June 8, 2010

A Lab Seminar in How NOT to Organize a Tasting

We make little secret of the fact that we are better drinkers than tasters at the Lab. This means that certain experiments require an extra level of thinking to find an appropriate work around.

However, extra thinking was not in view at a recent Lab event; a dinner designed to A) help reduce bottle inventory before the move; B) conclude a long-term Lab experiment; and C) bid farewell to some good friends of the Lab.

One of the Lab's original experiments was designed to test a simple hypothesis: the fancy wines that you are not drinking because they are brutally expensive are not as good as the people who are drinking them want you to believe.

To test this theory, some years ago we worked our way onto the allocation mailing-list for haut-fancy Napa Valley producer, Peter Michael Winery. Through careful, regular purchasing, supplemented with some auction work and cellar scavenging, we were able to assemble to a flight from their La Carriere vineyard -- the steepest and perhaps most site-expressive -- that included a bottle from every vintage from 1999-2007.

We carefully planned a tasting menu to complement the Chardonnays and invited a number of Lab benefactors to a dinner (thanks again G&M!).

In hindsight, it's pretty easy to armchair quarterback what went wrong. We should have commenced the evening with a tasting featuring the entire flight. Guests could have tasted their way through the flight of wines and then returned to their favorites over dinner.

It seems so f---ing obvious now.

Instead, we paired 3 wines with each course.

I did have an odd tingle when the caterer generously poured the first three wines, the oldest ones of the flight. Given that we'd already had a couple rounds of cocktails and Champagne before we sat down to dinner, I ignored the tingle and set right into the wines.

At some point not long after my memory of the evening grows fairly hazy. I was able to reconstruct some of the evening's largesse from my progressively illegible notes. And from there we can perhaps draw a few practical conclusions.

The oldest wine in the flight was just that... old, and had made a recent turn towards vinegar. The next eldest, the 2000, was off, having suffered some refermentation in bottle. The 2001 showed a high degree of oxidation, but was delicious.

The next flight -- and I have no memory of what we ate alongside these wines, but I do remember that the food was sensational -- were the stars of the evening. 2002, 2003 and 2004 were each outstanding. I couldn't really make out much about the specifics in my notes, but I did make several emphatic stars next to the 2002 and noted that the 2003 was noticeably bigger and richer, with more obvious complexity than the other two.

The final flight, the youngest wines, weren't bad, but were all dominated by their barrels, especially the 2006. I seemed to have especially liked the 2005. But it's not always easy to interpret a smiley face.

Setting aside the obvious conclusions with regard to restructuring our tasting procedures, I would say this. These were beautiful Chardonnays. The limestone, honeysuckle-tinged minerality that seems to be the hallmark of this vineyard's terroir was present in each wine, all the way back to 2001. In ethos and character, they are more like Burgundy than Napa. And for that reason, I think it's not entirely unfair to say that, while delicious, I can hardly argue for their quality-to-price ratios. Given these wines fetch $60-75, it's not impossible to find White Burgundies that drink as well for 30-40% less.

Still, if you are going to drink them, it seems that the ideal drinking window goes back a little further than I would have guessed. In 2010, I would have thought the 05 would have stolen the show and the 02 would feel on the downhill slide. But it's clear these wines can -- and perhaps should -- go a little longer in the cellar.

Finally, given the performance of the two oldest wines, both purchased at auction (online), I am now formally skeptical about buying wines in this fashion. I remain a big fan of Winebid.com. But I am more inclined to purchase recent vintages of hard to find European wines that are likely being sold by distributors in a clearinghouse capacity.

Though far from conclusive, the experimental result that suggests a prestige wine is not so great that you should pine over not having any in your cellar is something that will hold me in good stead in Hong Kong.

I would say this, however. This really is an experiment you need to run for yourself. The macro result is fairly obvious. Where the results are most compelling are deep in the realm of the subjective.

No comments: