Twas the night before Christmas … and the first night of Hanukkah too! Pretty cool, if you ask me, as I’m all for celebrations. Considering the timing of my fortnightly ramble, I’m not expecting as wide an audience to be reading this evening. That takes all the pressure off, as there’s really no need to speak of any specific wine tonight. I figure that we’ve all got our wines for the holiday weekend in place, ready to be shared and enjoyed. So, for the sake of exercise, and since it’s the time of year to break out the good stuff, I will reminisce about some of my very favorite wines.
*I will go on the record here and declare any 1982 red Bordeaux ineligible from this list; much like the Beatles’ exclusion from favorite musical acts lists.
1985 Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
This wine was served as the final act of a dinner/tasting with some very good friends, and we formed a Bordeaux tasting group that evening. The concept was a good one. Back in the days when one could purchase First Growth Bordeaux for less than $200 per bottle, I was thinking out loud to a couple of friends. “I would love to try a bottle of Mouton, but wouldn’t necessarily want to splurge and just have the one bottle. But if you chipped in $200, and you chipped in $200, and we got a couple more friends to do the same, we could taste 6 bottles of great Bordeaux, and that would be worth it!” This idea caught fire and Carsten and I were in charge of acquiring the special bottles. The evening’s lineup, in order: 1978 Pontet Canet, 1985 Pichon Lalande, 1985 Margaux, 1982 Leoville Las Cases, 1978 Lafite Rothschild, and 1985 Mouton Rothschild. Such a memorable evening with close friends, great food, and amazing wine. The 1985 Mouton took the blue ribbon for its amazing complexity and sublime mouth feel. I hope to taste this wine again someday.
1985 Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard
My all-time favorite California wine. I have been lucky enough to have tasted ’85 Martha’s a handful of times. The very first was with some trader buddies back in my days as a NASDAQ marketmaker at The Little Nell in Aspen. But the most memorable tasting was at “A Taste For Life,” which was a charity tasting put on by Wine Commune in 2001. Due to the generosity of a good friend, I found myself seated at the 1982 Bordeaux table with several Bordeaux enthusiasts. Our conversations were free-flowing and full of passionate stories about Bordeaux. The lineup at our table was: Lafite, Margaux, Mouton, Latour, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Pichon Lalande, and La Mission Haut Brion. At some point after I tasted the aforementioned, I caught Shaun Bishop walking through the crowd with a bottle sporting that unmistakeable 1985 Heitz Martha’s label (well, it could have been the 1974). You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so I asked if I could possibly have a taste. Not only did he oblige, he was quite generous about the pour. I took the glass back to the table and shared it with the rest of those seated. Not only did the Heitz hold its own, it stood out with its abundance of cassis, earth, spice, and that quintessential Martha’s Vineyard menthol/mint/eucalyptus. I didn’t think a wine from California could stand up to some of Bordeaux’s legendary wines from a legendary vintage. I was wrong.
1988 Chateau Margaux
Back to my trader days here. A trader buddy (and one of the boys from the ski trip) from New York recommended I stay at the Eden Hotel when I visited Rome. He strongly advised me to eat in the hotel’s top floor restaurant, which sported a panoramic view of Rome’s skyline. The Colosseum, the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, and St. Peter’s were all visible from the dining room. My guest and I dined there the very first night and had such a blast during and after dinner that I tracked down the maitre d’ and asked if we could eat there again on our last night in town. “For you, Mr. Zavialoff, the finest table in Rome.” That’s what he said; no kidding. Two nights later, that’s what we got. That special table in the corner window with the view. Wow. So I decided to go for it and get the Margaux. This experience had a lot to do with why I’m here typing today. It was my first Bordeaux epiphany. Never, at that time, had I tasted such a complex red wine. It had depth, richness, silky tannins, and aromas galore. Our server was wise to keep the decanter out of arm’s reach. This way it lasted all through dinner. It was more spectacular than the finest table in Rome.
1985 Leoville Las Cases
I consider myself very lucky to have tasted 1985 Leoville Las Cases. I was given a bottle as a gift several years ago, and I was saving it for a special occasion. In 2014, my boyhood baseball team won its third World Series in five years, so that was special enough to pop the ’85. (I’ve got a thing for 1985 red Bordeaux.) I brought the bottle to Restaurant Picco in Larkspur, where I pop in fairly regularly. The complexity, mouth feel, and aromatic sensations that I experienced with the 1985 Las Cases, I would put up against anything I’ve ever tasted. My friends and I shared tastes with the manager, assistant manager, several servers, and Chef de Cuisine, Jared Rogers. Every single one of us were completely blown away. 30 year old Bordeaux, still tasting rather fresh, yet showing layers and layers of Bordeaux goodness which comes from time in the cellar. We collectively shed a tear when the bottle came up empty. All we had was a memory. A very happy memory. And the good news is that the generous gent who gave me that bottle has given me another. Thank you! I look forward to that special occasion.
2005 Chateau Coutet, Barsac
Not even a short list of favorite wines would be complete without the 2005 Coutet. It all started when someone came to our shop on Carolina Street and spent a long time in our Sauternes section. I engaged him in conversation and it turned out he was with Chateau La Tour Blanche. He was in town for a 2005 Sauternes tasting at Fort Mason. David made a couple of phone calls, and I went to the tasting. The lineup included Doisy Vedrines, Doisy Daene, Rayne Vigneau, Clos Haut Peyraguey, La Tour Blanche, Coutet, Guiraud, Suduiraut, and Climens. Each wine was tasted by the group at the same time, and all the wines were showing very well. I will never forget what happened when we all tasted the ’05 Coutet. The noise level in the room erupted and smiles and praise beamed from all the tasters. It was quite incredible. My own notes concluded with “Cover off the ball.” It gets better. I put my staff pick sign on this wine and somehow it got back to Chateau Coutet – to Aline Baly specifically. Together, we have hosted three awesome all-Sauternes tasting dinners, and Aline and her uncle Philippe have treated me like family ever since. Having grown up in the Boston area, Aline suggested I try it with lobster. What a great idea. I have very fond memories of 2005 Coutet and lobster shared with my sister for several years. This will always be a special wine for me.
Well, if you made it this far, I thank you. Without reason to flog a wine, I thought it fun to remember some of the great wines I’ve tasted. I don’t mean this to appear as a brag of any sort; but in writing this, I’ve come to remember the people and occasions which got these bottles open in the first place. For me, the most important thing about a good bottle of wine is sharing it. 2016 has been a tumultuous year; we can all agree with that. As I grow older, I become painfully aware that life is short. Some of the people with whom I shared the above wines are no longer with us. Well, we’ve all still got each other, so let me raise a glass and toast: To all of us, may we enjoy the company of friends and loved ones, share some good times, wonderful meals and fine wine, may we live in good health and in peace. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah! – Peter Zavialoff