A Wine Collectors' Shoot-Out

In this blind tasting, the loser pays the bill
Dec 29, 2004

I was nervous. I knew this could turn out to be a very expensive dinner invitation, but it was too late to back out.

James Orr, a screenwriter in Los Angeles who's also a serious wine collector, invited me to a "gunslinger" wine dinner at Campanile restaurant. Ten of his buddies would each bring a bottle to share. All the wines would be served blind. The person who brought the worst wine to the dinner had to pay for everyone.

"You'll be fine, James," said Orr. "I brought a bottle for you."

I wasn't so sure. "Is James the friend I think he is," I wondered, "or is he setting me up?"

Campanile is a casual restaurant serving impeccable Cal-Italian cuisine. It's very professional about wine service. All our wines were in numbered paper bags, with accompanying numbered decanters. All the diners had Riedel glasses in front of them, each numbered to the corresponding decanter. This was going to be a very serious beauty contest.

The first four wines were served with a wild mushroom risotto. They were all good, but none were killers. My least favorite were No. 2, interesting but a bit austere, and No. 4, a thin, tired claret. I said this out loud and was quickly told to keep my comments to myself, because the wines' identities would be revealed at the end of the tasting.

Three more wines came with a smoky coq au vin. These were all big, jammy reds, most likely New World Syrah/Shiraz. My favorite was No. 7, rich and voluptuous, with velvety tannins.

The final flight was served with a meaty rack of lamb. Wine No. 9 was the perfect foil to the earthy character of the roast. It showed wonderful violet and berry aromas that followed through to a big and velvety palate. I thought it was a new wave Spanish red. No. 10 was also excellent. It was balanced, silky and fruity. "Obviously a top California Cabernet blend," I said to myself.

A selection of cheeses arrived at the table to finish off the reds, and we voted on the wines. Orr decided that it wouldn't be fair to make just one person pay for the expensive dinner. "So let's say the owners of the two worst wines have to pay," he said.

Well, it was unanimous that wine No. 4 was the worst of the lot. It was slightly funky and tired. The next worst was No. 2. It was flat, alcoholic and slightly candied.

The bag came off No. 4: Château Trotanoy 1970, from Pomerol. The guy at the end of the table, an executive in the music business, looked horrified. It was his bottle. "He should have brought a younger wine," I thought to myself.

Then the bag came off No. 2. I took a double take when I saw the label, then stared in disbelief. It was Château Pétrus 1989. "My God. This is a 100-point wine," I thought. "It must be a fake or something." But an examination of the bottle proved it was authentic, complete with the New York importer's strip label.

"I have never had a good bottle of the 1989 Pétrus," quipped Orr. In a recent blind tasting of four vintages of Pétrus versus four Pahlmeyer Merlots from the mid-1990s, he placed the four Pétrus at the bottom. "It's an overrated wine."

I felt sorry for the guy sitting in front of me. He was stunned his Pétrus had lost. He had brought the sure bet from his cellar, and now, in addition to pouring a wine that currently sells for about $1,300 at auction, he was stuck paying a hefty dinner bill. Yes, I felt sorry for him, but I was glad it was his 1989 Pétrus and not mine!

The other members of the dinner party all looked relieved, too. A bottle of 1983 Rieussec arrived and was emptied in a few minutes. The losers pulled out their credit cards to take the hit for dinner.

The group's top wine of the evening was No. 9, which turned out to be the 1999 Martinelli Hop Barn Syrah. It was also my favorite. (I didn't tell anyone that I thought it was Spanish!) "My" wine was a voluptuous 2002 Marquis Philips Shiraz; it came second in the voting. The big surprise of the evening, however, was No. 10. It was a 2000 Gere Attila Kopar Cuvee, a Bordeaux blend from Hungary. I had never heard of it, much less tasted it.

When a Hungarian red beats Pétrus in a blind tasting, you know the world of wine is a gunslinger's paradise.

Opinion

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