IN MOST wine-producing countries, the tasting of barrels of new wine is an informal occasion, a neighborly gathering with simple rough food or a workaday business conducted in dark cellars, with a loaf of bread for clearing the palate, the wine being spit on the floor. In America, the Four Seasons restaurant in New York has turned barrel tasting into a formal evening, precision-run on a tight schedule, for a group of wine professionals, and press -- 224 this year -- with a waiting list of thousands.
Thus, the sixth annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting on March 23 started with Hanns Kornell Sehr Trocken sparkling wine at just after 7 p.m. and ended at precisely 11:20 only five minutes behind schedule, 28 wines and a dozen courses later. They had neglected to schedule five minutes for a fuse to blow.
In America, one begins with speeches -- and asides. "The best of California wines is still coming," predicted Paul Kovi, co-owner of the Four Seasons.
"I should hope so," muttered one wine columnist to his table companions.
And then comes the good-news-bad-news lecture, this time from Gerald Asher, a one-man show who runs a wine company, imports, distributes and writes about wine. "Most of the wineries were looking around to see what they could possibly pick," he said of the 1980 California vintage. The poor summer with little sun and low temperatures prolonged the flowering of the vines after a spring of good rainfall with mild temperature and early buds.In the long run, however, the white wines benefited, with good acidity and flavor; the johannisberg rieslings, according to Asher, are the closest to moselles ever produced in California. And the reds, after an end-of-summer heat wave, developed grapes with a high sugar content and "a balance of acid and alcohol that normally one reads about in the textbooks but doesn't see on the vine."
Then the tasting, which only partly bore out Asher's prediction. Each 1980 wine was tasted against an earlier vintage. The 1980 sauvignon blancs were fruity, well balanced, well-appreciated, particularly the Chateau St. Jean, the one which a survey of our table found even better than its older match. Dry Creek '79 fume blanc also showed well, clean and fruity; its '80 tasted more of promise than immediate pleasure. White the Paul Massons were controversial -- especially the smoky, herbal '78 with its aftertaste of green pepper -- there was no controversy over the frog's legs tortelloni that accompanied them. tAl dente pasta for 224 is itself a feat, but the chopped frog's legs filling, with barely any binding, and the merest glaze of heavy cream, made one wish chef Seppi Renggli were a winemaker in his spare time. That followed eel pate with golden caviar in sour cream sauce, a pretty interplay of white on white, on more white, but eclipsed by the tortelloni.
In the aftermath discussions of the wine tasting, one could believe that different tables had different wines. Thus, at ours the '80 chardonnays could have been happily skipped, while others found them enchanting. Keenan's: light, with little fruit. Alexander Valley: disjointed, with insignifican bouquet. Stevenot: simply unpleasant. No greater favor for the earlier vintages, either. But maybe it was the influence of the food -- more amusing than delicious: oyster cassoulet, the oysters overcooked and at war with the beans; cabbage stuffed with rabbit in a sweet red-gold sauce saved by bursts of sour raw cranberries. With it began a minor theme of the evening: black pepper, prominent in this and three of the following courses. The first dozen wines ended with intensely tart sherbet -- the palate cleanser -- and intermission -- the mind cleanser.
Then came the miracle of the glasses. Returning to the dining room after the intermission, each guest found his dozen dirty glasses gone and ten clean ones in perfect line. Counting glasses of Crystal Geyser Sparkling Water at intermission (possibly the hit of the evening), the event required roughly 7,000 glasses.
The second act starred Burgess Meredith, introducing heavy zinfandels with a light touch. Zinfandels, the group was told, needed taming, are antic and unpredictable, age slowly and then very fast in a staircase progression. The '80s were found endearing, the Simi tasting like fresh fruit and the Clos du Val less varietal and more like a claret. With them, pork sausage crepinettes and applesauce garnished with crisped onions.
Pinot noir is a difficult grape, Barbara Ensrud informed the gathering; Firestone Vineyard's Tony Austin expanded on the theme: "If zinfandel is difficult to make, pinot noir is impossible." Robert Mondavi Winery seemed to have dealt best with the impossible, for its '78 reserve, fruity and delicate, was well-received; and its '80, though so far sugary and thin, showed possibilities. At this juncture, the group concentrated on rosemary-roasted kid, tiny chops in a beige mustard sauce with more character than any of the accompanying wines. The finale of the second act was a palate-cleanser in the Chinese-style, a clear duck broth with cubes of vegetables under a dome of puff pastry.
Cabernet sauvignons, as was expected, provided a dramatic climax. The '77 Mirassou still needed substantial aging, and its 1980 counterpart was described as "something mighty but overwhelming." Stag's Leap '80 was another powerhouse, and its vintner, Warren Winiarski, immodestly described the '78 as having "a greatness not to be soon exceeded in California," with no groundswell of contradiction. Braised duckling with pink peppercorn sauce and a garnish of crisped skin -- one of the few boneless duck dishes in anyone's recent memory that was not served rare -- stood up well to the wines. A soft note ended the evening, Al Brounstein describing his Diamond Creek vineyards with their lilting names -- Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill -- in a bedtime story voice. Volcanic Hill '74 was, for some, the wine of the evening; Brounstein concurred with, "We aspire that every wine we ever make is the '74 you taste here." And, with self-perception rare that evening, he warned of the '80, "Just taste it; don't drink it." By then, many wished they had followed that advice a couple of dozen wines earlier.
In the informal epilogue, some old-timers feigned boredom, and others insisted that the wines have grown better each year. While the arguments went on, there was general agreement that the California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner is a very elegant way of doing business.