The 10th annual California barrel tasting at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York last month turned out to be the last. The news came as a surprise to 240 guests invited to one of the most prestigious culinary events of the year. The barrel tasting of recent vintages shipped east to be tasted in conjunction with older wines from the same wineries has promoted California wine and unofficially determined who's who in the wine and food trade for a decade.
Corridors of wine glasses graced the white tablecloths this year. Into the glasses went no less than 28 different wines poured to accompany eight food courses and a lot of encomia about California wine, most of it justified. The wines were generally impressive. Most of the barrel samples were politely sipped and the more mature wines savored, but several barrel samples stood out, among them the '84 Iron Horse chardonnay, the '84 Clos Du Val merlot, the '84 Burgess zinfandel (with wild boar p.at,e, no less) and the '84 Ridge Monte Bello cabernet. Good older wines included the '80 Chateau St. Jean sparkler served as an aperitif, the '74 Robert Mondavi fum,e blanc served with sole and lobster, the '83 Acaciachardonnay with seafood risotto, an '81 Felton Empire pinot noir with peppered breast of duck, the '78 Jordan and '75 cabernets with medallion of venison, and the '78 Stag's Leap Cask 23 cabernet with cheese.
Other California wines offered that night were equally good -- the '83 Far Niente chardonnay; the '81 Acacia, '82 Chalone and '81 Carneros Creek pinot noirs; the '81 Duckhorn merlot; the '75 Chappellet, '80 Diamond Creek and '82 Mayacamus cabernets; and the '75 Phelps late harvest riesling.
The bruised egos of winemakers and journalists not invited are never so bruised that they don't try to get invited the following year. Well, no more. Wine writer and importer Gerald Asher said of the original idea of an East Coast barrel tasting that "it is only through the prism of New York that what is happening in California is reflected to the world." Now the organizers apparently think the prism of California will be sufficient to spread the image. Henceforth the barrel tasting will be held in California, they say, where people already drink mostly California wine, where California wine tastings are as common as abalone and where no converts will be won among the East Coast's "European" palates.
It seems an inopportune time for California to turn inward. A cold wind is blowing through the American vineyard nowadays. Wine consumption among Americans has tapered off after rising dramatically a few years ago; a strongdollar has significantly increased the market share of foreign wine; neo- Prohibitionists are dedicated to increasing taxes on wine and reducing its exposure through advertising. Squabbles among winemakers, brewers and distillers exacerbate that situation. Those California winemakers not faced with bankruptcy need all the (self-) help they can get, and writing off the barrel tasting is no way to start.
I have a modest proposal: Don't move the barrel tasting to California -- move it to Washington. Even New Yorkers will come here to visit. The capital's exceptional chefs would get together for a common good, creating something new and audacious. We would all be wiser and happier, and the California winemakers would still have a chance to present their wares to European and other palates.
Who knows, it might even become a tradition.