Larry Stone and I started a sommelier tradition in 1997. We were working at Rubicon in San Francisco (which won a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine program in 1998). On Saturday nights, after service, we invited a few friends to join us for a late-night blind-tasting session. The original group was William Sherer, Peter Birmingham, Alan Murray, Larry Stone and myself. We decided on a theme and brought a bottle (or two). The rules of engagement were simple: the wine must be of good quality and a classic example of its type.
Over the years, as people moved on to other positions, the sessions stopped. But last week, we resurrected that tradition with a couple of veterans of the '90s and some new faces as well. We met at Restaurant Coi. Among the eight of us, Alan Murray and myself were the only ones left from the original group. Christie Dufault of Quince, who joined our tasting group when she moved to town in the early 2000s, was also there. Paul Einbund, partner and wine director in Coi, hosted. And we also had Cesar Kusik from Rubicon, my assistants Tony Cha and Noah Dranow from Michael Mina, Matt Turner from Nectar and surprise guest Jean-Laurent Vacheron, a top winemaker from Sancerre in France's Loire Valley.
The blind tasting was a little unfocused. There was a lot of energy gusting in the room, which made it difficult to be as serious as we used to be. A fight even erupted outside the window on Broadway (we were just off the North Beach nightlife district on a Saturday), which we watched with a mixture of horror, disgust and detachment. Cesar tried to break it up, but the guys really wanted to swing at each other. About 10 minutes into it, the cops arrived en masse.
Anyway, about the tasting--I must confess I started off on fire. I called the first wine as an '01 Hermitage Blanc. It was the Guigal Ermitage Ex Voto 2001. Rich and viscous, with a little too much oak and sherry-like flavors. I also surprised myself by calling the next wine a 2003 Vermentino, which again it was--Capichera from Sardinia. It was a great example of Vermentino (a grape I don’t drink a whole lot of).
I was in the ballpark for most of the other wines, though I didn't guess them all with the degree of precision I had at the beginning. Of course, that's the best you can really hope for. A 1995 Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Marie Beurrier was gorgeous, while a 1985 Meursault Poruzot from Jobard was surprisingly youthful. We closed with a 1975 Spätlese from Weingut Erben von Beulwitz. I was happy just to get the vintage right. Still, all in all, the evening was good for my ego!
But what was really important about that night—and what has been important about the sommelier scene in San Francisco since 1997—is community. So much of that centered around our anchor, our rock (dare I say, our Stone?), Larry. When he left the San Francisco restaurant world in 2005 to work at Francis Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, he left a hole in the center of that community. (There was also an epic goodbye party. Three-liter bottles of Gaja floating around, need I say more?)
Those tastings after service represented the best that this job/life can offer--learning in the spirit of fun, fun in the spirit of learning. The experience was like sitting down with the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine, except an interactive one that could offer you an example for each entry, coach you on how to understand it, and even tell jokes.
With lots of change happening in the city—new sommeliers arriving, some leaving—it now seems more important than ever to continue the tradition. Not just the tradition of blind tasting, but the tradition of getting together, of learning from each other, of solidarity. After all, isn't that what wine is all about?
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