Our most recent Friday night wine tasting took place at our friend Padmesh’s house. Pad, as we call him, has come to build an extensive Bordeaux collection which he has been sharing with us in the past few years. We have come to know especially the 1990 vintage through bottles he has opened repeatedly. Thus, on this occasion when he brought two decanters filled with red wine we pretty much figured they were going to be good Bordeaux’s. We usually do not engage in decanter ceremonies unless we lose a cork in an old bottle we had trouble opening, and have to decant the wine. Padmesh was clearly engaging in something special.
When the time came to taste these, Pad asked that we do a comparative tasting of the two decanters before he would unveil their identities, again a deviation from our routine of one bottle at a time. Something was up.
The first one was clearly a good Bordeaux, with a slightly vegetative nose some associate with Cab Franc, but also common in Left Bank wines. It was high extraction, smooth, well balanced and complex. It made a very good impression on us all. We thought we most likely were in the super-Second Growth range with this one.
Then came the second decanter, a more classic Bordeaux Cabarnet Sauvignon nose, good upfront fruit, but then, alas, rough tannins, acid starting to early, a bit rough in the finish. Had we tasted just that, say at a dinner, it would have been agreeable, but coming on the heels of a much more elegant and seductive compadre, it made a lesser inpression. Larry Johannsen of Wine Wizard’s immediately guessed this second wine as a Chateau Pichon-Baron, a Second Growth from Paulliac, and he was correct. Padmesh produced the empty bottle of 2002 Pichon Baron he had deacnted earlier and handed it to Larry, the winner of that home-run.
But what about that wonderful first one? Padmesh has pitted Pichon Baron against its name-sake fellow Second Growth, Pichon Lalande on several prior occasions, and the Baron invariably shows rougher than the Lalande. So we figured it must be a Lalande. My other choice was Cos d’Estournel, another “super-second” from St. Estephe.
Guess what? That first bottle turned out to be a 2003 Stag’s Leap Estate Cabarnet Sauvignon! Well, I’ll be damned! Here was the “Judgement of Paris” repeating itself in our own little corner of the world.
The funny thing was that less than six months ago my friend Kevin Cronin from Philadelphia, an old College buddy and grand wine enthusiast, had e mailed me, with much consternation that he had had a similar experience. He had a dinner party at his house for some connosseur friends, and opened an 89 Cos d’Estournel, a good wine from a good year, and an 85 Stag’s Leap Cask 23. The Stag’s Leap totally trounced the Cos, to the degree that Kevin was a bit embarrased and regretful about opening the Cos. At the time my knee jerk response to his e mail was that he had just experienced the “Judgement of Paris” in his own house. He agreed.
For those of you who don’t know, the “Judgement of Paris” was a seminal event that lifted the American wine industry from its post-Prohibition doldrums and set the stage for what it has become. It occurred in May 1976, set up by a rather pompous British wine merchant Steven Spurrier (weren’t all British pompous back then?), who pitted Napa wines against pedigreed French labels in a blind tasting mostly consisting of French judges and himself. To the surprise of the French, Spurrier, and I am sure the Americans, in both the white and red categories Napa wines won.
The white winner was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Alexander Valley Chardonnay, made by Mike Grgich. The story of the Montelena has been made into a movie called “Bottle Shock”, that was released in 2008. It’s not a good movie, and omits many characters involved in the tasting, including Grgich; it also merely brushes by the red tasting. But it is still a reasonably accurate depiction of the state of affairs then, and what a boost this event was to the U.S. wine industry in general.
The winner in the red category was a 1973 Stag’s Leap, which came ahead of 1970 Ch. Montrose and 1970 Ch. Mouton, two pedigreed wines from Bordeaux as runner-ups. Thus both Kevin, and now our wine group had a micro-cosmic repetition of the same event in our own worlds. I do not believe in coincidence in such situations. If it happened to us, it probably has happened to countless others. The conclusion of the Judgement of Paris still holds up, at least as it relates to Stag’s Leap, more than 30 years later.
There is a saying that “those who don’t remember history are forever condemned to relive it”. It usually relates to dire events that can be relived, such as wars, famine or pestilence, if history is forgotten – oh yes, and stock market crashes. In the case of the Judgement of Paris the saying doesn’t seem to apply, for I don’t consider ourselves as “condemned” to relive this event. I can easily experience such tastings countless times over and over.