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The Novelty of Classic Wines

Posted: Oct 30, 2007 5:37pm ET

The Wine Experience is always great, but a lot of the action also occurs after the event during the dinner hour, when the thousands of participants invade some of the best restaurants in New York City.
I had interesting experience at BLT Steak last Friday night. I went to dinner there with Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri (the 2006 Wine of the Year winner), Bruna Giacosa of Bruno Giacosa and Enrica Scavino of Paolo Scavino. Everyone was in the mood for a great steak following a successful evening at the Spectator's Grand Tour tasting. And we found it at BLT.
The Italians were also interested in trying a California Pinot Noir -- something a little different from Brunello and Barolo. So I asked the sommelier to make a choice for us, since most of the names on the list I had not heard of. In fact, most of the names in the Pinot Noir section were a mystery. From what I can see, at least on the East and West Coasts, there is a growing trend for leading restaurants to try to put tiny-production wines on their lists that few people can find or even know about. And they like it even better if they have never been reviewed by critics.
This can be interesting. And you sometimes can discover some gems. But I think you can also encounter some pretty average wines at very high prices. Some wines are more like home-made brews.
Take, for example, the wine we were recommended, ­2005 George III Pinot Noir Nuptial Vineyard Russian River Valley. I didn't get the story, but the sommelier said something like the wine was a "hand-made" Pinot, that a restaurant guy in Napa only had a few barrels and blah, blah, blah. The funky label of the wine says 3,846 bottles were made; so it wasn't as small a production as that.
Anyway,  what a disappointment. The George Pinot was cloudy when it was poured and tasted of stale strawberry jam with vanilla flavoring. It was alcoholic and watery on the finish. And at about a buck fifty on the list -- ouch!

The Italians were shocked. They couldn¹t believe how bad it was. Giacosa said, "I wouldn¹t even sell this in bulk."
Anyway, we quickly ordered a bottle of 2002 Michel Lafarge Volnay before our steaks got cold. And the wine was a dream: fresh, floral and perfumed, it showed medium body, with fine tannins and a long caressing finish. It was a little tight, but with 20 minutes in the glass, it opened beautifully. 91 points, non-blind. Same price on the list as our George.
The sommelier didn't understand why we ordered the Volnay; he thought it was too hard and it wouldn't come around.
The experience still makes me wonder. Are some people misinterpreting novelty for quality? And what's wrong with the classic character of wines like the Lafarge Volnay?

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  October 30, 2007 8:14pm ET
Very interesting. I am not a Pinot fan in general (esp with steak...). The main issue is one of cost to quality ratios amongst California wines--esp the small volume producers. We are "blessed" with extraordinarily high land and labor costs -- this affects the new guys much more so than the estabilshed vintners (ask me how I know that!). So how do you make a profit and still make a product with some balance in the QPR? i do not know the answer but certainly critical review is important. In your circumstance (in the absence of ratings), I would blame the sommelier -- it is unlikely that a cloudy stale wine is the result of spoilage or bottle variation or that someone might actually like this in a wine -- he or she needs to prescreen the wine prior to purchase and notify the vintner of the problem (as opposed to passing it off on the consumer). Did he know who you all were?? That being said, I would have ordered that Grenache you all tasted at the wine experience and called it a day!
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 30, 2007 8:17pm ET
I think it should come as no surprise to you or anyone else that as the number of labels continues to explode, the number of wines that are not 'up to par' will as well. There are a lot of wines being made these days by folks that have 'gotten the wine bug' but may not understand all of the nuances of what it takes to make 'quality' wine. That is not to say that one needs 'formal' training to make great wine - on the contrary, there are many many examples of great winemakers that have no formal 'enology' education background. But without that training, nor the hands-on training of working with someone who truly knows what he or she is doing, suspect decisions may be made along the way . . . And it is a long path between choosing when to pick those grapes until that wine is finally in bottle . . .In addition, I believe that is a growing list of winemakers making 'unfined and unfiltered' wine in the US. I can understand why on one hand . . . but the 'scientific' part of my brain says 'why in the heck would you do that'?????? Why put so much time and effort into producing a product only to see 'something else' take over after bottling, especially if the wine is shipped across country and whatever is still living in the wine has a chance to 'bloom'?!?!?I'll get off my soapbox now, but thanks for the blog and the interesting observation! Ciao!
Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  October 30, 2007 8:49pm ET
Is it mis-interpreting or, a sales thesis where you can work the distributor for a price (on an obscure wine) and enjoy more margin dollars at retail - spinning it as handcrafted/limited production?
John Osgood
New York, NY —  October 31, 2007 10:03am ET
What did you think of the steak at BLT? I recently dined at BLT Prime and found the food overpriced and underwhelming. However, the high point was the discovery of Whetstone Pinot Noir. The sommelier recommended the 2005 Pleasant Hill and it was brilliant. This weekend I tried BLT Burger and found it again very overpriced and not in the same league as the top NYC burger spots.
Jason Schulze
Houston/Texas —  October 31, 2007 10:18am ET
James: I agree with your sentiments on the pursuit of "novelty" wines. I am all for trying something new and interesting, but simply because something is not readily available in the marketplace does not mean that hundres of other bottles that are available should take a back seat. As an aside, my wife and I have been discussing a topic lately and I was hoping to get an answer from you or James Laube. How much wine do you guys drink on a regular evening? I am not counting tastings or the like, but just a normal evening with dinner. Really enjoy the blog.-Jason
Anton C Kowalski
Wichita, Kansas —  October 31, 2007 11:49am ET
James, I think what you're seeing here is part of a problamatic but ongoing trend in both the restaurant and package store trade where sommeliers are becoming more "sales reps" than sommeliers. Their job in my point-of-view is not just keeping a well stocked cellar but suggesting and presenting wines that will complement the menu items, engage the customer with the meal at hand and enhance their dining and wine experience. I see less and less of this in restaurants in my trade and more "novelty" presentations of new unproven small and large production wines. In addition, it sounds to me that this wine should have never been on the list in the first place unless, the sommelier mistook the wines profile for a "stylistic nuance" but based on your tasting notes that really makes me wonder. Anton.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  October 31, 2007 12:07pm ET
James, I looked at the wine list online and I would have just gone with the Marcassin for $70 more dollars. They did seem to have many unfamiliar pinots, and my experience tells me that for some reason some people like that fake candied flavor that garbage pinots put forth, but it is usually the less expensive ones. I think that the more expensive wines should show true characteristics of the grape, and the sommelier should leave the "fake" wines to the inexpensive end.
James Suckling
 —  October 31, 2007 12:08pm ET
John. I too was a little underwhelmed this time around. I have been going to BLT Steak for a number of years and it just didn't have the excitement or the precision on the plate. May be I am jaded?
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  October 31, 2007 3:04pm ET
I've got to fault the sommelier for this one. For the same price (and in most instances, far less) he could have brought you a Brewer-Clifton, Littorai, WesMar or Williams-Selyem Pinot. Why he would have steered (sorry for the pun) you toward an unknown wine at such a high price is beyond me. Or maybe it isn't beyond me. Classic case of up-selling. I have to assume that he has tasted this wine beore, which leaves us with two possibilities. If he has tasted this wine and loved it, then his credentials as a sommelier are in doubt. If he has tasted this wine and didn't care for it, and recommended it to you, then his credentials as a sommelier are beyond doubt and he is a fraud. Aside from odering a different bottle, did you express your disappointment with his suggestion?
John Osgood
New York, NY —  October 31, 2007 3:47pm ET
James - for steaks in NYC my favorites are Sparks, Del Frisco's and The Strip House. The bone in rib-eye at Del Frisco's has been insane my last two visits. Great wine list as well.
Jason Fernandez
Boston, MA —  October 31, 2007 3:52pm ET
I agree that more and more sommeliers are mistaking novelty for quality. I don't know when the contest to find the most obscure wine started or when the contest to see who could get the most bottlings "available only to us" started, but I'd wish it would end. I realize that in order to grow you have to step outside your borders, but $100 bottles are not where you explore. Also, I've noticed an increasing lack of assistance from sommeliers while dining in Boston. Just a couple of weeks ago I had asked for assistance in selecting a red Burgundy, where I am inexperienced. Noting that I was looking for something silky and elegant that had a nice balance of fruit and earth, I was told to "just order a pinot from CA, there is no fruit in red Burgundy." Thanks for the help! Your post is also timely as the below article appeared in the Boston Globe today.http://www.boston.com/ae/food/wine/articles/2007/10/31/some_of_these_sommeliers_wines_are_older_than_they_are/
Eric P Guido
New York, NY —  October 31, 2007 6:46pm ET
Ummm... Welcome to New York. I myself am a chef at a NY restaurant, at night, and although my day job affords me the ability to eat out at fancy restaurants (being a chef doesn't pay well until you reach the upper echelon, hence the day job that pays). I found that my own restaurant has a horrible wine list (no names please) because it's more about having a sexy head of beverage director than it is about the wine. For a good wine list and knowledgeable sommeliers, try Babbo or il Trulli.
Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  October 31, 2007 7:35pm ET
Maybe the distributor had a $20 Spiff going on the George Pinot?
Kevin Callahan
Montreal, QC —  October 31, 2007 9:27pm ET
Hard to imagine how such a sommelier would feel to know just who he was recommending such a wine to. With all respect to you James, I'm referring mostly to your guests. Just a little surreal I would think.
James Suckling
 —  November 1, 2007 8:57am ET
It was surreal. But it's there on video...
J J Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  November 2, 2007 9:41am ET
James, I am a West Coast Pinot fan and have tried the George. I am shocked that the Som choose that wine to recommend to anyone, but particulary to you. I do not believe it to be representative of California Pinot. Frankly, I am surprised it is on a wine list anywhere. I have had this discussion with many 'winos', and most agree that West Coast pinots are a different animal than French pinots. Each has their time and place (in my heart) I'm wondering if you have tried any others that you have enjoyed? Perhaps Kosta Browne which has made the WS top 100?
Tom Hudson
Wilmington, Delaware —  November 4, 2007 11:19am ET
But James, your employer WS, gave this establishment's wine list its "Best of Award of Excellence" award.If a restaurant, according to you, offers and recommends higher end wines you've never heard of and they seriously under-impress you (enough to write a blog entry), is that truly "Excellence"?
James Suckling
 —  November 4, 2007 1:09pm ET
The wine list is excellent. There's lots of good things to drink. Just the sommelier made a bad selection. Nobody's perfect.
Richard Robertson
Charleston, SC —  November 4, 2007 8:42pm ET
Talk about bad timing. Right after your blog is posted I get an e-mail from one of the wine shops that I frequently purchase from and they are trying to sell their allocation of the same wine and are discussing how difficult the wine is to find and how numerous well known sommeliers love the wines. Guess they didn't catch your blog and video.
James Suckling
 —  November 5, 2007 1:25pm ET

George Russian River Pinot Noirs are a true phenomenon. Fewer than 500 cases are produced in an Old World, hand-crafted style by George Levkoff, with the lion¿s share being personally delivered by George to Las Vegas, where over 40 restaurants, including Prime, Daniel Baloud, Delmonico¿s and five Spagos, offer it on their wine menus. (George is justifiably proud that nine Master Sommeliers in Las Vegas buy his wine!) Before heading to Nevada, however, George also comes our way, placing his wine at great dining spots such as Cut, Craft and Campanile. Wally¿s delivery of George Pinot Noir has just landed. Understandably, we must impose a strict 4-bottle limit per vineyard-designate in an attempt to let as many of our E-Club members taste what all the fuss is about. 2006 George Pinot NoirLeras Family Vineyard $74.99 4 Bottle Limit 2006 George Pinot NoirMarta Ella Vineyard $74.99 4 Bottle Limit 2006 George Pinot NoirNuptial Vineyard $74.99 4 Bottle Limit
Heidi French
November 7, 2007 12:24am ET
My husband lost all respect for sommeliers at any restaurant from an experience at Domaine Chandon's restaurant, where he asked the sommelier what blend the claret was that was labeled under the house wine (can't remember which label) - the sommelier responded confidently with 'it's 100% claret'.
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  February 11, 2008 4:58pm ET
Try the 2005 WesMar Olivet Lane: I had one last night & it's wonderful, very reminiscent of the great Williams Selyem wines of old. Not sure how much it would be on a restaurant list, but it's $37 a bottle at the winery.

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