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2008 California Wine Experience: Wine Soothes Troubled Times

Winemakers, chefs and fans gather in New York to celebrate outstanding wines, despite the poor economy and an unusual harvest

Mitch Frank
Posted: October 20, 2008

Bright and early this past Friday morning, just before the first seminar of the 2008 California Wine Experience, Wine Spectator publisher Marvin R. Shanken summed up the mood outside New York's Marriott Marquis hotel ballroom with a few harsh words.

"Subprime mortgages ... Bailout ... Recession ..." Then he switched gears: "Alluring ... Ripe cherry flavors ... Power with finesse. You choose."

Judging from the packed tables of attendees eager for their first taste of wine at 9 a.m., the crowd was choosing wine over grim economic news, at least for a few days. From Oct. 16 to 18, some of the biggest names in wine, together with famous chefs, sommeliers and hundreds of devoted fans, packed the Marriott Marquis in the heart of New York's Times Square to sample and celebrate outstanding wines from around the world. More than 300 different wines were poured from 10,708 bottles into more than 75,600 wineglasses.

The annual gathering raises money for the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation (created in 1983), which so far has raised more than $10 million to support wine and culinary education programs, including scholarships for viticulture and enology students at the University of California, Davis, and budding chefs at the Culinary Institute of America's two campuses.

This year's event, the second in a row in the Big Apple, was a chance for the West Coast to shine. All the wineries pouring during two nights of Grand Tastings were from California, Oregon and Washington. For many of the winemakers, the decision to come to New York wasn't easy—thanks to an unusual growing season, many areas have yet to finish picking. "Only two-thirds of our fruit is in," said Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles. Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company in Lompoc called it a crazy year. Normally his sister Kimberly joins him at the Experience, but she stayed to watch over the fermenting vats.

Several vintners worried that the crowds would be scarce with talk of a looming recession filling the daily headlines. "These are interesting times," said Agustin Huneeus of Quintessa, in an understatement. But those fears dissipated as soon as the first wave of wine lovers began pouring in at 7 p.m. on Thursday night. "It's our anchor for vacation every year," said Michael Petonic, who made the trip from San Francisco. "Even in this economy, when it's time to buckle down, this is a non-negotiable."

The Wine Warriors return bright and cheerful at the 7 a.m. breakfast.  
The most hardcore fans at the Experience are the Wine Warriors, a pack of attendees who for years have lined up in the wee hours of the morning to get the first seats at the seminars. Since 2001, Wine Spectator has been throwing an early-morning Champagne breakfast to honor them (or perhaps test their devotion) and handing out bright-red Wine Warrior hats. And once again, Cecilia Salvador of Panama was first in line.

For the devoted fans, the appeal of the weekend was obvious. Where else could they sample top wines from almost 200 producers in two ballrooms? Where else could they get to know the winemakers? And beginning Friday morning, a two-day slate of seminars offered the chance to taste some of the best (and rarest) wines in the world.

There were also chances to salute the people behind the wines. During the seminars several Oregon winemakers paid tribute to David Lett, the pioneer of Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley, who died of heart failure less than two weeks ago.

And unlike past Wine Experiences, Robert Mondavi was not in his usual spot toward the front. But his spirit was there, in the form of one of his wines, triggering one of the weekend's most poignant moments.

The Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2004 (95 points, $125) was produced during the final vintage in which the Mondavi family was involved with the winery and was featured in a panel spotlighting Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of 2007. "This is the first time Mr. Mondavi is not sitting with you," said winemaker Genevieve Janssens, visibly moved as she discussed the wine from the stage. "He is here in spirit. This wine is him." As she raised her glass, the crowd rose to its feet and gave a minute's ovation.

  Marvin R. Shanken presents the Distinguished Service Award to chef Wolfgang Puck, with the help of his friend Emeril Lagasse.
The seminars offered plenty of light-hearted moments too. Chefs Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck took to the stage to trade jokes and present savvy wine and food pairings. Executive editor Thomas Matthews picked some wines of his own to pair with the dishes. When the crowd signaled its approval for one of Matthews' picks, Puck teased, "He actually knows a little bit about wine. You can keep your job, Thomas. I thought you'd have to go work for Playboy."

Senior editors James Laube and Harvey Steiman introduced a panel of rising star winemakers from the West Coast. Senior editor James Suckling chaired a panel of representatives from Bordeaux's top châteaus who offered the crowd the chance to taste 10 classic and outstanding wines from the already legendary 2005 vintage. As Shanken observed, "One of the sommeliers calculated the cost of the 2005 Bordeaux we're having. If a person bought one bottle of each of the 10 wines, it would cost him $5,200."

Shanken also decided to put seven of his senior editors on the collective hot seat once again, holding a blind tasting seminar for the second year in a row. This time, each editor submitted a wine and all seven tasted each without knowing the wine or grape variety. Editors and audience members alike voted on possible varietals and then saw how they did. Once the results were known, Shanken asked audience members to stand up if they guessed wrong on every wine. Two brave souls stood up and the publisher rewarded them with free tickets to next year's event. One audience member got all seven right and also earned a free ticket for 2009.

The Wine Experience's wine service director, Andréa Fulton-Higgins, and her team of sommeliers, without whom the event wouldn't be possible.  
Saturday evening's Grand Awards banquet offered a last chance for the weekend's guests to celebrate and catch up after three days of intense tasting. California sparkling wines were poured at a reception beforehand. Amanda Tarkow and Nancy Kim, winners of Wine Spectator's 2008 video contest, chatted with Larry Stone, general manager of Rubicon Estate. Past Distinguished Service Award winners Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages and Piero Antinori of Antinori talked with Julien Sereys de Rothschild of Mouton-Rothschild.

Earlier that day, Michael Twelftree, owner of Australia's Two Hands, had called the Wine Experience "the Academy Awards of Wine," and in the banquet ballroom during dinner, senior editor James Molesworth took to the stage to present a big award for a big wine. Clos des Papes' Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2005 was recognized as the 2007 Wine of the Year. Winemaker Vincent Avril accepted the award and paid tribute to his father, Paul, sitting in the audience, who was winemaker before him and taught him everything he knew.

  The Pointer Sisters got the crowd dancing at the end of the evening with hits such as Neutron Dance.
Three restaurants were given Grand Awards for their wine programs this year and were recognized next. Franck Savoy, son of chef Guy Savoy and manager of his father's restaurant in Las Vegas, came up to accept the award for its program, accompanied by former wine director Stuart Roy. Next, Eric Zillier, wine director at Alto, accepted the Grand Award in recognition of the midtown Manhattan restaurant's impeccable offerings of Italian, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. A visibly proud Joseph Bastianich, with the help of wine director Morgan Rich, accepted a Grand Award for Del Posto, the temple to Italian food and wine owned by Bastianich, his mother, Lidia, and partner Mario Batali.

Shanken asked Lagasse to come up and help him present the Distinguished Service Award to Wolfgang Puck. Lagasse recounted how while still a young chef, he had learned how to make a chocolate soufflé from Puck. "It's on my menu and it makes me a lot of money," he said. Recounting Puck's many culinary contributions, he said, "After Julia Child, no one has done more to teach Americans about fine cuisine than Wolfgang Puck."

After Puck accepted his award, the evening's entertainment took to the stage. The Pointer Sisters belted out their classic R&B hits, and a crowd—including Puck and Lagasse—headed for the dance floor. It was a fitting way to end a jubilant weekend, defiant of tough economic times. There is never a bad time to enjoy good wine.

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