That part of the afternoon was perfectly ridiculous. Everyone agrees wine tasting is subjective, everyone agrees that what you think you taste can be influenced by all sorts of things -- what you ate half an hour ago, what you know about the cost of the wine, what the person next to you says about it. But really. The fact of a single bloom of rubrum lily in a vase on the wall, nodding over my lunch table and smelling narcotically delicious while I ate, should not have affected the taste of the wines I then tried an hour later in a room on another floor of the building. Unless rubrums shoot out some sort of pollen or other property that clings for hours to anything in the vicinity, particularly the interior of any nearby average human nose and its attached, average human olfactory bulb.
For the lovely fragrance wafted around me, sweet, inescapable, tropical, wafting up from much too many goblets of tremblingly expensive red liquids. The event was a "Winemakers on Tour" tasting of Beringer Private Reserve, Chateau St. Jean, and Penfolds Grange, and it was held in the fine old Union Club in downtown Chicago. All the trembling red liquids were heavy duty, serious-to-legendary cabernets and shirazes and blends thereof. The very attractive, tanned and toothy, nattily be-suited California blonde who hosted the affair invited us all, in her welcoming remarks, to close our eyes and jointly, lovingly remember "the very first time we ever spent a hundred dollars on a bottle of wine." That didn't take me long.
My notes follow, in all their (pick one) unadorned honesty, charm, stunning neophyte perspicacity, or ghastliness, depending on what you know.
Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1989 banana peel -- rubrum lily -- brownish ruby -- high acid, high tannin -- cool -- silky then ... caramel, port, elegance, dates
- 1992 similar -- paler florals -- green pepper -- heavier -- more tannin (no fruit in either)
- 2001 deeper purple garnet color -- rubrum lily -- high tannin
- 2005 vanilla flowers -- tannin -- caramel -- fruit still there
- 2006 scentless -- cola -- vanilla -- tannin -- chewy
(From the files: Beringer's history goes back to the 1870s, when Jacob Beringer first worked for Charles Krug; today its winemaker is Laurie Hook, its winemaster emeritus, Ed Sbragia.)
Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1996 green pepper -- flowers -- syrupy look -- black -- fleshy -- tannin
- 2001 medicine -- lilies -- fruit! -- chewy -- less acid
- 2003 earth -- lilies -- acid -- (tight)
- 2006 vanilla -- fruit -- acid -- tannin
Sometimes these guided tastings move along so fast that you scarcely have time to try to savor what's in the glasses. Your hasty notes seem increasingly to fall from the pen of a blinking but earnest Captain Obvious ("fruit, acid, tannin").
(For Chateau St. Jean, think more contemporary history: 1970s, Sonoma. The winemaker is Margo Van Staaveren.)
Last came the big dog.
Penfolds Grange (Shiraz)
- 1994 rubrum -- thick, sauce-like -- maple, honey -- spice -- chewy -- then, softer
- 1998 scentless -- a little medicine -- starch -- intense texture -- thick -- a little harsh in throat -- chewy -- hot
- 2004 tannin -- tight -- big -- funky -- pool-like -- cola -- chewy -- retail $400 -- "partial fermentation in oak = quick balance, approachability" -- cola
(Penfolds Grange, predominantly shiraz, was first made in 1951 by Max Schubert of Penfolds. Up until the 1990 vintage, the wine was called Penfolds Grange Hermitage, Hermitage being an Australian synonym for shiraz, which in turn is the grape of France's famed Hermitage AC in the northern Rhône.)
Anyone with any years in the trade will be horrified at a Penfolds Grange being described as funky and pool-like. What was I trying to express? Mustiness, soapiness, chemical-ness, mildew? Was something wrong with my wineglass perhaps, or was I simply off my nut? We may as well note that Penfolds' website advises that a Grange is not to be drunk until it has aged fifteen to twenty years. Perhaps that was it. As to general perceptions, only a little earlier in the hour my worries there had been somewhat assuaged when I heard a man behind me question the winemakers about the distinct impression of green pepper in the 1996 Chateau St. Jean, above. Glancing at my notes as he talked, I saw that I had scribbled down that very same impression myself. Huzzah! Vindication, and lilies be damned.
And as to the scent and taste of cola, present in more than one of these samples: that was a first for me. Cola is such a nice rich taste, but I wonder if the winemakers would be cheered to know they had achieved that flavor profile through their work. Incidentally, the woman who answered the green pepper question said that certainly she didn't strive for green pepper in her wines, but if there is a little of it, it's not a flaw.
In the end, after lapping our way through twelve monster reds -- surely we can agree, they were that -- we must ask, what foods do we then eat with the monsters? I believe it was our beloved curmudgeon Willie Gluckstern who once snarkily suggested only "a plate of bear meat" could do battle with the volcanic, pie syrup reds that are top-notch New World winemakers' pride and joy. Perhaps we would eat nothing. A recent survey reported in the Napa Valley Register tells us that most enthusiastic wine buffs don't drink wine with meals, and the younger the drinker, the more likely she is -- in this survey, 54% of wine consumers are women -- to treat wine as a sweet, high alcohol cocktail rather than as a thrilling accompaniment to food. In any case before doing any menu planning around these, you may want to consider your budget. I forgot to come clean about all the prices.
Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, retail, from $115 to $300 a bottle depending on vintage.
Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon, retail, about $75.
Penfolds Grange, retail, $245 (the 1999 vintage, at my local big wine warehouse); other vintages, online, from $400 to $600.
Technically, not a rubrum but a stargazer lily -- but we understand each other.