A Rare Feast
By Harvey Steiman, editor at large
Picture yourself on the flagstone veranda of the landmark James House, perched on a cliff overlooking the craggy California coast at Carmel Highlands. The setting sun paints the horizon a dazzling coral. In your hands, a flute of Jacquesson Brut Signature Recently Disgorged 1976 fizzes. Waiters glide by offering silver spoons of ahi tuna in truffle oil and creme brulee of duck confit.
Inside, chefs Joachim Splichal of Patina in Los Angeles and Julian Serrano of Masa's in San Francisco are preparing Monterey prawns, truffles, foie gras and fallow deer for dinner, to be consumed with the likes of Romanee-Conti 1971, Petrus 1964 and Mouton-Rothschild 1945. A total of 22 wines line the pantry table, each rarer than the next. Two dozen seats circle three round tables.
For $2,000 per person, you too could have partaken. You had to be quick, however. Three days after the announcement went out ("please inquire about price," said the brochure), the event was sold out. It took place Feb. 27, during the 12th annual Masters of Food & Wine, a weeklong wining-and-dining spree held at the Highlands Inn, just up the hill.
"We easily could have sold another 20 or 30 seats," said David Fink, general manager of the hotel. "A lot of the people here wanted to buy four seats each. We limited everyone to two."
Fink and Highlands Inn wine director Mark Jensen cherry-picked their favorite wines from the hotel's Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine cellar, matching them up in groups of three with the various courses. Chateau Petrus 1964, for example, shared the table with two American wines also made from the Merlot grape--Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard 1984 from Napa Valley and Leonetti Cellar 1990 from Washington.
Because the wines were so rare, the chefs could not test their food-wine matches. To their credit, the food connected with at least one wine in each flight to make something memorable.
Accompanying the Merlots, for example, Splichal's risotto of white and black truffles made the already headily exotic Petrus into a pig wallow of an earthy, funky wine, as hedonistic as a mud bath. Meanwhile, the Duckhorn smoothed into nice layers of fruit and spice and the Leonetti refined itself into something like a delicate rose, all raspberries and floral notes.
Similar things happened with other courses. A touch of cumin flavoring Serrano's cotelette of squab made a magnum of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard 1991 dance with extra currant and plum richness, even though the two accompanying wines were demonstrably more elegant and complex on their own. A magnum of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti 1971, a bit rough in texture but miles in length, and Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1988, ethereal, elegant and rife with delicate damson plum character, both lost some of their refinement with the food.
With Splichal's succulent Monterey prawns in a mild curry sauce, the star wine was the creamy and utterly refined Peter Michael Chardonnay Point Rouge 1992 in magnum, the winery's selection from the best few barrels of each vintage. It was also the most complete wine of its flight, which included a magnum of Mount Eden Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountain Estate 1981, nicely balanced and still fresh enough to show off its pretty pineapple and honey flavors, and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet 1988, unexpectedly lean and chalky, not fat and rich.
Serrano's medallions of fallow deer with wild mushrooms and sweetbread ravioli did all three wines proud in the strongest flight of the evening. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945, a towering presence with its exotic, decadent spice-box flavors, outshone the more refined Chateau Latour 1955, lovely plum and currant still showing through a decadent frame. Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard 1974, with its classic minty black cherry flavors, held its own in this company, showing tremendous length and complexity.
Jensen popped the cork on a double magnum of Gaja Barbaresco Sori Tildin 1990 as a surprise wine to serve with Pont l'Eveque, Parmigiano-Reggiano and a goat cheese from the Loire. The wine had reached a mellow state, and the gorgeous blackberry, plum and floral flavors emerged with engaging purity.
Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Gold Cap 1995, in magnum, with its pure apricot flavors and remarkable length, was my favorite of three ausleses to accompany Serrano's first-course terrine of Hudson Valley foie gras. The other two were Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Gold Cap 1990 and a magnum of Robert Weil Kiedricher Grafenberg 1996.
Dark, complex and elegant Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes 1967, with its honey and fig flavors and juicy acidity, accompanied an elaborate banana dessert by Richard Leach, pastry chef of Park Avenue Cafe in New York. Langwerth von Simmern Erbacher Marcobrunn Trockenbeerenauslese 1989, dark as pancake syrup but not nearly as sweet, showed more complexity on the nose than in the mouth.
After dinner came tiny glasses of Graham vintage Port 1955, snifters of Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac 1961 and 1929 and a humidor filled with Fuente Fuente Opus X and Cohiba double corona cigars.
Fink was inspired to put together this dinner after he and Highlands Inn chef Cal Stamenov attended one of German collector Hardy Rodenstock's elaborate tasting dinners last year. "We were floored by the wines and the format, but we thought we might be able to take it up a notch or two on the food," Fink said. "We could never match Hardy's wines, but we knew we could put out a pretty good range."
One element that made the dinner special was the setting. The James House, currently owned by the Ritchie family of Chicago, was built from 1916 to 1924 from locally hewn golden granite. An arch in the walkway copies an arch at Tintagel on the Cornish coast practically stone for stone. Architect Charles Sumner Greene designed the house to hug the cliff and create spectacular views from every room.
"If I could find a backer, I would love to open a restaurant here," mused Splichal, gazing at the view from the kitchen. He thought for a few seconds. "You could never make it pay, but who cares?"
Next year's Masters of Food & Wine will give those who missed this dinner another chance. As he smoked his post-dinner Opus X, Fink wasn't so sure, but after comparing notes with various participants over the weekend, he changed his mind. "Maybe a different format, a more focused tasting of wines, I don't know," he mused. "But we'll do it."
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from editor at large Harvey Steiman. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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