My first (and last?) taste of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

Of all of the events at the Boulder Burgundy Festival (now in its eighth year, my fifth as official blogger), there is no more spirited gathering than the “Paulée-Inspired Lunch.”

For those not familiar with the term paulée, it’s an annual party thrown in Burgundy to celebrate the end of harvest (paulée means literally a panful or the amount a pan holds, a reference to the early years of the outdoor celebration when attendees made single-pan meals). The Burgundian paulée was also inspiration for the New York and San Francisco wine festivals known as La Paulée.

Every year, on the Saturday of the Boulder festival, top Burgundy collectors bring prized bottles from their cellars to share liberally with other guests. It always makes for an extraordinary luncheon, this year hosted at Boulder’s excellent francophile Mateo where the kitchen turned out classic French country dishes including escargots, coq au vin, and the boeuf bourguignon in the photo above (the food was fantastic).

Yesterday’s meal happened to find me seated with a high-profile distributor who sells, among other fine wines, the highly coveted Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. And as it so happened, one of the guests (a very generous collector) sent over a glass of 2001 Échezeaux Grand Cru by the storied estate.

As we shared the wine (a small taste for each of us at the table), the conversation turned to the exorbitant cost of these wines and how they are allocated throughout the world.

According to WineSearcher.com, the current release price for this wine is around $1,650 per bottle (yes, per bottle). And the market price for the 2001 is around $2,300 per bottle.

But even these sums pale when compared with the current release price for the domaine’s top wine, the Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, which retails today in the U.S. for roughly $17,000 per bottle. (To wrap your mind around these astronomical prices for 750ml of wine, see this Barron’s article.)

One of the neatest things about my career arc is that so many Italian collectors enjoy sharing their wines with me. And over the last five years, my work with the Boulder Wine Merchant and the Boulder Burgundy Festival has given me the opportunity to taste some extraordinary French wines otherwise above my pay grade and beyond my reach.

But I had never touched my lips to the holy grail of fine wine, D-R-C as it is known in the trade by its initials.

It was an emotionally charged moment, I have to admit. And the wine, however youthful 17 years since it was harvested, was utterly and thoroughly delicious. With rich fruit, elegantly balanced acidity, and fine texture and weight, it really delivered greatness and wholly lived up to its name.

Will I taste it — let alone drink it — ever again? Probably not. And that’s okay by me. It’s kinda like the old bit about the rabbi who enjoys a bite of a ham sandwich but then notes that he can live without it (that’s not really how the joke goes but you get the drift).

I would have been happy with the fat glass of 1997 Latour Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru (one of my favorite appellations of all time), poured for me by a friend at yesterday’s event. It came from her father’s cellar and still had the price tag affixed: $125 per bottle, presumably purchased in the early 2000s before Burgundy’s prices began to skyrocket.

All in all, it’s been one of the best festivals of my run and I feel truly blessed to be a part of it.

Heartfelt thanks goes out to festival founder and organizer Brett Zimmmerman, who invited me up here for the first time five years ago, and to all the amazing sommeliers who have poured me truly unforgettable wines.

It’s always a wonderful gathering, attended by some of the best and brightest in our community, and I can’t recommend it enough to you.

Now I’m off to the last three events: Chablis brunch, Gevrey-Chambertin seminar with Pierre Rovani and Kelli White (both super cool wine writers), and grand tasting. Nice work if you can get it (as the song goes).

The oldest wine I ever drank was delicious last night: 1934 Henri de Villamont Chambolle-Musigny Charmes

Thanks to everyone who contributed to our Go Fund Me campaign, part of our protest of the newly erected Confederate Memorial in Orange, Texas. It only took us two days to meet our goal of $1,000. Thank you! It means the world to us to know that you support us in our efforts!

It was just the week before last that someone shared three “older than me” wines in New York. The oldest was from 1957.

Last night found me in Boulder, Colorado where wines going back to the 1930s were poured at the opening event at the Boulder Burgundy Festival, now in its eighth year.

The top wine of the night was the 1934 Henri de Villamont Cambolle-Musigny Charmes from Henri de Villamont. No one, including the three Master Sommeliers who were among those pouring, expected this wine to be so fresh and vibrant, with acidity and popping fruit flavor (black cherry and wild berry). Usually when you open wines like this, you expect to find at least some oxidation, muted or fading fruit, and hopefully a trace of the acidity of its youth.

This wine really surprised and wowed everyone last night.

It was the oldest wine I’ve ever tasted (nearly as old as my parents) and it was utterly delicious.

Note the importer’s imprint on the label: this wine came through the port of Houston, probably in the late 1930s. Just think how the world was different then!

Note also how the wine is annotated as “Red Bordeaux Wine” (thanks to Stephen S., who lives in Bordeaux, for pointing that out).

There was also a remarkable flight of Camille Giroud stretching back to the 1950s, 40s, and 30s, including a 1947 Richebourg (another stand out for me).

Here’s my write-up Today for the festival’s blog (where I’ve been posting for the last five years).

Between two kids to clothe and feed, two music programs to support, and two ballet classes to pay for (not to mention a rescue dog with heart worms and a fondness for scrambled eggs), Tracie and I have had a really tight year moneywise. But we are sure blessed to drink so well! It was an incredible night.

I’ll be posting about the festival here as well. Please tag along. Thanks for being here and sharing these experiences with me.

Help us protest the new Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas: GoFundMe goal of $1,000 to purchase billboard ad

Update, Friday, November 2: Thanks to everyone who contributed to our Go Fund Me campaign, part of our protest of the newly erected Confederate Memorial in Orange, Texas. It only took us two days to meet our goal of $1,000. Thank you! It means the world to us to know that you support us in our efforts!

Please donate to our campaign here.

The next protest is scheduled for Saturday, November 10, 2-4 p.m. Click here for details. Please join us.

Tracie and I are raising money to buy one (1) month of advertising on a billboard that stands across the road from the newly erected Confederate Memorial of the Wind, a monument built by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. in Orange, Texas along Interstate 10.
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After Pittsburgh…

My parents were both born in 1933 in South Bend, Indiana. They were the children of Jewish refugees who had fled Eastern Europe in the first decade of the last century, before the Russian Revolution. Both were raised as conservative Jews. After they finished college in their home state, they moved to Chicago, Illinois where they reared their four sons as conservative, progressive Jews. Although not observant at home, they regularly attended a typical midwest conservative synagogue, not unlike the typical midwest shul in Pittsburgh where a mass shooting occurred on Saturday.

A work trip took me to Pittsburgh a month ago. On a beautiful Saturday morning, the city’s “strip” — its main drag just off of downtown — was bustling with Steelers fans and food lovers. People were friendly there, the nightlife was welcoming and fun, and the city’s now abandoned factories were oddly and boldly beautiful set against the natural majesty of its rivers and hills. Folks were lined up around the block at the Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian outpost, for a new space exploration exhibit. Time didn’t permit a visit to the Anyd Warhol museum.

It’s hard to believe that the City of Bridges, as it’s known, would also be home to such virulent racism. But it is. And sadly, it’s no different than anywhere else in America.

When I see the photos of those who died in Saturday’s attack, I see faces that I recognize from my own upbringing. I see faces that I recognize from our neighborhood bagel shop and the Jewish Community Center a few blocks from our house (where our daughters often attend birthday parties). I see the congregants of the orthodox shul next to my gym. I see my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my grandparents… I see myself and I see our children.

Even in my wildest imagination, I never thought that a day like this would arrive in America. But it has.

Today I weep for my fallen sisters and brothers, their families, their community. Today I weep for my country.

Slow Wine guide 2019 to include more than 130 California winemakers, 50 from Oregon

Above: Massican’s Annia, a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano and Chardonnay from Napa. Los Angeles-based sommelier and consultant Taylor Parsons poured me the wine back in 2014 when he was running one of California’s hippest wine programs at the time.

Overheard last night at a progressive wine bar in Houston…

Wine professional 1: “I’m really a francophile at heart but I also love Italy. I don’t drink any Californian wine at all.”

Wine professional 2: “Well, you should try this Sauvignon Blanc from Massican. It’s a real ‘f— you’ to the California wine industry.”

Massican winemaker and owner Dan Petrosky is widely known in the industry as a maverick (to put it mildly). For the last 10 years or so, his elegant, lean, “moody, textural” white wines (as one wine writer put it) have wowed “young, t-shirt clad sommeliers across the U.S.” (see this excellent profile and interview by one of my favorite American wine writers Lauren Mowery).

But more than a decade after he set out to show the world that Napa Valley could produce acidity-driven, fresh, food-friendly, and nuanced Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (not to mention a smattering of his favorite Italian white varieties), Petrosky seems no longer to be part of the California wine counterculture. Today, in fact, he’s part of an expanding movement of California growers and winemakers who have embraced old world styles and sensibilities. Like many of his peers, he learned winemaking in Europe and brought his experience and newfound tastes back to the states with him.

And he’s one of the winemakers who will be profiled in the 2019 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of Italy, Slovenia, California, and Oregon.

With all of their field work completed over the summer, the editors (me among them) are in the midst of putting the book together.

The 2019 edition, the second to include American wines, will include more than 130 California winemakers (last year’s featured 70) and 50 Oregon producers (this is the first year the guide covers Oregon).

Like last year’s book, the 2019 guide isn’t intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive: it’s a growing, living, and breathing almanac that’s meant to give voice to the new wave of America’s viticultural renaissance.

I couldn’t be more proud to be one of the guide’s senior editors for California and the coordinating editor for the U.S.

About the Slow Wine Guide:

The Slow Wine Guide is part of the international Slow Food movement, which was founded in Italy by foodways activist Carlo Petrini in the late 1980s to counter “fastfoodization” and to safeguard the world’s gastronomic traditions. The first Italian edition of the wine guide was published in 2010 and in 2011 Slow Food began translating it into English. In 2018, the editors released the first edition to include California wines. And the current edition of the guide (2019) will include not only California but Oregon wines as well.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of wine reviews and guides, the Slow Wine guide doesn’t “score” its wines. Instead, its mission is to “tell the stories” of the wineries through their people, vineyards, and wines. The overarching criterion for inclusion is the winemakers’ “connection to the land” where they grow their wines. With this guide, the editors hope to share with their readers wines that reflect the place where they are grown and the people who make them.

More than 40,000 copies of the guide are sold in Europe each year and the entire guide is available online for free. Copies of the guide are also sold in the U.S. at each of tastings organized by the Slow Wine tour.

The powerful allure of drinking wine that’s older than you: why is it so appealing?

“Everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to the inorganic [and thus] we can only say ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate.’

Sigmund Freud
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922)
[italics his]

Wine is the one agricultural product that can outlive us. It’s also the one form of nourishment that can live before us.

It’s true, as Eric Asimov wrote recently for the Times, that “no wine is meant to last for a century. If it does, it’s by accident.”

But many wines are conceived to have lifespans longer than those of their producers. And the longevity of those wines often ensures that the winemaker won’t live long enough to experience the wines when they “peak,” in other words, when they achieve their true greatness in complexity and nuance.

There is no other agricultural product that we allow to age so long. Can you imagine slathering your sandwich with 30-year-old mayonnaise? Would you stuff your warm tortillas with huitlacoche harvested years earlier?

Cheese can rival wine in terms of its ageworthiness. But it still comes in at a distant second when it comes to wine’s ability to age with spectacular results.

For many wine lovers and professionals, one of the most memorable experiences is drinking wine that is older than the persons consuming it (as Eric did when he attended a dinner at the storied Bordeaux estate Lafite and drank a wine that was harvest in 1868).

Last week I had the immense fortune to attend a dinner where three of the wines in the flight were older than me (I was born in 1967). A fourth wine was harvested the year my wife Tracie was born (she’s younger than me). The wines were all very fresh on the nose and very vibrant in the mouth. They were very much “alive”: the color was rich, the acidity was bright, and the flavors nuanced. We drank them with our meal, not as a curiosity or a lab experiment. It was an unforgettable and thoroughly enjoyable experience, as you can imagine.

Wine is the grape’s last dying gasp. Once picked, the fruit begins to decompose. Oxygen and yeast team up to transform its sugar (its life blood) into alcohol. And as the process unfolds, the winemaker (through a rational distortion of nature, as Lévi-Strauss might have said) captures the essence of the fruit and its flavors.

The winemaker then protects the wine from oxygen by sealing it up in a tank or cask and then in a glass bottle. Later she or he lets a tiny bit of oxygen come into contact with the wine (through the pores of the wood staves in the cask or the pores of the cork in the bottle) over a long period, so that the “dying” process continues very slowly.

Some people cite a romantic notion of history or narrative through wine when they taste wines older than they are (or the same age). It’s always an emotional experience to taste a “birth year wine” or a wine that was grown in a historically significant year (the 1945 vintage is among the most coveted among wine collectors, for example).

But I believe that the powerful allure of drinking wines older than you goes much deeper than that.

When you taste a wine that was grown before you were born, you experience its “death”: its ultimate degradation as the fruit decomposes into an inorganic state. True, you experience that with all wine, even young wine. But when the wine is older than you, it represents a life longer than yours and as such, its decomposition is — I believe — more profound and compelling on the palate of the drinker.

Freud held that there is “a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In other words, we have an intrinsic drive to return to an inorganic state as Freudian scholars put it.

Since he first published his ideas on the “death drive,” scholars and clinicians have argued heatedly about the validity of his theory.

But there’s no doubt that the idea has a deep resonance within the human experience.

As G-d says to Adam in Genesis,

By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.

Ashes to ashes, as they say, dust to dust. We all know that we will all return one day to the ground. We will all return to an inorganic state.

As I sipped the 1957, 1961, and 1964 the other night, I thought of those lines from Moses’ books. I was consuming grapes that were grown before I was born and I was tasting them as they finally began the last leg of their trip back to the ground. They weren’t allowed to drop to the ground naturally. No, they were picked and then vinified, their essence captured in a bottle for someone to experience many years later. The person who made those wines is no longer alive today, I thought.

I also thought about my oldest brother who died in a car accident when he was 15 and I was five. He was born in 1957, too.

Thanks to its unique nature and unrivaled longevity among foods, wine has a remarkable ability to evoke intense feelings and thoughts in the drinker.

It can taste pretty good, too.

Everything dies baby that’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

Bruce Springsteen
“Atlantic City” (1982)

Thank you Grandi Marchi for coming to Houston…

It was a true honor and pleasure for me to lead a tasting of wines from 19 members of the Grandi Marchi (Top Estates) Institute winemakers yesterday in Houston. And it was amazing to see how many of the “principals” made the trip.

From Piero Mastroberardino (the institute’s president) to Federica Rosy (Pio Boffa’s daughter, the new generation of the Pio Cesare winery, and the youngest person to present), it felt like Italy’s wine aristocracy had bivouacked along the Gulf Coast.

Today, the group is on its way to Boston to present their wines and then it heads to New York where it’s going to host a luncheon at the New York Wine Experience.

Before the event, Piero showed me a letter his grandfather had received in 1932 from a Texas-based importer. Prohibition would soon be repealed, it declared, and said importer wanted to order wines from the family’s estate. Galveston and New Orleans would be their ports of entry.

Piero’s 2011 Taurasi showed gorgeously as he shared notes on his favorite vintages of the wine stretching back to the 1930s.

Another highlight yesterday was the 2014 Barolo Conteisa by Gaja, the second release of this cru from the winery since it reclassified it as Barolo in 2013. It was my first taste of the new designation.

And I was really impressed by Giovanni Gaja, who has stepped up recently to join his sister Gaia in traveling for the family’s properties. In his presentation, he offered some interesting insights into how their vineyard management team has been responding to the challenges of climate change.

Another highlight was the Umani Ronchi 2011 Conero Riserva (above).

I remember tasting these wines back in New York in the late 1990s. Their Verdicchio and white blend also really blew me away. it’s a mystery to me why American lovers of Italian wine haven’t discovered these yet. Great wines.

And dulcis in fundo, Alberto Tasca treated me to a bottle of Tasca d’Amerita 2008 Nozze d’Oro over dinner and a lively conversation on sustainability and the legacy of organic farming in Italian viticulture.

For Americans, the 2012 vintage of this wine — a blend of Inzolia and “Sauvignon Tasca,” a spontaneously mutated clone from clippings planted on the estate during the first world war — is available only in New York, he said.

But last night the 2008 was thoroughly enjoyed in Houston. Ten-year-old white wine from Sicily, still showing fresh and with vibrant fruit? This wine has “enohipster” written all over it. I loved it.

As I read the morning’s New York Times feed over breakfast with the girls and Tracie, I laughed out loud when I stumbled upon Mimi Swartz’s column Jeremiad.

“Non-Texans,” she wrote, “are still stunned to discover that even people who don’t live in Austin know about Tuscan blends and Karl Ove Knausgaard.”

We tasted a good Tuscan wine or two yesterday in Houston. But Cesare Pavese was the novelist we discussed at the event, not Knausgaard.

A big shout-out to IEEM USA for putting on this great event. And thank you for thinking of me as presenter!

Is Pignolo Italy’s most underrated red grape? The 2012 Ronchi di Cialla was astounding.

It didn’t occur to me until I got back to Texas week before last from a whirlwind trip across the U.S.: despite two visits over the years to Ronchi di Cialla — one of the pioneers of Friuli’s native grape revival and one of its most acclaimed and soulful winemakers — I had never tasted the winery’s Pignolo.

Thinking my mind was playing tricks on me, I checked out the estate’s website: the Rapuzzi family, who founded the winery in 1970, doesn’t even mention the wine on it library release page.

Visits to Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni similarly revealed no mentions of the wine.

It was a week ago last Thursday that my friend, Italian wine importer Earl Cramer-Brown, generously opened a bottle of the Rapuzzi’s 2012 Pignolo to share with me in McMinnville, Oregon where we had dinner at the famous Nick’s Café.

Man, what a wine!

Many compare Pignolo to Nebbiolo because of its generally powerful tannic character and rich fruit buoyed by vibrant acidity. But it’s such a distinct and distinctive grape in my experience: black cherry and black currant seemed to dance against the minerality and hint of eastern spice in this wine. It was just so lithe in the glass that you simply couldn’t stop drinking it. And even though its tannin has many years of evolution ahead, it was already drinking great, food-friendly and approachable, straight out of the bottle (opened on the spot).

It reaffirmed my belief that this grape wholly deserves its place among the pantheon of Italy’s great red wines.

Thank you again, Earl, for sharing this extraordinary bottle with me!

Thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path

Hurricane Ike struck southeast Texas, where Tracie’s parents live, just a month after we started dating in 2008. Back then, people in Louisiana and Texas were still reeling from the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season, which included Katrina and Rita.

These days it seems like a given that hurricane season will deliver devastation by means of a massive storm like Florence or Michael.

A year after Harvey, you can still see debris piled up along the streets of our neighborhood. For many residents here, it was the second or third time their houses flooded in three consecutive years.

Does it really matter whether or not humankind is to blame for climate change? I believe it is but that’s beside the point: the climate is changing and the storms and devastation are becoming more and more frequent, the human loss and damage more grave. The same can be said of the wild fires in California where I grew up.

Today, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path.

Image via the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr (Creative Commons).

Master Sommelier exam scandal: 23 new titles “invalidated” including one in Houston

The news ricocheted across the enocentric internet yesterday afternoon: in a press release issued by the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, the group announced that its board had “unanimously voted to invalidate the results of the tasting portion of the [September 5] 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination for all candidates due to clear evidence that a Master breached the confidentiality with respect to the wines presented for tasting.”

Wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle Esther Mobley broke the story in the mainstream media yesterday evening. Her piece includes background info on how the court works and how the exams are administered.

And New York-based sommelier and wine writer Courtney Schiessl published this excellent post on the developing story for the wine trade portal and blog SevenFifty. She reports that “23 newly-minted Master Sommeliers [had their] tasting results revoked.” Of the 24 who recently passed the three-part exam, only one retained his title, she writes, because he had previously completed the tasting portion.

According to the Court’s press release, “the Board of Directors found sufficient evidence that the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination was compromised by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight.”

“The tasting portion is what first made the exam the object of popular fascination,” writes Mobley. “In 25 minutes, a candidate must taste six wines, blind, and identify each one’s grape variety, region of origin and vintage.”

One of the Master Sommeliers who lost their titles lives with his family around the corner from our house here in southwest Houston. He’s one of the most beloved and respected wine professionals working in our city. I’ve sat with him in blind tastings and have watched him ace the wines without even breaking a sweat. Our kids go to school together and we eat at the same breakfast place. He is one of the nicest and most talented people working in a business where niceness and ability don’t always go together. I admire him immensely and am devastated to learn that his much deserved title has been snatched away from him by a cheat.

Master Sommeliers do so much to foster wine education and appreciation in this country. As mentors to young wine professionals pursuing careers in the culinary arts, they set a standard of conduct and excellence in their industry. I applaud the Court for its transparency and I wish them speed in cleaning house. And I grieve for their erstwhile members whose perseverance and sacrifice have been sullied by a swindler.