I was out of my league. A friend of a friend invited me and five other oenogeeks to spend an evening in the underground wine cellar of a posh Washington club, a cellar known for its impressive depth in well-aged Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa cabernets and its ridiculously low markups that have not increased over time.
That’s an alluring dynamic considering today’s wine prices, and our host, a club member, enlisted our help in draining the inventory. He offered to buy six bottles and invited us each to choose one. I scanned the list with trepidation, knowing that my fellow cellar dwellers had selected wines several levels above my socioeconomic status.
Secure in our undisclosed location (I was asked not to identify the club in print), we sipped and name-dropped two reds — Chambertin Clos de Bèze and Chappelle-Chambertin, each no younger than 1999 — and two whites, Corton-Charlemagne and Hermitage.
Then the sommelier poured my curveball: the Littorai 1999 Hirsch Vineyard pinot noir, from the remote upper reaches of California’s Sonoma Coast. I visited Littorai owner Ted Lemon and vintner David Hirsch last year, so was confident I could discuss the wine. There was no need to. The wine spoke for itself, with an amazing freshness and a lovely floral aroma over sweet sassafras, and it said something different with each sip.
It drowned out all those highfalutin’ Burgundies — at least until the sixth guest went back into the cellar and retrieved a Domaine Romanée-Conti 1996 La Tâche. (The DRC was superb . If you have some in your cellar, leave it alone for a few more years.)
Sometimes our favorite wines are memorable not just for what’s in the bottle but also for how we share them. That Littorai was my most memorable wine of 2013, not just because of its quality but also because of my connection with the winemaker and the vintner, and especially the friends I was with. It would have been a sadder wine had I drunk it alone.
There are other wines I shall long remember, none devoid of their context. On a visit to Australia, I enjoyed the Penfolds 1990 Grange at the newly refurbished Magill Estate restaurant on the outskirts of Adelaide. From corking to uncorking, that bottle had traveled probably less than 100 yards.
Surprise can make a wine memorable. In the Adelaide Hills, shiraz country to be sure, I tasted fantastic grüner veltliner at Hahndorf Hill Winery, while over in the little-known wine area of King Valley, in Victoria, first- and second-generation Italian immigrants were making sangiovese to rival Tuscany’s best Brunello.
I’ve had highlights closer to home, of course. The rotunda at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History provides a spectacular venue for a wine tasting. Not even the African elephant at the center of the space could distract me from the elegant Shinn Estate 2010 estate merlot from Long Island. Rich and supple, it was my star in a wide selection of American wines.
Even formal wine tastings can be memorable. At the Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond in October, I moderated a talk on how well Virginia wines age. Two stood out: the Linden Vineyards 2002 Avenius chardonnay and the Barboursville 2002 viognier. Both were fresh and lively, attesting to the quality of grape growing and winemaking in the Old Dominion. Several winemakers in the audience took over the discussion, so I just sat back and enjoyed the wine.
In February, I blogged about a sparkling rosé from Chile made from pais, the mission grape brought to the New World by the Spanish. The post prompted a call from Bob Luskin, the former co-owner of Bell Wine & Spirits in Northwest. He had one bottle remaining in his cellar of a California fortified wine made in the 1970s with mission grapes, he said, and it was time to drink it. This month, around his table with good food and good friends, we savored the Mission 1773 Angelica Antigua from Royal Host Cellars in Lodi, Calif. “Made with California’s first grapes,” the label said. The wine tasted like Madeira might have during the Gold Rush, combining a frontier spirit with aspirations for greatness. Bob had paid just a few dollars for it more than 30 years ago, but that night, with history swirling in our glasses, it was priceless.