The Chronicle

In September 1984, a friend of ours, Jane Sharding, one of the city’s best organists and choir directors, was going to Paris, and she asked me, in full blithe innocence, if she could bring me something. You know how people do that on the eve of departure, with a little laugh, expecting you to say, “Oh, don’t bring me anything, just send a postcard.” Well, I had been poring over Steven Spurrier’s The Concise Guide to French Country Wines (Putnam/Perigee Books, 1983), and I replied to Jane’s jocular aside with goober-like seriousness and a list of wines and directions to Spurrier’s intimate, little shop, Les Caves du Madeleine. Spurrier is the Englishman who engineered the famous “Paris Tasting of 1976” in which a California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon “beat” exemplary models from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Anyway. Jane came through like a good sport and a trouper and returned to Memphis with three bottles of red wine in a sturdy cardboard carry-box. They were: Château de Beaupré Cuvée Spéciale 1981, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence; Domaine des Féraud 1981, Côtes de Provence; Domaine du Souleillou 1980, Cahors. The first two were interesting, educational, enjoyable; the third was the knockout.

I had read in various books that Cahors, dominated by the malbec grape, there called auxerrois, produced tough, rustic, full-bodied “black wines” that provide appropriate accompaniment to the local hearty cuisine; it’s perfect with cassoulet. Cahors lies athwart the Dordogne river in a rugged area southeast of Bordeaux and is even today not easy to reach. I visited the region and city in 1990, driving up from Toulouse by a wildly picturesque route.

The Domaine du Souleillou 1980 wasn’t exactly black, more like deep, dark ruby-garnet. Rustic, though, yes, I will admit to that quality, by which I mean unpretentious, unsophisticated, honest and forthright. But not simple: There were complexities of ripe, dusty currant and plum scents and flavors, sort of buried in briery tannins, port-soaked fruitcake, woody spice and mossy-like earthiness. This was intense and heady stuff, unlike any wine I had encountered. I didn’t record what we ate with the wine; it was clearly not made for lighthearted sipping. I opened it on Oct. 4, 1984, so I assume it went with something flavorful and autumnal.

This is, by the way, my favorite kind of wine label, nothing gaudy, neither ostentatious nor tricked out with japes and frippery. It’s as honest in lay-out and typography as the wine was in its construction and essence. The fact that the words “Domaine du Souleillou” are set on a slight curve and that the name of the proprietor is in cursive lends this artless label a touch of elegance. I’ll let Benito, who ought to have a separate blog about wine labels, offer his knowledge about the typefaces, but I think he would agree that this label illustrates the epitome of clarity and good sense.

Continuing the Chronicle of the 100 Most Interesting or Important or Educational Wines I tasted in my fledgling years as a wine writer, we’re still in 1984, when I launched my wine career with my first column in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in July. Within two or three months, I was being invited to public and private tastings and had begun to receive press releases and even a sample wine or two. Wow, doors were opening! As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, by this time I had met two people who were very important in my wine education and who became valuable friends, Shields Hood and John Grisanti, both of whom figure in today’s post about the first great champagnes I encountered.

On Sept. 17, 1984, Shields held a tasting of 17 champagnes and sparkling wines at the warehouse of the wholesale distributor for whom he worked. Most of the people at the event worked in retail. This is the day on which I first tried Dom Pérignon.

Dom Pérignon, the flagship champagne of Moët & Chandon, fills a hallowed niche in the pantheon of highly recognizable and heavily marketed grandes marques that includes Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame and Perrier-Jouët’s Le Belle Époque. Founded in 1743, Moët & Chandon is owned by LVMH, the giant luxury goods conglomerate. Cuvée Dom Pérignon, as it is properly called, is named after the legendary monk who is supposed to have claimed “I’m seeing stars,” after drinking the sparkling beverage that had accidentally re-fermented in the bottle. I’m no monk, but I make equal claim after drinking too much champagne. The special label was introduced with the 1921 vintage and was produced in 1928, ’29 and ’34, but it was the 1943 vintage that was fermented inside its own bottle, according to Tom Stevenson in World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised edition, 2003).

My reaction to Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1976 was the succinct “Wonderful champagne!” To which I added in my notes, “Yeasty, dry, nutty, well-balanced. Very elegant.” The price? (If you have tears, etc.) $67.

We’re getting out of sequence with the Perrier-Jouët Blason de France Rose, but I wanted to present this trio of champagnes together. So … quite a few months after the Dom Pérignon encounter, my first wife and I were invited to a small Perrier-Jouët dinner at a long defunct restaurant here, The Palm Court. The national sales rep for the importer, which then was Stacole (I think), was at the dinner to talk about the champagnes and to present the Palm Court’s chef-owner, Michael Cahhal, with the Perrier-Jouët Award, whatever that signified. (Perrier-Jouët was founded in 1811 and is now owned by Pernod Ricard.) Anyway, I was enthralled by the Blason de France Rosé, the color of which the sales rep described as “the blush on the thigh of an aroused nymph,” a line, with a whiff of Fragonard, that will never be bettered and which, I confess, I have borrowed several times over the past 25 years. We were told that the P-J Blason de France Rosé was the house champagne at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild; I wanted it to be the house champagne at my house. My note offers one word: “Divine.”

Not long after that occasion, a group of gentleman gathered in the wine cellar — an actual cellar, as in below ground — at John Grisanti’s house, to taste this thing and that. These were collectors, all far more experienced than I at the tasting and assessing of older vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy and vintage champagne. Anyway, Big John opened a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1961, a 24-year-old bottle. While the others present were sagely exclaiming over its irresistible qualities, in my little notebook I was writing, “Stinky, caramelized, oxidized.” Now I know that the British have this thing about old champagne, or are reputed to, but this ’61 seemed way over the hill to me.

The last time I posted an entry in this series about the wines that I learned the most from — not necessary the best wines, though many are — I said that during the great educational year of 1984 the best wines were clearly the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1970 and ’75 that I tasted on September 11. Well, I’m not unhappy to drink my words and say that I was wrong. There were too many “best” wines to name just one.

The wine I’m going to mention today constituted my introduction to great red Burgundy. I had tried a couple of red wines from Burgundy in 1983 and 1984 but hadn’t had much luck with the quality or the year. In fact, up until this point, the best wines I had tasted made from pinot noir grapes were from California: the Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley; a Beaulieu Pinot Noir 1979, Los Carneros; and an Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1982, Santa Barbara County. Where, oh where, was I going to find a Burgundy that was like the wines I read about in books.

In Big John Grisanti’s cellar at home, that’s where.

I was at Big John’s house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2004, and he asked me where I thought my wine education was lacking. “Burgundy, as in pinot noir,” I said, explaining that the models I had tried didn’t seem real or authentic or very good, at least from what I had read. In Burgundy (Faber & Faber, 1982), Anthony Hanson writes: “A fine wine will have a lovely colour, an attractive bouquet, and the balance, flavour and smoothness to be expected of it. A great wine will have all these things, but in addition something that makes the pulse race, to make one exclaim: ‘How can it smell and taste like that? That is amazing!’ A fine wine may remind one of flowers or spices or fruits, but there is something animal, often something erotic about great Burgundy.” That’s what I wanted to experience.

“Well,” Big John said, “let’s look around and see what we can find,” and he perused the racks in the cellar, and this was a real underground wine cellar, big enough to hold thousands of bottles and 10 or 12 adults standing up. He pulled out a bottle, checked the fill — the level of wine in relation to the neck and shoulder of the bottle — blew off a little dust, and said, “This should do it.”

The wine was a Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971 from the venerable house of Faiveley, founded in 1825 and still owned and operated by the family. Mercurey is the most prominent commune of the Côte Chalonnaise, south of Côte de Beaune and north of the Mâconnais and Beaujolais. The 15.59-acre Clos des Myglands vineyard, a Premier Cru, is a monopole for Faiveley, that is, a rare instance in which an entire vineyard in Burgundy is owned by one producer or domaine. Now one does not expect truly great wine from the Chalonnaise; one is gratified to be rewarded with authentic pinot noir suppleness and earthiness and fruit. While my experience in 1984 with great pinot noir, especially from the grape’s homeland of Burgundy, was close to nil, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of keen expectation while Grisanti pulled the cork from the bottle and poured the wine.

The color was medium ruby fading to brick red at the edges. The bouquet, well, how could I find the words? Autumn leaves, moss, smoke, loam; an immediate sense of delicacy bolstered by confidence; and then something bigger, richer, almost meaty. Lord have mercy! In the mouth, the wine was quite full, vibrant and intense, yet creating an impression (again) of delicacy, mellowness, suppleness and subtlety, a feeling of warm satin flowing through the mouth to a long, dense, flavorful finish.

Need I say more than this: That Big John Grisanti and I sat in his cellar and slowly savored every drop of this remarkable wine.

By the way, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., has not imported the wines of Faiveley for years, that task having passed to Wilson Daniels.

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.

Image of Shields Hood from
Image of John Grisanti from

Here’s an interesting and unusual conjunction of wines that we tried in the last week of March, 1984, on the 26 through the 28th, like two days away from 25 years ago. One was a failure, one a triumph.

I remember hesitating for weeks before buying the Chateau Beychevelle 1977, from Bordeaux’s commune of Saint-Julien, because I beychevelle.jpg knew that it might not be too good. In my favorite wine volume at the time, and still one of my favorites, The Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), Michael Broadbent calls 1977 “one of the least inspiring vintages of the decade,” so, having pored over Broadbent’s annotations numerous times, I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. You know though, there it was on the shelf, it’s a Fourth Growth (according to the Classification of 1855), the chateau possesses ancient and noble lineage, the label is classy — and it was only $10, so I ponied up.

It was terrible. My notes: “Reflects the year. Brownish rim; some typical cabernet nose; a bare glance at complexity, some earthiness, but basically weak — an impression of tiredness and thinness.” So there.

The blend at Beychevelle, by the way, tends to be about 62 percent cabernet sauvignon, 31 percent merlot, five percent cabernet franc and two percent petit verdot.

Fortunately, those same days, we consumed a bottle of the Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 1980, which at the time carried a California appellation.

The winery was founded, high on Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder, in 1889 by German immigrant John Henry Fisher. He went bankrupt after a few years, and the winery was abandoned and fell derelict, until it was purchased in 1941, in a pioneering move, by Jack and Mary Taylor. They sold the property, in 1968, to Robert and Elinor Travers, who still own it. The winery’s reputation stands on its rock-ribbed, long-aging cabernet sauvignon wines, and I’ll tell you the truth. If someone, say a bright and shining angel, came to me and said, “F.K., you have been such a Good Boy and so exemplary in thought, word and deed, that I am going to offer you the chance to experience vertical tastings of any Napa Valley cabernets your heart desires,” I would say forget the cult cabernets, the new darlings of collectors, the Screaming Eagles and so on, and give me the old mountainside wines, Mayacamas, Mount Veeder, Diamond Creek, Dunn, let me feel the rich austerity and dignity of the altitudes.

Anyway, Mayacamas makes about 5,000 cases of wine a year, of which about 600 cases are sauvignon blanc that is given a short aging in American oak. Now I’ll confess that I have not seen a Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc on a retail shelf for decades, in fact, maya.jpg not since the one under discussion here, so that’s 25 years ago. Nor have I seen a zinfandel from this winery, and zinfandel is not listed as part of the production on the website, but one of the most memorable wines of my career remains the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984.

Anyway, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980, California, was splendid, sporting a pale straw color, a spare, elegant bouquet with touches of lemon and spice, “full body, exceptional balance, suave and smooth, dry.” It was certainly the best sauvignon blanc wine I had tasted up to that point and serves, in many ways, even today, as a model of excellence in my memory.

In this chronicle of 100 wines, readers, it’s March 1984, yes, a hair less than 25 years ago. We drank a variety of wines that month, of course, including the Callaway Petite Sirah 1975 from Temecula (“the most intense wine I’ve ever tasted” — $9.99) and a thrilling Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 (“exceptional balance, suave and smooth” — $10.99). Two of the wines, though, were so memorable that even today I remember how knocked out by them I was. Both were from a producer that doesn’t seem to earn much praise or even thought nowadays, the venerable Simi Winery in Sonoma County.

We drank the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Alexander Valley, on March 10, with sauerbraten cooked for a friend’s birthday. Here are my notes: “Can’t say enough about this wine: beautiful deep ruby color; wonderful nose — dry, dusty, tannic, fruity, cedarwood and cigar box undertones; same in the mouth — deep. complex, woody, mouth-filling, long finish.”

Without a doubt, the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 ($9.49) was the best red wine from California I had tasted up to that point in my life and would remain one of the best wines I tasted in an eventful year, in terms of my wine education. More about that later in this chronicle.
Then, on March 19-21, we drank what is one of the most memorable wines of my career as a wine drinker and (coming up with startling rapidity) writer. My first note on the Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley, is “Can’t praise this one enough.” Indeed, this nine-year-old pinot noir from a winery not noted for pinot noir wines is still one of the best examples of the grape I have tasted. “Beautiful fading brickish-red-brown color; mature subdued nose; soft & mellow, fruity still, a touch of the ripe earthiness of the pinot noir grape, full in the mouth, long finish — a really wonderful wine — a bargain at the price,” which was $8.49.

By the way, look at the alcohol levels on these wines: 13% for the cabernet, 12.5% for the pinot noir. Why strive for anything higher?

You may attribute my fervor for these wines to (relatively) youthful enthusiasm — I would turn 40 at the end of 1984 — but I promise that I remember them and my response to them clearly, even this morning as I type these words.

Isn’t that function of memory tied to sensual experience the reason why we drink wine, take notes on wine, think about wine, write about wine and savor the complete process?

We had fun with wine and learned a lot during the third and fourth weeks of February 1984.
(For readers who have not encountered my posts of “100 Wines: A Chronicle,” it’s a record of the 100 wines I learned the most from — not necessarily the best — beginning from when I first started reading about wine, tasting more wine and taking notes in 1983.)

We had been in New Orleans, visiting a former teaching colleague, and took the opportunity to go to Martin Wine Cellar, one of the great retail stores in the country. I bought bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages 1979 and Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1979, and our friend gave me a bottle of Chateau Gruaud Larose 1979. Pretty heady stuff for the neophyte! Notice the prices: “Lunch Bags” (as the witty British fondly say) was $12.63; Cos was $14.35. I didn’t inquire about Gruaud, but it must have been right in there with the others.

Back home, in Senatobia, Miss., where we taught at a junior college, we tried Lynch Bages on Feb. 14-15, Cos d’Estournal Feb. 15-17, and Gruaud Larose Feb. 24-26.
The Left Bank communes of Bordeaux are the mother lode of cabernet sauvignon wines that serve as models for the rest of the world. These are all blends; while cabernet will dominate the wine of each chateau (to greater or lesser degree, depending on the chateau style and philosophy), merlot, cabernet franc and sometimes petit verdot find their places in the mix. The most prominent communes, north of the city of Bordeaux, are Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe; down near and south of the city are Graves and Pessac-Leognan, where most estates also make white wine.

When we were at Martin Wine Cellars I deliberately chose examples from two communes, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe; that my bordeaux.jpgfriend gave us a bottle from St.-Julien was serendipitous. (The communes are indicated in red on the accompanying map). These are areas, and the chateaux I picked, that had been the reading material and the fodder of my imagination for two years. It was thrilling, then, to hold these bottles in my hand, to examine the labels familiar only in pictures, and to anticipate what the experience would be of sniffing and tasting them. This is the stuff upon which dreams of wine drinkers, collectors and writers are formed, legendary wines, three Classified Growths, promising sips not only of a vinous beverage but of the histories of people and places, of vineyards and pieces of earth.

The wines of the Left Bank were classified in 1855 in what was a frankly commercial endeavor designed to rank the chateaux for public attention, marketing and self-gratification. Sixty-one estates were selected and rated in First through Fifth Growths. When I first started reading about wine, and a guidebook would say that a chateau was a “Second Growth” or a “Fourth growth,” I had no idea what they were talking about; it was assumed that one knew. The 1855 Classification has remained in place except for one change; in 1973 (a terrible vintage) Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from Second to First Growth, where it joined its fellow Pauillac chateaux Lafite-Rothschild and Latour; Margaux from its eponymous commune; and Haut-Brion, the only estate from Graves admitted to the rankings.

The problem with the 1855 Classification is that much has changed in 150 years. Several properties have improved so drastically that they deserve elevation to the ranking above. Others have deteriorated and ought to be demoted or even eliminated. Some properties have radically altered in terms of vineyard and acreage ownership. Perhaps someday — since the estates of the other regions of Bordeaux have their own, more recent classifications — the Left Bank will re-evaluate the 1855 Classification, though one imagines that the owners of the chateaux that would be demoted are happy with things just as they are.
Of the wines I brought back from New Orleans, Gruaud Larose and Cos d’Estournel are Second Growths and Lynch-Bages is Fifth, though it has long deserved to be higher on the list.

Now 1979 was not a terrific year in Bordeaux. In The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), the English auctioneer and wine authority Michael Broadbent gives 1979 two out of five stars and comments that when the wines were released, they were “impressively deep-coloured and uncompromisingly tannic.” The majority of the wines were not keepers, though; as he says: “For many, further ageing will just leave a lean, barren, tannic shell of a wine.”

The American wine guru Robert M. Parker Jr. disagrees, somewhat. In the fourth edition of his Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines (Simon & Schuster, 2003), Parker calls 1979 “the forgotten vintage in Bordeaux” and says that “the 1979 vintage will prove superior [to the widely praised ’78] — at least in terms of aging potential.” He does go on to assert, in his trademark adjectivally-obsessed fashion, that many ’79s “remain relatively skinny, malnourished, lean, compact wines.” Well, O.K.

So here are my notes, from feb. 1984:

Lynch-Bages: “Beautiful wine, still purple with faintly lighter rim; soft tannin and fruit, exceptional balance, great elegance, a little short on the finish. Probably will not improve further.” (How the hell did I know?)

Cos d’Estournal: “Will improve for 3-5 years, still tannic with some wood, fruity, berries and black currants on the nose and in the mouth, well-balanced, medium finish. Excellent.”

Gruaud Larose: “Years to go, maybe ten. Defines the phrase ‘deep purple.’ Woody and tannic, surprising fruit; complex, deep. dry and tannic, lots of wood, many levels of fruit hiding there. One of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.”

To reveal how diverse and various our wine experiences were in those days — it wasn’t all Bordeaux classified growths, I promise — we also drank these wines in February 1984: A jug of August Sebastiani Country Chardonnay 1982 ($5.95); a jug of Almaden Zinfandel 1980 ($5.75); a Jaboulet-Vercherre Chassy Côtes-du-Rhône 1981 ($4.19); a terrific Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas Coteaux du Tricastin 1981 (100% syrah; $4.99); and an excellent Acacia Chardonnay 1982, Napa Valley ($12.99).

Remember, this chronicle of 100 wines is not about the best wines I have tasted since 1983; it’s about the wines I learned the most from, the wines that contributed to my education, knowledge and experience. Theoretically, some of them could be bad wines.

So, in terms of this chronicle, we’re at the end of 1983, the year during which my first wife and I decided that, even though we lived in a dry county in Mississippi, not far south of Memphis, we would try two different wines every week. That’s when I started keeping a wine notebook and soaking labels off bottles to keep a record.

By this time, I had filled my first, small notebook and had moved on to a larger, three-ring binder that gave me more room to write and preserve labels. It wouldn’t be long before the label-keeping became an onerous task because I was tasting too many wines to soak or steam the labels off. And a gratifying thing happened. Friends knew that I was obsessed with learning about wine, and they began giving me interesting bottles as presents for birthday and Christmas, bottles that, when possible, I shared with them.

Let’s look, then, at Christmas Dinner 1983.

With the appetizer — sauteed mushrooms stuffed with chutney and pistachios — we drank the Freixenet Brut Nature 1975, an mtveeder.jpg attractive, crisp, dry fruity CAVA that cost all of $8.99. With the sherried pea soup, naturally we drank glasses of sherry, in this case the Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe, $8.29. With the roast goose, we had the first Bordeaux Classified Growth I had ever purchased, the Chateau Pichon-Longueville 1980, from Pauillac, a wine we enjoyed but didn’t love. Price? Get this. $12.95.

The wine that knocked me out on Christmas Day 1983, however, and the subject of this post, was the Mount Veeder Winery Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980, Mount Veeder-Napa County. Whoa, at 15.6 percent alcohol, this was “heady and powerful stuff,” as my notes say. We probably drank this with a chocolate dessert, but I neglected to write down what the dessert was. My notes continue: “Beautiful deep purple; tannic, fruity, slightly sweet nose; same taste but deep and complex, sweetness more like very ripe fruitiness, hints of chocolate and vegetal undertones. Should last years.” This was the first late-harvest zinfandel I had tasted, and it made a forceful impression. Twenty-five years later, I remember its assertive, dark flavors, its velvety, viscous texture and port-like character. The price was $9.99 for a half-bottle.

I think one change that occurred over this first year of devotion to wine is that our tastes were getting more sophisticated. On December 22, we went with friends to a restaurant in Memphis called the Bradford House, a sadly short-lived French restaurant that was one of of favorite places in the early 1980s. I took three wines: the Antinori Galestro 1981, imported by Julius Wile (pleasant but not distinctive, $7.99); the superb Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982 ($8.99); and the hearty and robust Saint Joseph 1975 from Alexandre Rochette, imported by Kobrand (an amazing $4.95).

This wine, consumed the night of Nov. 19, 1983, will be the last that I mention from my first wine notebook. You’ll notice that the Sebastiani “Tailfeathers” “Très Rouge” Pinot Noir 1976, Northern California — how many nicknames does a wine pinotnoir.jpg need? — is number 89 from my initial year of keeping notes and labels; the wines in the (conveniently enumerated) notebook go to 100.

At seven years of age, this was an astonishingly youthful and vigorous pinot noir and certainly the best pinot noir I had tasted until then. I bought it for $7.99 and took it to dinner with my first wife and another couple at a splendid (but alas short-lived) French restaurant in Memphis called Bradford House. The wine was terrific with duck a l’orange, a dish seldom seen today. My notes say that the wine was “dark,” “fragrant and fruity,” “tannic,” “rich and complex.” The terms aren’t exactly rich and complex, but they do conjure for me the occasion and a sense of what the wine was like.

The wines we tried between #8 in the chronicle of 100 wines — Chateau d’Agassac 1975, from Sept. 17 and 18 — and the Sebastiani Pinot Noir 1976 were these:

*De Luze Classique Red Bordeaux 1979. $4.99.
*August Sebastiani Country Pinot Noir. A non-vintage jug wine, $5.85.
*De Luze Classique White Bordeaux 1981. $4.99.
*Charlemagne La Crevette 1981, Entre-Deux-Mers. $2.98 and pretty damned good, in fact much better than the generic De Luze “Classique.”
*Domaines F. Ravel Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Vin de Pays des Maures. $2.99.
*Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Maipo, Chile. $3.99.
*Domaines F. Ravel Semillon “Blanc de Blancs” 1981, Vin de Pays des Maures. $2.99. This wine and its cabernet sauvignon stablemate were wonderful values back in the early to mid 1980s. We drank gallons.
*Iron Horse Zinfandel 1981, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. $8.79.
*Parducci Chenin Blanc 1982, Mendocino County. $5.69.
*Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, North Coast. $6.49.
*Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Gamay Beaujolais 1981, Napa Valley. $6.99. When was the last time Warren Winiarski made wine from gamay grapes?
*Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, California. $4.99.
*Lous Latour Mâcon-Lugny Les Genièvres 1981. $6.96. (“Definitely worth the price.”)
*La Cour Pavillon Bordeaux Blanc 1981. $9.90 at a restaurant.
*Dourthe Vineaux Rouge Red French Wine. A non-vintage “zip code” wine. $4.79 for a 1.5 liter jug. (“Weak body, muddy flavor.”)
*Tokay d’Alsace 1981. $NA. The couple we had dinner with at Bradford House had been in Alsace and brought back this pleasant, light, delicate wine.

Well, I haven’t written a Chronicle entry since August 23, and the reason is that I lost the notebook! But I finally found it, and guess where? In the last place that I looked, and of course had no real intention of looking there! agassac.jpg

So, on September 17 and 18, 1983, we drank a bottle of Chateau d’Agassac 1975, a red wine from the Haut-Medoc, a region on the Left Bank of Bordeaux that is considered higher than the plain Medoc classification but lower than the individually named communes, such as St.-Estephe and Pauillac. I love this old-fashioned, picturesque label; the castle is genuine, dating from the 13th century and one of the oldest buildings in Medoc. The designation “Grand Bourgeois Exceptionnel” no longer exists, and, in fact, the entire Cru Bourgeois classification has recently been legally called into question, leaving many small chateaux in limbo.

In 1983, though, we enjoyed the hell out of this wine. It took a few minutes to open but then displayed lovely generosity and expansive merlot and cabernet sauvignon flavors, but with plenty of tannin (that distinctive walnut shell element) for support and structure. Notice, if you can read these notes, that I thought the price — $12.69 — high for a Cru Bourgeois wine. Boy, have things changed in 25 years!

Other wines we tried between the last entry in this notebook and the present wine:

*Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Lake County 70%, Napa County 30%. $7.45.
*Friexenet Cordon Negro. $4.99.
*Parducci Petite Sirah 1979, Mendocino County. $5.89.
*Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay 1982, Mendocino. $6.85.
*Ridge Zinfandel 1978, Paso Robles. (with 5 percent petite sirah) This had, remarkably for the era, 14.6 percent alcohol. It was a fascinating wine but marred, to my fledgling palate, by “harshness in the finish.” $10.69
*The Monterey Vineyard Classic California Red, Central Coast Counties. $5.99.
*Chateau Coufran 1979, Haut-Medoc. $8.49.
*Paul Masson French Colombard 1982, California. $4.99. Hey, we drank everything, given the chance. And, you know, we drank gallons of this wine; it was pretty good, or at least usually fresh, clean and crisp.

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