At 6:45 on Friday morning, the city that never sleeps is still a bit sluggish. Viewed from the 26th floor of the New York Marriott Marquis, the streets of Times Square are just stirring with taxis, delivery trucks and street-cart coffee vendors prepping for oncoming office workers. Inside, the hotel's halls are quiet, newspapers lying undisturbed outside guest-room doors. But on the fifth and sixth floors, small groups of people—sporting red hats, red shirts, even red tattoos—have already begun to form lines, not for coffee but for wine.
Never mind that they had been sampling more than 250 different bottlings until 10:00 the night before, and perhaps gone out afterwards for a late dinner. They are ready for more. These are the Wine Warriors, the hardy and hard-core who think nothing of waking at 5:30 a.m. to be first in line to snag choice seats for the tasting seminars—after, of course, they are first in line to grab a plate of eggs and some coffee. (Though, truth be told, most go for the proffered Champagne first.)
|Cecilia Salvador got up at 5:30 a.m. to be first on line.|
"I like to be first," says Cecilia Salvador of Panama, who has been at the head of the line for several years running, along with a group of friends, including Harriet Becker and Mindy Sears, who showed up sporting grape-bunch earrings and a grape necklace, respectively. This year, however, the regulars had a rival in first-timer Debbie Hagen, who showed in up a "High-Maintenance Wine Diva" t-shirt and was disappointed to find that Salvador had beaten her to the front. "Next year, we told her, she has competition," said Hagen, laughing.
The Wine Warriors had reason to be eager. After Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken welcomed the crowd of more than 1,000 to the annual event, which raises money for the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, the day kicked into full gear with a tasting of Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2006.
Each year, the magazine's editors choose the wines that were most exciting for their quality and value, and the list reflects the changing landscape of emerging wine regions. "The Top 10 is no longer a parade of Bordeaux and California Cabernet," said editor at large Harvey Steiman, who helped moderate the panel with tasting director Bruce Sanderson. Old World and New World wines equally shared the spotlight, with five from each category.
Each wine was represented by an owner or winemaker, and the list was tasted in order of weight, from the Kongsgaard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2003 (97 points, $75, No. 8), the only dry white wine of the flight, to the sweet, concentrated Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes 2003 (97 points, $45, No. 6). In between were a California Pinot Noir, a pure Sangiovese, a Tuscan blend, Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, Chile and Washington, an Australian Shiraz and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
|Giacomo Neri presented the 2006 Wine of the Year.|
Giacomo Neri introduced 2006's Wine of the Year, the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2001 (97 points, $70), to big applause. Explaining his family's intention to make wine with great personality and elegance, he said, "Did we do it? I don't know … what's in the glass will give you more of an explanation than I can." The crowd certainly seemed to believe he did.
Introducing the Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien 2003 (98 points, 75, No. 3), owner Anthony Barton described the wine's style as "drinkable," adding that it was not meant to be "sipped and spat at tastings, not put away in a dark cellar to be visited every night and occasionally pulled out for a kiss to the bottle." He could have been speaking for everyone at the table, as clearly the wines were too tempting to leave untouched.
Next up, longtime Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer gave a passionate testament to the "wines of his heart"—mixing his preacher-style zeal with a wicked sense of humor as he shared three personal favorites: the Trimbach Riesling Alsace Clos Ste.-Hune 2001 (94 points, $150), Marquis d'Angerville Volnay Clos des Ducs (88, $75) and the Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala 2001 (94, $115).
|Matt Kramer revealed the wines that are closest to his heart.|
"I always wanted to come before you and taste what I can only describe as the wines I am married to," Kramer said to kick things off. "I've had some one-night stands with wine," he noted to thunderous laughter, "but these are the wines in my heart. They are the wines I have more of than any other; they are the wines I love above all others."
Revealing that the Clos des Ducs is the wine that inspired his love of Burgundy, Kramer shared a story about celebrating the millennium New Year's Eve with a jeroboam of it. While walking up the street, cradling the bottle in his arms, he recounted, "I turned to [my wife] Karen and said, 'If I get hit by a car and the bottle breaks, I want you to dip your finger in the wine and put it on my lips. It's the last thing I want to taste!'"
After Kramer was done trying to sway the audience to his favorites, senior editor James Laube ably took on the task of convincing skeptics that not all California Chardonnays taste alike. Bringing together eight producers whose bottlings are geographically and stylistically all over the map, Laube presented Chardonnays that spanned the 2001 to 2005 vintages and ranged from Napa and Sonoma to the Santa Cruz Mountains and Edna Valley. "You have to see the winemakers and taste the wines to get a great understanding of how distinctive they are," Laube told the crowd.
Peter Michael started the tasting with a demonstration of California Chardonnay's graceful aging potential, offering his elegant, vibrant Sonoma County La Carrière 2001, which showed only a hint of age. That was followed by a series of cool-climate wines: the crisp yet ripe Domaine Alfred Valley Chamisal Vineyard Califa 2004, the bold, polished Shafer Napa Valley Carneros Red Shoulder Ranch 2004 and the fresh, lively HdV Carneros 2004, represented by veteran California grapegrower Larry Hyde.
|Paul Draper showed the power and finesse in his '05 Ridge Chardonnay.|
Rising-star winemaker Andy Smith offered his DuMOL Sonoma County Green Valley Isobel 2005, a fleshy wine that he said "bridges the gap between the leaner Sonoma Coast style and richer Russian River style." The latter was evidenced by the creamy texture and smoky, nutty tones of the Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Ulises Valdez Vineyard 2005 and the intense, complex Chasseur Russian River Lorenzo 2005.
Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, who in 2008 will mark his 40th year at the Santa Cruz Mountains winery, poured the final wine. "Most people know him as Mr. Red Wine, yet there are many times I believe the best wine he makes is his Chardonnay," said Laube. The Ridge Santa Cruz Mountain Estate 2005 was striking for its combination of power and finesse and surely made believers out of many former Chardonnay doubters in the audience.
|Chef Wolfgang Puck with Willi Klinger of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.|
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck served up a three-course feast—including lobster salad with caviar, slow-braised short ribs and an apricot and almond tart—accompanied by some of Austria's top wines, such as Hirtzberger, Pichler and Kracher. Several food-friendly bottlings were on each table, from racy Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings to berry- and fruit-driven Zweigelts, offering the guests a good introduction to the country's stylistically diverse wines.
In the afternoon, the audience returned for a showcase of one of the Rhône Valley's most recognized names. Michel Chapoutier shared young vintages of eight of his sought-after single-vineyard wines, highlighting the varying terroirs of the prestigious Hermitage appellation.
"My idea as a wine lover was to say that I want to make single vineyards … there is no blending," explained Chapoutier. "I am not here to judge if the vintage is good or not. I am just here to help to transform the terroir into wine."
|Michel Chapoutier and senior editor James Molesworth.|
The tasting began with three white wines, the 2005 Le Méal and the 2005 and 2003 de L'Orée. All three are 100 percent Marsanne, with some grapes from vines as old as 80 to 100 years. Chapoutier explained that Le Méal's clay soils impart more power to the wine, while wines from L'Orée vineyard typically show more minerality. The dry, spicy 2003 L'Orée (95 points, $180) was a real treat, since very little white Hermitage was produced from that sweltering vintage.
Following the whites were five reds—all 100 percent Syrah, four from the soon-to-be-released 2005 vintage and one from 2000. The 2005s built in body and power, moving from the velvety Les Greffieux to the dense Le Méal and flinty L'Ermite, and culminating with the muscular Le Pavillon. The 2000 Le Pavillon (94, $280) gave the audience a glimpse of what the 2005s might become as their tannins and structure evolve. "You have equal quality across the board, different expressions of site and different flavor profiles," said senior editor James Molesworth. "I find that fascinating."
As the guests filed out, they could rest assured that more fascinating wines were in store, with the second of two Grand Tastings that evening and another full day of seminars ahead, along with the Grand Award banquet. Check back on Monday for continued coverage.
—Seminar reports contributed by Eric Arnold, Tim Fish, Alison Napjus and MaryAnn Worobiec
—Photographs by Kent Hanson and John Von Pamer