|Jim Belushi (aka Zee Blues, left) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) entertained Grand Award Banquet attendees with music and back flips.|
In an age when large corporations are taking over an ever-greater share of the wine business, a strong sense of family ran through the event--the close-knit families of the world's great winemakers, the families of parents and their grown children tasting wine side by side, and the extended family formed by people related only by their passion for wine.
|James Suckling with Château Margaux director Paul Pontallier and owner Corinne Mentzelopolous.|
Sons and daughters of well-known winemakers were in evidence everywhere, speaking at the daytime seminars and pouring at the two evening Grand Tastings, showing that the next generation is ready to take over when the time comes. Barbara Sandrone of Barolo producer Luciano Sandrone, Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm in Germany, and Alberto Moretti of Tuscany's Sette Ponti represented their respective fathers on various panels. And this year's Distinguished Service Award winner, wine importer and winery owner Tony Terlato (another former Chicagoan) was flanked throughout the event by his sons William and John, who help him run Terlato Wine Group.
Sometimes the connection to the family business ran in the opposite direction. Central Coast producer John Alban, whose Alban Vineyards pioneered Rhône varieties in California, brought his proud parents along, and they could be found pouring samples of his 2002 Reva Syrah, which is named after his mother.
|Winery owner Naoko Dalla Valle pours her 2001 Dalla Valle Cabernet for guests.|
The repeat visitors have formed their own community, building friendships that have lasted over the years, spawned tasting groups and prompted cross-country trips for shared dinners and stays in each other's homes. Most visible among them were the growing group of red-hatted Wine Warriors, who turned out cheerful and perky for their now-annual 7 a.m. breakfast on Friday, despite late, wine-soaked nights dining at Chicago hot spots such as Charlie Trotter's, Tru, NoMi, Blackbird and Bin 36. Talking about tasting at 9 a.m., one Wine Warrior said, "You try to explain this to someone who doesn't do it, they look at you like you're certifiably insane." Yet each year, the regulars lure along more friends and convert them to their ranks. This year, about 15 percent of the audience was first-timers.
|Robert and Magrit Mondavi received a standing ovation from the audience for their contributions to the California wine industry.|
While the evenings were devoted entirely to California wine, the seminars during the day toured the world, providing a counterpoint to the Golden State's ripe, rich wines. The Wine Spectator Top 10 Tasting and a panel on Syrah and Shiraz both contrasted Old World-style wines from France against New World bottlings from Australia, Chile and Washington, as well as wines from Italy and Spain that showed international influences.
There was also an early look at eight top Barolos from the 100-point 2000 vintage in Piedmont, and a chance to sample the luscious wines of Hungary's once-legendary Tokaj region, which is rebounding from the Communist era of mass-produced, oxidized wines. Presenter Matt Kramer coaxed out enough of the tiny-production Eszencia--a nectar as thick as melted butter and as sweet as pure honey--for the audience of 1,200, marking the first time that this rarity has been poured for such a large group. Producer Janos Arvay earned a standing ovation for his generosity.
|Top toques (from left) Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck matched their humor with serious food and wine pairings.|
|Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken gives a Grand Award to chef Rick Tramonto of Tru in Chicago and sommelier Scott Tyree.|
Calling Tony Terlato "a hometown boy made good," Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken presented the Distinguished Service Award to Terlato in recognition of his 50-year career, which has spanned retailer, wholesaler, importer and producer. "While most consumers probably don't know his name, they are opening millions of his bottles," Shanken said. Terlato Wine Group markets 1.5 million cases of wine annually, owns Rutherford Hill and Chimney Rock in Napa Valley and represents wines such as Chapoutier in France, and Gaja, Pio Cesare and Santa Margherita in Italy. "Terlato almost single-handedly put Pinot Grigio on the map," Shanken said.
|Terlato Wine Group's Tony Terlato was honored with the Distinguished Service Award.|
Reflecting upon the weekend drawing to a close, Shanken reminded the audience that the Wine Experience is all about philanthropy. Over the years, the event has raised more than $8 million and given out more than 400 scholarships to students at the University of California, Davis, and at other wine and culinary programs. It's all made possible by the wineries that donate the thousands of bottles consumed and the sommeliers who give their time to oversee the decanting and pouring. Next year's event will be held in New York, Oct. 20 to 22; then in 2006, the California Wine Experience will return to its original hometown of San Francisco.
With that, it was time to party. The band struck the first chords, and the crowd roared as Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi stepped onstage in the Blues Brothers' trademark dark suits, dark hats and dark shades. The band broke into Sweet Home Chicago, and while Elwood Blues (Aykroyd) mugged for the audience and wailed on the harmonica, Zee Blues (Belushi) danced crazily and threw in a back flip.
|Director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, who own Niebaum-Coppola Estate, attended the Grand Award banquet.|
By the end of the weekend, many guests were asking for an encore of the Wine Experience in the Windy City, echoing the Blues Brothers' lyrics, "Oh, baby don't you wanna go/Back to that same old place/Oh, sweet home Chicago."