Last Saturday night in Portland, Ore., the 1,800th bottle had been emptied. Christian Moueix, proprietor of the legendary Chateau Petrus, had finished hosting his 13th banquet in 12 cities in 14 days. The annual introduction of the great wines of Bordeaux to their American audience was over and it had been a grueling pace.
Each year for the last nine years, 10 or 12 chateaux that produce classified growths -- chateaux like Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild -- have sent their newly bottled wines, in this case the 1983s, for the tasting. The wines are shipped to San Francisco and New York by the middle of March so they can be distributed to the various cities in time for them to rest six weeks before being opened. Then they are officially tasted for the first time in America at a coast-to-coast series of grand dinners attended by members of wine societies, the wine trade and press, and anyone else willing to spend somewhere between $135 and $225 to drink wines that will be great in a decade or so but taste pretty harsh right now.
And each year a different winemaker comes along, bringing from his cellar bottles of his old wines to serve after all the new ones have been tasted. He is escorted by Miklos Dora, who, being the agent for Baron Philippe de Rothschild, arranges all this from his Santa Barbara home.
The excitement for the wine press is to compare all those classified growths at once. The excitement for me is to see how 13 different chefs design a menu to show off their talents, as well as to match with the wines.
Since these elaborate dinners seat about 120 people, they must be held in places that can handle an event that large, with the resources to provide, for instance, a dozen glasses for each person. This year they were all in hotels except for two in private clubs. The premier dinner in New York was at the Four Seasons restaurant -- which is no relation to the hotel chain. But then the Four Seasons can probably handle anything. Its dinner was the largest (180 people), the most expensive ($225) and served more wines than any of the others.
Dora meets with each chef to plan the menu to complement the young wines. Actually, he doesn't bother to meet with the Four Seasons restaurant. His accent growing perhaps a little thicker, Dora says that, after all, the Four Seasons coproprietor, Paul Kovi, "knows everything. You know, I'm a Hungarian and so is he."
This year's dinners started with consomme', but that tells you less than you might imagine. The Four Seasons restaurant made its consomme' of shellfish, and garnished it with vesiga, the rare spinal marrow from the sturgeon. In Washington, the Four Seasons Hotel served a consomme' of frogs' legs, and garnished it with fresh morels and tiny ravioli stuffed with frogs' legs. Other cities' chefs brewed their consomme' of quail (The Founders Club in Portland, Ore.); duck (The Biltmore in Los Angeles); venison (Hotel Fairmont in San Francisco); turtle (Hotel Fairmont in New Orleans); grouse (Hotel Fairmont in Denver); wild mushrooms (Hotel Fairmont in Dallas) and two of pheasant (Four Seasons Hotels in Seattle and in Houston); as well as three of beef. The most exotic was grouse consomme' with cactus, yellow peppers and pimientos in Denver; it may have been the first time in history a bordeaux tasting was accompanied by cactus.
Game birds and fowl were the second course at most of the dinners, and they, too, varied -- from smoked pigeon with honey in Washington to pheasant with juniper berries in Los Angeles. Duck was served with pears in Portland, with prunes in Houston, with green peppercorns in San Francisco, in a salad with hazelnut dressing in Seattle, in a soup with beets in Los Angeles, and its liver with raspberries in San Diego's Westgate Hotel.
America is no longer the land of the steak; only two of the cities served beef and in Dallas there is probably a city ordinance requiring it. Veal and lamb have taken its throne. Four of the chefs served veal -- stuffed with sweetbreads and foie gras in Washington, with hare and bacon in Denver -- and six served lamb -- with red wine sauce, mustard, currants or sage. And in this country where mushrooms always meant white cultivated tamed fungus, it is a measure of our marketing ingenuity that fresh wild mushrooms could now be served over our thousands-of-miles landscape, in eight cities from San Francisco to New Orleans. In New York they accompanied salmon, in New Orleans crayfish, and in several cities the consomme's were made of or garnished with wild mushrooms.
One surprise Dora has learned to expect is the wines themselves. You never know how they are going to perform in a particular year or in a particular city. The 1977 vintage was one he will never forget. This catastrophic vintage was as pale as a rose'; it was "absolutely impossible," said Dora. As for the 1983 vintage, the second night -- in Washington -- the wines tasted quite different from the first night -- in New York. They were better in Washington, in part because they were served a little cooler. And there was speculation that weather and altitude affect the wines. One year, said Dora, the wines were undrinkable in Denver, but only in Denver. Moueix claims that air pressure makes wines taste different, that the higher the barometric pressure, the better the wine.
These are wines meant to mature for years -- even decades. And as they do, the American hotel restaurants also mature. Wild mushrooms from coast to coast, raspberries in every major city year round, pheasant and grouse replacing chicken soup, and veal with hare sauce instead of beef. Nineteen eighty-six is surely a vintage year in American restaurants.
The sweetest skirmish of the season is the Onion War. Texas is declaring victory with its SuperSweet Onion, claiming it the sweetest raw onion in the nation. But Georgia hasn't admitted defeat for its Vidalias. The trick is finding either of them in your market. Look now through June.
Summertime, and the living is easy, for organisms that grow on our food. So, to try to cut back on the 2 million annual cases of food poisoning (most of which are due to improper handling of food in the home, says the USDA), a meat and poultry hot-line has been set up, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays: 800-535-4555 (in D.C., 447-3333). And to get you through the other hours, USDA will send a free booklet, "Safe Food to Go," if you send a postcard with your name and address to Consumer Information Center-V, Dept. 597-P, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.
FOUR SEASONS FILLET OF SALMON WITH WILD MUSHROOMS (4 servings)
1 cup red wine
1 cup fish stock
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
2 shallots, sliced
1 cup whipping cream
4 8-ounce fillets of salmon, skinned and boned
FOR THE MUSHROOMS:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup shallots, finely chopped
1 medium jalapeno pepper or dried red chili pepper, soaked and seeded, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds wild mushrooms (chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, shiitakes or morels) or a mixture of wild and domestic mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped parsley and fresh herbs
Simmer red wine, fish stock, pepper and shallots over low heat until reduced to 1/2 cup. Add cream and reduce to 1 cup. Strain and keep hot.
Steam the salmon, 4 to 5 minutes for 1-inch-thick piece. Salmon should still be a little red in center.
In a large saute' pan, heat olive oil. Add shallots, hot pepper and garlic and saute' for 2 to 3 minutes or until they start to turn yellow.
Add the mushrooms and saute' on very high heat so that the mushrooms do not sweat. Cook just until the mushrooms are wilted. Stir in herbs.
To serve, spoon red wine sauce on 4 plates and divide salmon and mushrooms onto each plate.