Normally, I roll my eyes when a restaurant wine guy walks up to my table with a mystery decanter. But Stephane Colling, the sommelier at the Modern in New York, was so non-threatening about it, I only felt I was on the spot for a second.
Colling and I had already discussed what sort of wine to start with at lunch with some friends. I was leaning toward Riesling because I wanted something aromatic, fruity and easy to drink, but not necessarily sweet. That was music to Colling's ears, because Alsace is a personal specialty of his.
He nods and returns with a tall decanter of white wine. He is smiling, but it's not an evil smile. He pours me a sip. The color is a bit dark. Perhaps an older Riesling? I put my nose over the glass. It was like opening an exotic spice box, with hints of peaches and raisins. I took a sip. Dry, but broad, with a distinctive minerality to the pear and citrus flavors.
"I like it," I said. "Is there Muscat in it?" It could be one of those Alsace blends.
"Sylvaner," said Colling. "100 percent. It's from a vineyard that would be a grand cru if they allowed grand cru for Sylvaner." He fetches the bottle: Albert Seltz Sylvaner Lo Sono Contento Vieilles Vignes 2003. Not an older wine at all, but it has the depth and subtlety of one, none of the sharpness you can get from young Gewürztraminer or Riesling.
It is yummy to drink by itself, and cuddles up to my silky tuna-and-scallop tartare and the beet risotto across the table. We are draining the decanter fast, so we need a red to go with the main course. Having done so well with the white wine, I ask Colling to bring us a glass of something to go with each of our mains.
He returns with another decanter. He pours a ruby-colored wine into a glass for me to taste. It smells and tastes smoky, with the taste of cherries and currants in the background. But the best thing about it is its polished, silky texture, which lets the flavors ride beautifully through a long finish.
"Pinot Noir," I say. "But it's not Burgundy. I don't know where it's from." Colling brings the bottle: Marcel Deiss Pinot Noir Burlenberg 1997, and it makes a seamless match with my chorizo-coated cod.
In this mystery decanter game, the wines delivered enough pleasure to compensate for a (very) brief moment of discomfort. I didn't take it out of the tip.