"This year we're commemorating the 1970s, the decade which ushered in the Second Golden Age of Wine." That was how Alexander McNally, director of international wines for Heublein, characterized the company's 1980 auction of fine wines. The occasion was a Washington luncheon the day before a preliminary tasting of some of the wines going on the block at San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel on May 28th.
"The '70s were years of great knowledge," McNally continued, warming to his subject, "years of new technology, new blood in the wine business. There were more great vintages during this decade than at any other time." Some skeptics expressed doubt, but with these words still ringin in our ears, we arrived early the next day at the Mayflower Hotel's grand ballroom.Here is what we found:
11:45 -- Close to 100 tasters quietly milling around, leafing through catalogues, consulting ballroom diagrams indicating the location of wines. Well-dressed crowd, a preponderance of three-piece suits. Few women. Could easily be mistaken for a bankers' convention.
Noon -- Doors open and crowd files in picking up glasses at foot of stairs.
Two very long tables lead off to the right, covered with sparkling white tablecloths, and wine. Two shorter tables close the area between the longer ones, making one huge rectangle of wine. At the far end, on a raised platform, stands an ornately trimmed talbe. Here are the celebrated wines of lengthy pedigrees. Two solemn security men stand guard. None of the blockbusters is yet uncorked.
12:15 -- First crisis. Shirt-sleeved taster, talking over shoulder, stumbles into dumping bucket and sends it and its contents of ice flying. Crowd growing. Tables disappearing from view. Everyone swirling, swishing, smelling, tipping glasses. Each new cork pulled draws a swarm of people. "Never ceases to amaze me," a new arrival announces to no one in particular. "It's a great show."
12:30 -- First major crisis. Clean glasses have disappeared. Bottleneck beginning to block entry dor. Angry mutterings. The enterprising pick up used glasses. McNally appears at head table and introduces Heublein's California winemakers, Tom Ferrell (Inglenook) and Tom Selfridge (Beaulieu Vineyard). Much of commentary drowned out by popping corks and clinking glasses.
12:45 -- Aisles and nooks off the aisles beginning to fill up as small knots of people gather. At an empty table in the rear, a studious man carefully numbers each are on his floor plan, obviously plotting his attack on the bottles. Nearby, a tall, smartly-dressed woman turns to companion in despair. "I can't get to anything I want to taste." "Never mind," says a voice from in front of the crowd at the table, "the good wines here are all gone." The woman looks crestfallen.
1:00 -- Addy Bassin, top bidder at the 1977 auction (including $10,000 for a jeroboam of 1929 Mouton) arrives and announces to a group, "I've just become a grandfather for the first time." One congratulator inquires, "What old bottles are you opening in celebration, and when?" Bassin laughs and shrugs.
1:10 -- Pin-striped suit to sportshirt next to him, as both survey carmel-colored wine glasses: "It's got more years than my mother-in-law, and it's about as attractive." Friend nods sadly.
1:30 -- More people sitting on stairs, leaning on railings and tables. Flush-faced young man in broad-checked coat drains glass and says: "I like this; I really like this. Tremendous. I'll definitely go to 'Frisco."
1:45 -- McNally, still cool and composed now describing in loving detail a 1943 Margaux (estimated price, $1,200 to $1,500 a case). His unruffled demeanor is partly facade, however, as he later admits. People scheduled for pouring duty have disappeared. So have some of the wines. "Awful," he says, "the worst thing that has ever happened to us."
2:15 -- More open space appearing, although the line to sample the venerable wines at the head table continues. "No way I'm leaving," says determined man in floppy felt hat. "Im not budging an inch until I get one of those really rare babies." Tablecloths now badly spotted; look like they'd been flown over by a flock of birds gorged on grapes. Spitting buckets are remarkably pristine. All of the swallows must have gone straight to Capistrano.
2:40 -- Crowd dwindling but decibel level climibing. Conversations becoming more wide-ranging. Wine no longer the number one topic. More laying on of hands, arms around shoulders, acknowledging pats. A few yawns. Spontaneous applause from head-table line as McNally reappears. He beams and bows slightly, in the manner of an aging tenor on his triumphant farewell tour. Carefully, fastidiously, like surgeon in the operating room, he arranges all of his paraphernalia-corkscrew, decanter, candles, towels, bottles.
2:45 -- Blinding lights flash on at head table heralding the appearance of a TV crew. Reporter beards McNally as he opens 1795 Tokay Essence. Chivalrously, he offers her the first glass. She tastes and confides, "It's very thick but I like it. It's great."
3:20 -- More sitting down now, on steps, on tables, on floor. More smiles.
More shouts. McNally, still affable, not a bead of perspiration showing, happily shaking hands with ringsiders. A persistent 150-or-so still in line waiting to taste the champions.
3:35 -- while preparing to separate the cork from the 1928 Climens, McNally tells us, "The people have been just great. A lot of familiar faces, a lot of new ones. I think it augurs well for wine in the 1980s. But don't forget these great wines of the '70s." We promise not to, then with both tastebuds and feet giving out, we surrender the emptying ballroom to the patient, still-waiting line near the head table.