WHAT wines to serve with a seven-course dinner for 220? The selection posed no problem for the organizers of the eighth annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner, held March 21 at New York's Four Seasons restaurant. This year's typically lavish affair featured 15 California wineries, each presenting a barrel sample from the new 1982 vintage and an older wine from the same grape variety.
There were seven main courses plus dessert, and each course was accompanied by wines from three wineries. With the rillettes of smoked salmon and a timbale of dover sole, three wineries strutted their 1982 sauvignon blancs, as well as an older vintage of the same wine. With the saute'ed Wellfleet scallops, the same game rules were observed, this time with six chardonnays. On the red wine ledger, six merlots were matched with a ragout of lobster and quail, followed by six cabernet sauvignons with a pa te' of pheasant and an emince of duckling. The last meat course, a filet of venison, was accompanied by six pinot noirs. Clearly this was a meal to come to hungry, as well as thirsty.
The food and service clearly deserved high marks beginning with the first course and finishing with the dessert tray. However, the wines performed to less even marks, due in part to the choice of the wineries this year, as well as to the 1982 vintage, an uneven year for most of California, which is alleged to have produced as many poor wines as it did outstanding ones.
It was especially interesting for me, having just flown in earlier in the afternoon from Bordeaux, to be quizzed by so many California winemakers and proprietors about my impressions of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Clearly this was a California wine event, so it seemed strange to be talking so much Bordeaux. No doubt, California is going through a sluggish sales cycle at the moment, and appears to be looking over its collective shoulder at the most recent vintage in Bordeaux, not so much because of its bigness and greatness, but because of its competitive clout in America's wine buying circles. As one winemaker said, "Every dollar spent on bordeaux these days is one less dollar spent on California cabernet sauvignon or merlot."
Of the first wines served, the sauvignon blancs, there were three 1982 barrel samples and three 1981s. None was worth making a special trip to your local wine merchant, however. Beringer's 1981 was subtle, slightly herbaceous, crisp and fruity; and J. Petroncelli's l981 was intense, smoky and quite stylish. Both wines certainly merit consumer attention.
In the chardonnay class, it was interesting to note that the three wineries picked to provide chardonnay samples, Vichon, Lambert Bridge and Hacienda, all indicated that their 1982's were backing away from the full-bodied, big, fat, oaky style of wine, which made California chardonnays so famous and popular. This was readily apparent when comparing the taste of the 1982's with the same offering from an older vintage. The best of the chardonnays in this particular flight were the two Haciendas: a 1982, which was elegant, clean, fruity and of medium weight, and the 1979, which was big oaky, viscous, full-bodied and extremely rich.
When the first group of red wines was served, the surprise turned out to be a 1980 Boerger Winery "El Dorado County Merlot," which displayed a wonderfully soft, lush, fat personality. This Boerger Merlot, to the surprise of most people, was preferred over the merlots from two of California's most highly regarded merlot producers, Sterling Vineyards and Louis Martini.
With regard to the California cabernet sauvignons, the three 1982 barrel samples shared in common a diffuse, poorly structured character, which was lacking both in concentration of fruit. The best of the three was the 1982 barrel sample from Durney Vineyards in Carmel Valley, which had much better color and concentration than either the 1982 Mayacamas or the very light colored 1982 Chappellet. Fortunately the older vintages offered by the aforementioned three wineries were much more interesting.
Mayacamas presented its 1972 cabernet sauvignon, a mediocre vintage for most of California. Mayacamas, though, is a mountain winery in Napa Valley specializing in wines that its owner, Bill Travers, claims emphasize "a high level of intensity"; for this winery it was a good year. The wine was solid indeed, with viscous, briary, interesting flavors. It certainly did not show its age of 11 years. Durney Vineyards offered its 1978 cabernet sauvignon, which was dense, chocolatey, very oaky and spicy and quite promising, assuming, of course, it develops in the bottle. My favorite older cabernet sauvignon was neither the Mayacamas nor the Durney, but the 1975 Chappellet, which showed a Pauillac-like cedary character, good concentration, tannin and balance.
The last flight of red wines included the ubiquitous, impetuous pinot noir. The best oenologists California schools have graduated continue to struggle with this uncooperative grape variety, and I'm usually quite disappointed by California pinot noirs. My feelings about pinot noir hardly changed after tasting through the mediocre Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyard's 1980 and 1982 Sonoma Pinot Noirs, and the Alexander Valley Vineyard's 1982 and 1978 Sonoma Pinot Noirs. Having said all that, I admit that the most exciting wine of the tasting was the last wine served. It was a California pinot noir that recalled a great French chambertin or nuits st. georges. The wine was from Chalone, the tiny winery in Monterey County. A 1978, it was simply stunning, with a beautiful, smoky, earthy, ripe, fruity aroma, lovely texture and the elusive pinot noir personality captured magnificently. It was an appropriate wine to finish a sumptuous feast.