The Chronicle

Lord have mercy, I haven’t done one of The Chronicle wines since May 10. I’m sorry, and I assure you that it hasn’t been for not wanting to, it’s just that MY CAMERA SUCKS AT CLOSE-UP SHOTS, and I’m embarrassed to display the results of my efforts. It does fine (sort of) with food images, but trying to capture a wine label with sharp, crisp detail seems to be beyond its (and my) capabilities. The instrument in question is a Canon PowerShot S410; I think that most people nowadays have better cameras on their cell phones.

Anyway, photographically-challenged or not, here goes the seventh in this series on posts devoted to the wines from which I learned the most, going back to when I was a neophyte trying to learn about wine and how to make notes. We’re still in my first notebook, which encompassed the wines of 1983.

The date is August 8. The wine is the Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese Riesling 1981, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. We — my first wife and I –had prum.jpg driven to New Orleans to visit our friend Bill Gebauer, with whom I taught English at Memphis State University from 1969 to 1974, and he gave me this wine, which he bought at Martin’s Wine Cellars. We brought the wine back to Senatobia, Miss., south of Memphis, where we were teaching, and drank it with chicken curry. Of course such a wine, with its German locutions, required a flurry of reference book checking: “Wehlener” the village; “Sonnenuhr” the vineyard; riesling the grape, naturally; “Spatlese” the second degree of ripeness of grapes in German high quality wines.

At the time, my vocabulary felt rather inadequate to describe the wine. It was certainly sweet, but very well-balanced, very lively, “with a full, round taste,” “the sweetness disguised as a kind of exceptional suave smoothness,” says my notes, “not cloying or heavy in the least.”

The price was about $12.50.

Other wines we drank from the middle of July to the first week of August that year, in our quest for the most varied wine experiences:

*Heitz Cellars Gewurztraminer 1979, California. $5.58.
*Clos du Bois Merlot 1979, Napa Valley. $9.99. (I thought the price was too high.)
*Bolla Bardolino 1980. $4.85. (“Chilled a little, it improved immensely.”)
*Weingut E. Schmitz Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett 1978, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. $6.85.
*Louis Jadot Cote de Nuits-Villages 1974. $11.65. (A disappointment.)
*Leonard Kreusch Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay Riesling (Vintage Unknown). Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. (This thoroughly undistinguished wine was from the list of Masson’s Restaurant in New Orleans. The price there was $9.50)
*Bandiera Chardonnay 1982, Mendocino. $6.49.
*Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, North Coast. $5.99. (A really good cabernet. We drank it with boiled brisket, carrots and onions.)
*Henri de Villamont Pouilly-Fuisse 1982. Price unknown. (“Didn’t deliver much.”)
*Derwaltung der Staatweinguter Steinberger Kabinett Riesling 1979, Rheingau. $9.49.
*Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 1979. $2.99!!!!!
*Bandiera Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Sonoma County. $5.59.

Now we’re talking! Our first great red wine from Bordeaux!

Don’t laugh. The year — 1974 — vies with ’72 and ’77 as being the worst of the decade. Robert M. Parker Jr., never one to mince words, writes, in the last edition (the fourth) of his book about the wines of Bordeaux: “Should readers still have stocks of the 1974s, my sincere condolences. He goes on, in his triadic manner: ” … most 1974s remain hard, tannic, hollow wines lacking legay2_01.jpg ripeness, flesh and character.”

Well, what did we know? My note, from July 17, 1983, says that Chateau Le Gay 1974, Pomerol — the blend is typically half cabernet franc-half merlot — was “big, round, tannic and mouth-filling, and yet soft and supple. Absolutely wonderful wine.” We drank the bottle with Sunday dinner, but, uncharacteristically, I didn’t record what the meal was.

Old School wine writers and critics delight, somewhat ruefully, in tales of the dour Robin sisters, who owned the small property for decades and didn’t make much distinction between farm fowl, livestock and aging barrels, as the chai shared room with ducks, chickens and the stray goat. Very rustic and homespun. The wine was always described with such adjectives as “massive,” “unyielding” and “truculent” and the occasional concession of “classically proportioned for longevity.” As Michael Broadbent says of the 1970 version of Le Gay in The Great Vintage Wine Book, the first edition of 1982, “Not so much attractive as impressive: very deep, tough.” The estate was sold in 2003 to Catherine Péré-Vergé, who hired — who else? — Michel Rolland as consultant. Soon Le Gay will smell and taste like all the other “modern” Pomerols.

Were we wrong to be so impressed with this wine? I don’t think so. Looking at the page that holds my notes and this label, I clearly remember Le Gay 1974, against all probability, as being the best red wine I had tasted up until July 17, 1983. What struck me so notably was the combination of the brute power of dusty tannins and minerals with the irresistible suppleness and mellowness of the texture and flavors. The wine has probably been dead in the water for years, and, yes, it was assuredly a minor wine to begin with, but it certainly taught me something about the character of merlot and cabernet franc grapes and a valuable lesson about not judging a wine by the label and the year.

And I love the price: $10.99!

Here are the other wines we tried between the last entry of This Chronicle and the present post:

Chateau Larose-Tritaudon 1978, Haut-Medoc. $9.98.
Zaca Mesa Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Santa Ynez Valley. $7.15.
Teruzzi & Puthod Vernaccia de San Gimignano 1979. $3.99.
Folonari Bardolino non-vintage? $2.99.
Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Mendocino. $8.99.
Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages Jadot 1982. $5.99.
Mirassou Petite Sirah 1978, Monterey. $5.55.
Concannon Chenin Blanc “Noble Vinyeards-Kerman” 1981, California. $5.49.
Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Napa Valley. $8.29.
Quady Vintage Port 1977, Amador County. $10.53.
Santa Sofia Soave Classico Superiore 1979. $5.99.
Maitre d’Estournal 1978, Bordeaux. $6.99.

Reading about gewurztraminer wines doesn’t prepare you for their utter freshness and exuberance, their titillating rose petal-lychee-lime-grapefruit character, the scintillating, crystalline acid, the startling bitterness of the finish. At least I wasn’t really prepared for those qualities, all of which I had dutifully read about, when I tried my first example, this Clos du Bois Early labels_011.jpg Harvest Gewurztraminer 1979, from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. Of course what I had mainly been reading about were the classic models from Alsace, but I couldn’t find any of those.

We drank this on May 24 and 25, 1983, so the wine was already three-and-a-half years old, but it was completely fresh and vigorous, “fragrant, flowery, a little spicy, refreshing” (quoting from these 25-year-old notes). It went down easily with lunch: grilled sausages, tomato aspic, deviled eggs and cold broccoli with homemade mayonnaise. Notice the price: $7.84.

A few weeks later, around June 17-19, we tried another gewurztraminer with the first part of Father’s Day dinner, the Mirassou Harvest Reserve Gewurztraminer 1981, Monterey County. “Selected for a Limited Bottling” runs the legend on the white banner at the top of the label. This was ripe and robust, full-bodied and full-flavored, “well-balanced with a good finish … but not as spicy as the Clos du Bois,” which seemed, on the other hand, more delicate and fine-boned. Some of this wine accompanied a labels_02.jpg sherry-pea soup followed by filet of flounder with hollandaise sauce. Note the price: $6.89.

Other wines we tried between the last entry in this chronicle (the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979, Napa Valley) and the Mirassou Harvest Reserve Gewurztraminer 1981:

Cuvee Saint Andre Coteaux du Tricastin 1979 ($4.59)
Folonari Valpolicella NV(?) ($3.50)
Chateau La Cardonne 1978, Medoc (7.95)
Chateau Guiraud-Cheval Blanc 1978, Cotes de Bourg ($5.37)
J. Pedroncelli Chenin Blanc 1981, Sonoma County ($5.49)
Nicolas Croze-Hermitage 1977 ($4.58)
Domaine des Sauvignons 1981, Cotes de Blaye ($4.49)
Chateau Malijay Cotes du Rhones 1979 ($4.14)
J. Pedroncelli Gewurztraminer 1981, Sonoma County ($5.99)

We continue the chronicle of 100 wines that I learned the most from with an entry in my first wine notebook from May 16 & 17, 1983. The wine was the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979, Napa Valley.

Born in Croatia, Mike Grgich immigrated to the United States in 1958. He worked at the old Souverain winery, at Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyard and Robert Mondavi. At Chateau Montelena, he was the maker of the Chardonnay 1973 that beat the French in the well-known and replicated Paris Tasting of 1976. Grgich Hills was founded in 1977 as a goodgrgich_01.jpg partnership between Grgich and Austin Hills, whose family sold the San Francisco-based Hills Bros. Coffee company in 1976.

Until this moment in May 1983, the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979 was “the best white I’ve ever drunk.” As far as I can recall, it was also my first riesling. “Excellent,” say my notes. “Beautiful golden color, full bodied. Well-balanced between the just off-dryness & the acidity.” “Balance” was a word that showed up with increasing regularity in my fledgling notes on the wines we tried in 1983. I don’t know if this occurrence was a reflection of my reading or an indication of the quality in wine that would become most important to me as the years went by, but the concept was certainly there in the beginning.

Note the price: $9.69.

If you look back at the “100 Wines: A Chronicle (2)” post from two weeks ago, you’ll notice that the wine was the Parducci Petite Sirah 1977, Mendocino County, and that the dates of its consumption were Feb. 12-14, 1983. Here’s a roster of the wines we tried between that date and May 16, with the price if recorded:

Clos du Bois “Cornell Release” Pinot Noir 1978, Alexander Valley.
Beaulieu Vineyard Beau Tour Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Napa Valley.
Mirassou Zinfandel 1978, Monterey County.
Robert Mondavi Red 1980, California. ($4.99 for a 1.5-liter jug.)
Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 1981. ($6.19)
Sterling Vineyards Zinfandel 1977, Napa Valley. ($7.99. This was really good; the last zinfandel that Sterling produced.)
Robert Mondavi Zinfandel 1979, Napa Valley. ($7.50)
Sandeman Late Bottled Vintage Port 1974. ($8.99)
Freixenet Cordon Negro CAVA.
Concannon Petite Sirah 1978, California. ($6.59)
August Sebastiani Country Zinfandel (non-vintage), “A Dry California Table Wine.” ($5.83 for a 1.5-liter jug.)
Croft “Distinction” Finest Tawny Porto. ($8.86)
Chanson “St. Vincent” Macon-Villages 1976. ($8.99, past its best)
Chateau Garriga Entre-Deux-Mer 1978. ($5.08, past its freshness)

See, we were trying to learn, though sometimes we just wanted a wine that went down easily.

We skip more than a year now, to Feb. 12-14, 1983. I had been parsing the pages of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine, the revised and expanded edition of 1981 and Barbara Ensrud’s The Pocket Guide to Wine, which my realparducci_01.jpg son had given to me for Father’s Day in 1982. I still have those books, among my treasures of my wine bookshelf, and looking at Barbara’s book at this moment — she won’t mind if I call her Barbara; she used to live in Oxford, Miss., and we’ve known each other for years — I see that at some time in its history, my daughter wrote the words “Louisa Wuz Here,” inside the back cover. (Louisa is now 35.) I was trying to figure things out, to understand the terms, the places, the techniques, and to further that process, I was buying two wines a week, mainly in stores in Memphis, that we would try with lunches and dinners, with the family and with friends. My son, 15 then, was allowed a half-glass of wine with dinner, so he too was participating in the learning experience.

The Parducci Petite Sirah 1977, Mendocino County, was “possibly the best wine I’ve ever drunk” and was “absolutely wonderful” according to the notes on the page partially reproduced here. “Tough, tannic, chewy, with a long finish” and “will probably be better in 3-4 years.” Notice the alcohol content: 12 percent! The wine cost $5.89.

O.K., so the notes are pretty rudimentary. I promise that they’ll get better as we progress through the months and years.

By the way, apropos of nothing except that I’ve been busy this weekend, and, I guess, that I’ve come a long way in 25 years, I posted yesterday on my website a “Featured Article” about 14 white wines from Burgundy, all from the splendid vintage of 2005. Take a look, please.

It has been in my head for years to write a book called “100 Wines: A Chronicle,” in which I would describe, not the best or greatest wines I have tasted — ha-ha, I tasted these wines and you didn’t! — but the wines I learned the most from. Obviously some of these wines could be simple and direct examples of their grapes or regions, they could be wonderful wines, they could even be bad wines, the point being that I gained knowledge and insight that I didn’t have before.

And then, a few days ago, I thought, sacre bleu, F.K., you have the means to accomplish this feat at your finger-tips, meaning this very blog. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m poring over the notebooks I kept when I was first learning about and then writing about wine — my first wine column appeared in July 1984 — and I’m finding not just a great deal of charming naivete but genuine efforts to learn and understand.

So we’ll begin this chronicle, which I will attempt to contribute to once a week, with the first wine on the first page of my first wine notebook, the Sutter Home Zinfandel 1977 from Amador County. That’s it, huh? you thinking. Remember, up to this point my sutter3_011.jpg principle wine-drinking rituals included Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rossi Paisano, various cheap Beaujolais and Chianti wines (the latter in straw wrappers), Gallo Chablis Blanc and Paul Masson Green Hungarian. Such wines weren’t (too) bad, and they certainly got the job done, but I hungered for more. A friend brought this bottle to our house on Nov. 29, 1981 — this is when my first wife and I were teaching at a junior college in Senatobia, Miss., about 40 miles south of Memphis — thinking that it might elevate the tone of our typical quaff. And it did.

The Sutter Home Zinfandel 1977, Amador County, was the first wine I tried that offered the bite and grip of tannin, the complexity of spicy berry flavors, the feeling of weight and body, the sense of lively robustness and fullness. Vintage 1977 was a drought year in California, producing grapes with intensity and concentration, a quality surely reflected in this rich, dark wine. Not a bad place to start in gaining experience in wine’s diversity and possibility. This was the first wine that I made notes on, the first whose label I saved, though that process of saving labels eventually became tedious. I don’t know how much it cost — it was a gift — but I’ll try to include prices with as many of these wines as I can.

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