Tasting with Richard Parsons at Porter House

Dining with the rich and powerful in NYC.

Last night I attended a dinner for roughly 40 persons in a private room at Porter House in the Time Warner Center at Columbus circle. Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons sat at the head table and guests tasted 9 bottlings of his Brunello di Montalcino Il Palazzone. Richard’s wife Laura Parsons and Washington insider Vernon Jordan also attended, not to mention the sommeliers, wine directors, and general managers of a number of top NYC restaurants (Babbo, Esca, Felidia, San Domenico, Four Seasons among others). I had been invited by my friend Amanda de Leon, who is president of Il Palazzone. Richard Parsons and his wife dine regularly at I Trulli and he and Ron Lauder often lunch at Centovini (two of the businesses for which I do marketing).

One of the most fascinating elements — to my mind at least — about working in the New York City restaurant scene is how the allure of fine dining and the aphrodiasic of money and power bring together some of the most unlikely bedfellows. On the one hand, between Vernon Jordan and Richard Parsons, I broke bread with two of the country’s most powerful dealmakers and Washington insiders. I exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Jordan who sat with Amanda and chatted briefly with Mr. Parsons about I Trulli. I can’t imagine any other context where I would come into contact with such luminary figures. On the other hand, after working as a writer/copywriter in New York for the last ten years, I have seen some of the more unsavory sides of the city’s restaurateurs and wine merchants. Working in the wine and restaurant business in NYC is kind of like being in the mafia: the overblown egos and the intense competition create a sort of kill-or-be-killed working environment. Politicians and powerbrokers like to eat well and perhaps more than anything else, like to feel like they are restaurant insiders. Restaurateurs like to feel like they have access to power. Having seen some of those restaurateurs and wine merchants up close, I find them strange bedfellows.

But what really blew my mind about the dinner was how Il Palazzone’s enolgoist, Paolo Vagaggini, stood up and told the party — first in broken English and then in Italian — that the Palazzone winery “respects and reflects the tradition of Brunello and makes a very traditional wine.” In fact, the wines are very modern in style: very fruit driven and concentrated, oaky and high in alcohol. What tradition is he talking about? The one launched by Wine Spectator’s James Suckling and the inimitable Robert Parker in the early 1990s? Forget Mondovino, we need Michael Moore!

Although they’re not wines I would drink at home, they are very well made modern-style wines. The 2001 Riserva will drink well in a few years and both the 1998 Brunello and 1998 Brunello Riserva showed well.

The food at Porter House was mediocre and the 1995 Brunello Riserva, which I had tasted a number of times over the last few years, seemed shot (at least the bottle poured at my table). But the evening’s glamour — borne out of the odd marriage of monied power and restaurant power brokers — made for a memorable evening nonetheless.

Stepping out into the street after the dinner, I was happy to return to the warm June night air and the smells and sounds of the Upper West Side. Those dinners remind me of Fellini’s 1950s movies where the characters fill the emptiness of their lives with meaningless conversation. Last night the welcomed Broadway street scene was the little girl who Marcello meets at the end of La dolce vita. It reminded me that there is a “sweetness” to life in NYC… where dinners like that happen every night and no one even notices. Broadway and the Upper West Side just keep doing their thing — they don’t care about overly oaked Brunello, badly cooked steak, and unsavory restaurateurs who cuddle up to the rich and powerful.

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