At first, no one in the room could believe it. Wine Spectator senior editor James Suckling was moderating a seminar on Brunello di Montalcino at the New York Wine Experience. When he introduced the final wine of the tasting, Valdicava's Brunello di Montalcino 1997, he explained that owner Vincenzo Abbruzzese had sent the last six cases of the wine in his cellar to New York so the audience could taste it. He had no more. The crowd of almost 1,000 people in the ballroom fell silent. Then they stood to applaud.
Generosity was a theme of the weekend, Wine Spectator's 29th annual Wine Experience. A day earlier, Christian Moueix, whose family company owns several legendary Bordeaux properties, served his Château Trotanoy 1995 at a seminar on Right Bank Bordeaux. He explained that the attendees were drinking six of his last eight cases of the great Pomerol. "Wine is for sharing," said Moueix.
This crowd definitely agreed. From Oct. 22 to 24, some of the biggest names in wine, together with famous chefs, sommeliers and thousands 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 335 different wines were poured from 24,720 bottles into more than 45,000 wineglasses.
The annual gathering raises money for the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation (created in 1983), which so far has raised more than $10.9 million to support wine and culinary education programs, including scholarships for viticulture and enology students at the University of California at Davis, budding chefs at the Culinary Institute of America's two campuses, and many other educational institutions.
This year's event, the third in a row in the Big Apple, was a chance for wine lovers to taste the best from the entire world of wine, from the Barossa to Bordeaux, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to Oregon's Willamette Valley.
For the winemakers and château owners, it was a chance to connect with devoted consumers, which is more crucial than ever these days. It was also a chance to catch up with old friends and compare notes on the developing vintage. Many winemakers had to leave fermenting juice to be there. "It's hard to leave the tanks every year, but where else can you meet such amazing wine lovers?" said Brian Loring, of Loring Wine Company in California.
The “Wine Warriors” lined up early Friday morning.
A long line of those wine lovers began to form an hour before the doors opened for Thursday night's Grand Tasting. It was the first of two nights for attendees to wander through two ballrooms filled with 256 wineries pouring some of their finest bottles. John and Helen Leahy of Ormond Beach, Fla., have been coming for 20 years. "I missed it one year," John said. "I had cancer. But now I'm back and I’ll keep coming."
The mood was more ebullient than at last year's event, held just a few weeks after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Winemakers reported that they were pouring much more wine and meeting more enthusiastic customers. Some reported that business had started to improve during the summer and was steadily building. Others are still waiting for good times to return, but believed the crowd's energy showed it's only a matter of time.
Faced with 256 wines to sample, guests developed strategies. Some started with Champagnes (there were eight to choose from, including Taittinger, Pol Roger, Roederer and Krug) and ended the evening with some of the eight Ports, four Sauternes or two Tokaji. In between, many picked particular regions to focus on or compare, sampling all five first-growths of Bordeaux, or trying a tour of Spain, Italy or South America.
After a three-and-a-half-hour tasting, most people would sleep in the next morning. But not the Wine Warriors. The most hardcore fans at the Experience line up in the wee hours of Friday 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. Some have been attending for years, while others were rookies. Kevin Watrel of Hauppauge, N.Y., just turned 21 and accompanied his parents, who have been coming for eight years. "I have been hearing about this event and wanting to come for years," he said. "But this is the first time I'm legal. It's been great so far."
A dedicated team of sommeliers uncorked thousands of bottles.
At 9 a.m. sharp, publisher Marvin R. Shanken kick-started two days of seminars with a few questions for the crowd. "Who here has had a cup of coffee this morning?" Close to a thousand hands went up. "Stand up if you've already had a glass of wine at 9 a.m. this morning." More than 200 people stood to applause. "You people are sick," Shanken teased.
Soon everyone was having a glass, however, as senior editor James Molesworth led a seminar showcasing Rising Stars of the Rhône Valley. Molesworth introduced four Northern Rhône and four Southern Rhône producers, who gave details on their wines and explained the valley's unique terroirs. The wines came from legendary appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as emerging regions such as Vienne and Vinsobres.
Later on, Suckling and Moueix took the crowd on a tour of Bordeaux's Right Bank, tasting wines from eight of Moueix's properties. With the discussion focused on just Moueix's wines and with both men having known each other for close to three decades, the seminar was both casual and insightful. And the wines, ranging from Château Latour à Pomerol 1989 to St.-Emilion's Château Belair 2005, were a fascinating sample of what Merlot and Cabernet Franc can do.
After lunch, the focus broadened to the entire world. It was time for the Top Ten Wines of 2008 seminar, hosted by senior editor Bruce Sanderson and editor at large Harvey Steiman. The audience tasted the wines and listened as the winemakers or owners of the estates discussed them. There was plenty of laughter too, especially when Ed Seghesio, 82, described his Sonoma family winery's 2007 Zinfandel, launching into a spirited 10-minute monologue explaining his family's history, their methods in the vineyards and their approach to winemaking. When he paused for a breath, Sanderson attempted to move on to the next wine, only to have Seghesio begin loudly explaining how they sort their fruit. The crowd roared with appreciation.
William Deutsch received the Distinguished Service Award from Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken.
There was more laughter Saturday morning at the California Pinot Noir seminar as panelists Brian Loring and Adam Lee paid tribute to fellow panelist Mac McDonald by wearing his trademark attire—overalls and a straw hat. Loring and Lee handed out matching hats to the entire panel, and when McDonald told senior editor James Laube, “You look good in that hat,” Laube was momentarily speechless.
There was also plenty of exuberance at the annual Wine Experience food fight, aka the Four Chefs Food and Wine Tasting. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck were all back on stage, trading barbs, as executive editor Thomas Matthews tried to keep them on course. Each chef had to choose a wine to pair with a dish prepared by one of their colleagues. Matthews tried to best them in picking matches for all four. It was not an easy task. But between the jokes, it was an excellent chance for the crowd to consider what works in wine-and-food pairing.
As Saturday drew to a close, guests in formalwear gathered to sip Champagne and nibble hors d'oeuvres before the Grand Awards banquet. It was a last chance for the weekend's guests to celebrate and catch up after three days of intense tasting.
At the banquet, Ann Fitzpatrick Brown told the crowd, "I feel like I'm at the Oscars," as she took the stage to accept the Grand Award for her restaurant Blantyre, a gorgeous Victorian mansion hotel in Massachusetts' Berkshires with a wine list of 2,400 selections. Shanken presented several awards after dinner, including recognition for four new Grand Award-winning restaurants in Wine Spectator's Restaurant Wine List Awards program. "We dreamed of this. Our staff worked so hard," said Brown. Other Grand Award winners included Addison in San Diego, Joël Robuchon's new restaurant in Las Vegas and Wild Ginger in Seattle.
The weekend concluded with the classic R&B of Motown Madness.
Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle de Bournet was called up next, to accept the award for Wine of the Year, for her winery Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta Colchagua Valley 2005. She felt the recognition was not just for her team's efforts, but also for Chilean wine in general. "Thank you for this," she said. "We're going to put it in the winery and it will inspire us to go even farther."
There was also recognition of what the evening was all about—giving back. First Shanken called up Andrew Waterhouse, enologist and dean of the University of California at Davis' enology and viticulture program, which benefits from the money raised at the Wine Experience. Davis introduced two students from his program. Then Shanken gave Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award to importer William Deutsch, recognizing his lifetime of connecting family-owned wineries to American consumers and his philanthropic efforts to support education. Deutsch reflected on the fact that we spend at least a third of our lives working and how important it is to do something you are passionate about. For the people in the room, it was all too true.
Plenty of them showed they also know how to dance, as dinner ended and Motown Madness took the stage with a series of classic R&B numbers. Guests including Piero Antinori, Jean-Michel Cazes and Tim Mondavi raised final toasts to the weekend. Seghesio even took to the dance floor to show that being an octogenarian doesn't mean you can't boogie. And another fantastic weekend of wine came to a roaring end.