Looking Back at the Future
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
With the imminent arrival of 1999, I can't help looking backward as well as forward. What were the issues that stood out in 1998, and what am I looking forward to in the future?
Since New Year's is pressing upon us, let's start off with bubbly. The good news is that lots of great stuff is out there from France as well as California. Much of it is quite reasonably priced, too.
But here's the rub: We are now hearing whispers of a sparkling wine shortage in the making, mostly due to increased demand for the expected millennium blowout celebrations.
This is, of course, an inherently self-serving prophecy, no doubt hatched by the bubbly marketing wizards themselves. Most bubbly houses have plenty of wine in stock. In California, a 1997 bumper crop created even more wine than usual, and you can be sure that producers are eyeing the millennium as a fine opportunity to make some quick cash.
I imagine there will be plenty of bubbles to go around as the year advances, but I won't be surprised to watch prices climb as we approach the year 2000. As demand increases, so will cost. My advice is to stock a case or two for next December while the prices remain low. You might also discover in the process just how well sparkling wine improves on the cork, as it picks up richness in mouthfeel and complexity on the palate.
Looking ahead, I'd like to make a request to restaurateurs for improved half-bottle wine lists. The other night, I had dinner at Postrio, in San Francisco, and was delighted to find that the restaurant's new sommelier, Sarah Floyd, had put together a serious half-bottle list, some 40 or 50 labels long. In France, good half-bottle lists are common, but in the States, if you want to enjoy a fine Chardonnay with your first course and then switch to Cabernet for your lamb chop, you often must purchase two full-sized bottles. Not only is it a waste of money, but it's also a temptation to drink too much.
Sometimes the only thing worse than drinking too much, however, is drinking too little. Next year, I hope to see more wineglasses on restaurant tables at lunch time. I know I've said it before, but it kills me to see someone wash down an excellent meal with diet soda or iced tea. And wine by the glass is not always an option, at $5 to $8 a serving. If restaurateurs would bring out more half-bottles, perhaps consumers would start drinking better at lunch.
Moving backward again, I'd like to recall a few of the more memorable stories of the year. Remember when Robert Mondavi Corp. was fined $150,000 for offering a case of wine and a dinner to former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy? Espy was recently cleared of all charges against him in the government's costly investigation of his perceived conflicts of interest. Does that mean Mondavi now gets its money back?
"There's no chance in hell," says Mondavi president and CEO Michael Mondavi. "Even though Espy was acquitted, it has nothing to do with the results of the independent counsel. We made a settlement. We'll abide by the agreement."
Mondavi will not leave this episode entirely behind him, however. Next year, he will travel to Washington, D.C., to tell Congress about his experience. "It was unconscionable," Mondavi declares, still smarting from the ordeal. "We were essentially assumed guilty ... I will be testifying about how unfairly they acted and what an abuse of power it was."
1998 was the year when collectors started spending incredible amounts of money for California wines at auction. The madness began when a case of Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 reeled in $16,100 (including the 15 percent buyer's premium) at a Christie's auction in Los Angeles. Dalla Valle Maya brought similar prices. It's good to know that some collectors are placing as much value on California wines as they do for more renowned European ones.
The best California wines have proved themselves the equals of the best in Europe for some time now. But I often wonder why anyone would pay that much money -- more than $1,000 per cork -- for a bottle of wine. There is just too much other fine wine on the market for a fraction of that cost. Having a lot of money is no excuse for wasting it. In my opinion, it's better to explore new territory than follow a cult.
And I used to think Petrus was expensive at $500 a bottle! Last February, Petrus co-owner Christian Moueix stunned a group of collectors when he told them he only received $50 for each bottle of Petrus; the rest of the profits went to wholesalers and retailers. It was just another illustration of how wine prices often have no relationship to production costs or inherent value. Someone, however, is definitely getting rich banking on the "gotta-have-it" mentality of certain flush collectors.
But enough grousing. Here's a happier New Year's note to end on. It would appear that chocolate, like red wine, is full of antioxidants to make you live longer and healthier. This news comes from researchers at Harvard University's School of Public Health. They recently determined that men who eat chocolate live a year longer, on average, than men who abstain.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to double your health benefits by eating chocolate with red wine, preferably vintage Port or a rich, ripe Cabernet (like Colgin, maybe, if you can afford it). With a presidential impeachment and hostilities in the Middle East, it's nice to know that some things really are looking brighter for the New Year.
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 West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. 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.