange go back to 1631. The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 ranked Lagrange as a Third Growth, at which time the estate consisted of about 700 acres. The Cendoya family bought the estate in 1925 and sold it to Suntory in 1983; by then, the property had been reduced to about 392 acres, and the quality of the wine had been in decline for decades. Suntory spend million of dollars upgrading the estate and the facilities and replanting vineyards.

The label from 1926 is a work of art, of its kind, clearly based on late Renaissance models of printmaking craftsmanship. Notice how the pair of soldiers-at-arms is carefully differentiated, from their armor and helmets and plumes to their magnificent mustaches and beards. A riot of typefaces and curlicues, the image is indeed busy, but elegant and authoritative for all its doodads and devices. By comparison, the contemporary label is bland and generic.

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