At the Wine Experience with Robert Mondavi, trash-talking chefs and ribald winemakers
Nov 10, 2004

  • The turbulence surrounding the sale of Robert Mondavi Corp. didn't keep longtime Wine Experience attendee Robert Mondavi away from the event. He and his wife, Margrit, took their usual seats in the front row, and when he was introduced by Marvin R. Shanken, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Despite earning millions for his company shares, Mondavi seems frustrated at the loss of the winery he founded. But he's still got the old fighting spirit. Margrit said, "It's a confusing time for us, but Bob never looks back. We were having dinner the other night, and he looked at me and said, "Well, we just have to start over again.'"

  • The Constellation deal still has a lot of loose ends. Insiders say that not all of Mondavi's joint-venture partners--who include Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Bordeaux, the Frescobaldi family of Tuscany and the Chadwick family in Chile--may be interested in working with the wine giant. The partners have the option to buy out the other half of their ventures, and at least one is seriously considering doing so. They may feel it's not advantageous to their image to have pricey brands such as Opus One, Ornellaia and Seña under the same umbrella as Wild Irish Rosé.

  • Sonoma vintners Richard and Alis Arrowood, who had a deal to sell Mondavi their Arrowood winery in 2005, are also weighing their options. "One is not to complete the sale," Alis said. "The other good possibility, because we've heard so many good things about Constellation, is to sit down and find out if they'll be as hands-off as Mondavi. The other option is we complete the sale and take that money and start a new winery three miles down the road from where we are now."

    Will he throw it or not? John Alban livens up the Syrah tasting.
  • Anyone who thinks enophiles are a stuffy bunch should have been at Wine Experience's Friday morning Syrah/Shiraz tasting. Christophe Baron of Cayuse was talking about his Washington vineyard, which is strewn with rocks like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and why he farms it biodynamically: "I like to see my vines and the dirt basically making love in the vineyard." Later, Central Coast Syrah producer John Alban compared his vineyard to Baron's, and not meaning to offer a double-entendre, said, "Chris is blessed with tremendous rocks." This cracked up the audience and caused Baron to bob his head in cocky bravado. Alban didn't look too embarrassed. After all, only moments before, he had a pulled out a beach ball and said he just wanted to see the anxious looks on the faces of the Wine Spectator staff as they wondered if he was going to throw it into a room full of glasses. Not to be outdone, Aussie Stuart Bourne, winemaker at Barossa Valley Estate, said his prop--a six-foot kangaroo--only made it as far as LAX. As his wine was poured, he said, "Despite what some people think, Barossa Shiraz is not something you're supposed to tar the road with or use to drop a cow at 20 yards."

  • While having dinner after Friday's Grand Tasting, Château Cos-d'Estournel CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats was shocked to find that Chicago's trendy Mexican eatery, Topolobampo, had no Bordeaux wines on its list. He asked the sommelier if there was any Bordeaux in the house, and she admitted that one bottle existed in their cellar: a 1996 Château Montrose, the other second growth in St.-Estèphe. Prats decided to forgo the competition and ordered tequila shots with sangrita instead.

  • On Friday night, or rather, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, a large black limo was seen visiting some of Chicago's hippest clubs. Wherever the limo arrived, Champagne flowed like some sort of vinous miracle. Was it a celebrity generously sharing the wealth? No. It turns out the car was under hire by Wine Experience attendee Nicole Ruvo, whose official title with Moët et Chandon is "Dom Pérignon Ambassador."

    Replate everything?! Charlie Trotter surveys the kitchen prep before the chefs' tasting.
  • A visit to the banquet kitchen early Saturday morning before the Four Chefs Tasting turned up only Chicago's own Charlie Trotter, known to be stickler for perfection. (When the photographer showed up, he jokingly told his staff, "Replate everything!") Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck had snuck out to the ballroom to taste some wines, and Emeril claims he had a hard time pulling Puck away. But Mario Batali soon showed up in a striking outfit: orange clogs, red socks, cargo shorts and an olive vest over his chef's whites. He wasted no time in trying to intimidate his competition. Mario said that Trotter--the most mild-mannered of the four going on stage--was going to have to drink a "glass of Cab before he starts. He needs it."

    Did you say something about opening cans? Mario Batali gets in a dig at his competition.
  • The trash-talking only got more intense when the chefs went on stage. Even executive editor Thomas Matthews, who was "moderating" the panel, joined in, saying he had to change the order in which the food was being served because Puck tried to sabotage Trotter's elegant eel dish with a rich pairing of salmon and foie gras. "Wolfgang's assignment was to do a fish dish. What sort of fish produces foie gras?" Matthews asked. "I didn't think you'd know the difference," Puck retorted. Before the food and wines were even tasted, Emeril told the audience that he and teammate Trotter were "going to open a can of whoop-ass." Later, as Batali was describing the ingredients in his pork dish, he glanced slyly over and said, "And we didn't open any cans whatsoever."

  • Is New York that close to Chicago? Apparently close enough to take a late morning shuttle, go to Scarsdale, N.Y., pour wine at a tasting and then return in time for the black-tie Grand Award banquet. Barolistas Barbara Sandrone of Luciano Sandrone and Enrica Scavino of Paolo Scavino did just that to make it to a tasting of their Italian wines at Zachy's wine shop on Saturday. Unfortunately, they missed the sparkling wine aperitivo but arrived in time for the first course.

  • Heinz Beck, one of the best chefs in Italy, looked worried moments before he received a Grand Award for his outstanding wine list at La Pergola. He didn't have stage fright. He was thinking about what was going on at his restaurant in Rome because, until that night, he had never missed a single night's service in 10 years. "I take days off when the restaurant is closed, but it feels funny not being in my kitchen tonight," he said. He looked much less concerned after he was holding the Grand Award plaque in his hands.

  • Two of this year's Grand Award winners are busy opening new restaurants. Severino Barzan of Bottega del Vino in Italy has opened what he calls "a copy" of his Verona restaurant in New York. He said either he, his son or his daughter will be at the Manhattan Bottega del Vino at all times, as will sommelier Mario Ciccalese and one of the chefs from Italy. The restaurant just went through a soft opening on Nov. 1, but Barzan said that by year-end, he hopes to have 2,000 different wine labels in the cellar. At the end of this month, Tru executive chef Rick Tramonto and former Maggiano's chef David DeGrigorio will open Osteria Via Stato, an Italian restaurant and wine bar, on North State Street in Chicago. The 300-bottle wine list, put together by sommelier Belinda Chang in consultation with Tru sommelier Scott Tyree, has more than 40 wines available by the quartino (1/3 bottle) or mezzeliter (2/3 bottle). There's also a program of tasting flights called "just bring me wine."
  • Unfiltered

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