Tuesday, November 02, 1999
A Formal Wine Tasting
Man and boy, I have been walking the streets of this sophisticated city all my life without ever attending a formal wine tasting (or a spiritualist seance, a fashion show or even a bingo game). How gauche! Now, at least one lacuna in my education in sybaritic living was remedied by a friend, who asked the Dobelises to take his place at a Tasters Guild get-together. The NYC chapter of this national membership group ($20/yr) meets nearly every week, mostly in the Gramercy Park Hotel, to taste the fruit of the grape, and to hear learned wine people discourse. The meetings range from the once-in-a-lifetime sampling of the sweet Chateau d'Yquem ($275) to the more mundane Oregon Pinot Noir, Rioja Gran Reservas and German Wine events ($30-35).
Most recently my wine adventures came thanks to the generosity of the genial expert Lars Larsen of Penthouse-Dunhill, on Third Avenue, who regularly treats his T&V area neighbors, by giving street wine tastings during the SPNA and TAMA fairs, every year, as well as on other special occasions. My truly practical education in wine dates back to the 1960s-70s, when certain price decontrols as well as a change in American tastes forced many liquor stores to close. Until then selling spirits, also greeting cards, was viewed as a no-risk enterprise for people who did not mind making a simple living by spending many hours behind a counter. A liquor dealer on 14th St, next to Klein's on the Square, specialized in acquiring the non-returnable wines from defunct stores, and a visit there was an adventure in browsing and selecting. It was then I learned of ullage, or leaky container, by looking for telltale tracks on bottles, and comparing the wine levels in like bottles. Ullage also means that there was an air intrusion in the bottle, which results in maderization, or unwanted oxidization, spoiling the wine. Reds are particularly susceptible (today you can buy tricky vacuum corks, but it is better to drink the rouge up, tout-suite). Our late Aunt Charlotte, a cultured woman though a teatotaller (her son, Ralph Koltai, C.B.E., designed the stage set for the British revival of My Fair Lady), would serve us delicate sandwiches, with which she always brought out a bottle of French wine. The poor dear kept wondering why the wine lasted so long, and we did not have the heart to tell her that it was undrinkable. I would pour out a few drops, swirl them around and leave them in the glass. The bottle outlasted her when she died at ninety.
Walking into the Guild tasting was intimidating - fifty people, looking at you from behind 15 glasses lined up on numbered paper place mats. This was a tasting of wines from Argentina, Brazil and Chile. While elderly waiters were scurrying and filling the first flight of wines, four whites, a Sauvignon Blanc and three Chardonnays from Argentina and Chile, the speaker, a veteran importer, told us how the viticulture was prospering in the ABC countries, due to constant sunshine and good water from the Andes. The best wines come from Mendosa and Maupa, valleys in the Andes, on both sides of the border, some 150 miles South of Santiago, and from the suburbs of the city itself.
Meanwhile, we swirled, tested the nose, sipped and wrote notes on numbered sheets, listing the names of the wines. The questions to the speaker were of origin, presence of eucalyptus (plenty), flowers and trees (affect the taste in all areas, notably Germany and France) and medicinal taste (turns out to be de rigeur).I wondered out loud if we would be graded, but was informed that the notes were for our benefit only.
Chile and Argentina produce huge amounts of good wines, better than the prices would indicate. The 2nd and 3rd flights we tested were reds, Malbec and Merlot, both much used in the mixture that makes the Bordeaux wines. Two diametrically opposite 1994 Chilean Merlots caused comment, a soft fruity Carta Vieja ($9) with an expected life of three years, and a complex (multi-flavored), tannin-filled Stonelake ($13), worthy of preserving. The harsher wine won, 3 to 2. However, the overwhelming flight winner was an Argentinian Trapiche Malbec ($8). Wines need tannin to preserve, and to acquire the mellow taste that comes with age. A Stonelake Pinot Noir, a finicky grape, difficult to grow, will last 15 years.
The next flight of reds, all Cabernet-Sauvignons, the basic grape of the Bordeaux and Napa Valley vines (the Bordeaux roots come from the US, because around 1860 the Phylloxera plant lice destroyed Bordeaux, and resistant Calfornia roots had to be brought in, to rescue France. Ironically, UC at Davis, the main oenology school, introduced the ARX1 root which turns out not to be resistant, and now many acres of California wineyards have to be uprooted.)
Our meeting coordinator, Jonathan, brought up the story of how far Chilean wines have progressed from the 75c Chilean Rieslings, the mainstay of the college wine parties of his day. German Rieslings will be tasted in November, and if we go, you'll hear from me about the tricky nomenclatures, denoting progressively sweeter taste - Auslese, Spatlese, Trockenbeeren Auslese, all the way up to Eiswein, which Germans should like to equate with the Sauternes of Chateau d'Yquem. I know this from a tourist tasting in a wineyard, in Baden-Baden. To confess, wev'e been at Napa Valley tastings too - none of them as formal as this Guild tasting. The chapter is led by Ron Kapon and Jonathan Levine, PhD, two wine lovers who lead this non-profit group of serious enthusiasts, one of a few organizations for afficionados with modest means. They don't even have a NYNEX listing, and use Ron's home and phone for business. Of the older and substantially more pricey established groups, Food and Wine Society sponsors tastings in Rockefeller Center, and the International Wine Center also gives Master of Wine courses.
Wally Dobelis and T&V wish a happy 90th birthday to Celia Sagnous, Treasurer of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association, ex-President of the Sisterhood of the Brotherhood Synagogue. A native New Yorker, she is daily volunteer worker in the Synagogue office. Stay well, Celia, we all need you, and love you!