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Oscar's New Bubbly

Plus, the latest on Rudy Kurniawan's fraud trial, a 1961 La Chapelle fake, Napa's Chateau Montelena gets a historic honor and more

Posted: February 28, 2013

• Rest your weary, star-blinded eyes, America. With this past weekend's 85th Academy Awards now in the books, our long national Awards Season is over for another year. As expected, the crown jewel of the trophy circuit drew rave reviews in the categories of food and wine. In a surprise pick from the Academy, Oscar had a new exclusive Champagne in 2013, the relatively young boutique brand of Champagne Thiénot, founded in 1985. "We are thrilled that the Academy has selected our family-owned house for this prestigious event," said François Peltereau-Villeneuve, president and CEO for Thiénot USA, in a press release. "As a very small and young grande marque, being selected is like receiving an Oscar for Best Champagne!" Thiénot brut was poured at the reception, while the rosé and vintage 2005 were served at the Governor's Ball (more on that later). Last year's longtime official Champagne of the Oscars, Moët & Chandon, wasn't turned away at all the velvet ropes, however. Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut was served at host Seth MacFarlane's after party, while guests at the exclusive Vanity Fair Oscar party paired their Henriot Blanc de Blancs Champagne with artichoke carpaccio and Chilean sea bass.

There's more to the Oscars than Champagne, of course, and Napa Valley's Sterling Vineyards was the featured wine of the Academy Awards. Five different Sterling bottlings were on hand for the Governors Ball dinner, which was prepared by chef Wolfgang Puck for the 19th consecutive year. Puck prepared a menu of 50 dishes, including vegan pizza and Japanese baby peach salad, along with the traditional meat-lover's choices of kobe beef burgers with aged cheddar, Atlantic bigeye tuna and chicken pot pie with truffles. Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve 2009 and Cabernet Reserve 2007 were poured with dinner, and the dessert bar created by pastry chef Sherry Yard featured Sterling's Riesling Late Harvest 2011, Muscat Canelli 2011 and Zinfandel Late Harvest NV. "It is a tremendous honor to be able to pour our wines at an event of this caliber," Diageo Chateau & Estates president Claudia Schubert told one of Unfiltered's spies inside the Ball. "As a wine enthusiast, it’s a genuine pleasure to see how well the wines worked with chef Puck’s menu … the slow-braised lamb shank shepherd’s pie with the 2007 Sterling Reserve Cab was terrific." Puck too seemed to be enjoying his 19th time around the block as much as any other. "I'm not sick of cooking for the Oscars," Puck reportedly told journalists at a menu preview. "I'm not sick of making love, so I'm happy!"

It's been nearly a year since Rudy Kurniawan was arrested by the FBI and then charged with selling counterfeit wine, along with other counts of fraud. But the Indonesian national, 36, who once auctioned off more than $35 million worth of wine in a single year, has only just begun to fight. In a Manhattan federal courtroom on Feb. 27, lawyers for the government and the defense sparred over setting a trial date. Kurniawan, dressed in prison khakis with low-cut black sneakers, watched the proceedings silently. He wants the trial to start in September. No good, replied lead prosecutor (and fine wine buff) Jason Hernandez. The government plans to call French winemakers as witnesses, Hernandez explained, and they can't be expected to fly to New York in the middle of harvest. The government prefers a trial date as early as June. By April, the parties need to nail down a date acceptable to Judge Richard Berman, who put the two sides on notice that he wants a speedy trial even though, he said, "It's not like any other case I've ever had." Hernandez told Judge Berman that the government intends to "streamline" the case against Kurniawan by dropping two counts of double-pledging art and wine as collateral for multiple loans he took out. On the other hand, Hernandez warned that Kurniawan will be newly indicted on a "tax count." "We will wait to see the government's new, supposedly 'streamlined' indictment," said Michael Proctor, Kurniawan's lead lawyer. "It's unclear whether the government is doing this for tactical reasons or whether it has concluded that it previously overcharged Mr. Kurniawan."

The 1961 Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé La Chapelle seemed like a steal at $7,800. Another lot of the same wine had sold for more than $20,000 per bottle at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in December. Dominique Fornage, from Ecole Nobilis du Vin in Valais, Switzerland, sourced this particular bottle of 1961 La Chapelle from a reliable French supplier, who had in turn purchased the wine from a collector, who had acquired the bottle at auction a decade earlier. Fornage, who frequently hosts tastings of rare wines, was unconcerned with the wine's provenance—until it was uncorked for a group of Swiss connoisseurs in a tasting of 13 respected vintages of La Chapelle. Three clues triggered suspicions. “I had uncorked the other vintages, but when I uncorked the 1961, I noticed the cork was different—different color, texture and the printing was not the same. But that would have been impossible to notice if we hadn’t had the other vintages next to it and had a certain expertise.” Then the tasting itself threw up a red flag the size of the Matterhorn. “Three of us had tasted the 1961 in the past. We simply knew this was not the 1961: It was not a masterpiece. It was still La Chapelle, but a different vintage. There was a huge difference in quality.” Upon closer examination, they discovered the foil carried the tax mark for a magnum rather than 750ml. “There were lots of little things that you would have to know what to look for,” said Jaboulet winemaker Caroline Frey, who also said the price itself was a major clue. “Unfortunately we see this more and more. People send us their bottles for reconditioning, and we have to tell them we’re destroying the wine.” Fornage, who has encountered fake bottles of Pétrus and Latour in the past, told Unfiltered that the problem is “enormous, enormous, enormous!” La Chapelle bottles have carried the Prooftag bubble seal since the 2006 vintage. Caveat bibitor.

Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, Calif., has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Montelana joins a handful of other Napa Valley wineries already on the list of places deemed most worthy of preservation, including Schramsberg, Larkmead, Charles Krug and Far Niente. The 125-year-old landmark is being recognized for Alfred Tubbs' construction and operation of the winery from 1888 to 1920, and for helping put Napa Valley on the map from 1968 to 1976. Generally, historic properties need to be associated with events that happened at least 50 years in the past to be considered, but the National Register of Historic Places decided that Chateau Montelena's role in elevating Napa's reputation during the 1970s was too important to not include. The A.L. Tubbs Winery (christened Chateau Montelena in 1896) was an important Napa producer until the California wine industry fell into shambles during Prohibition and through World War II. In 1972, Jim Barrett purchased the property, which helped bring Napa Valley to international prominence when its Chardonnay was rated tops above famous French wines at the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. "We were pretty stoked to see that our family's and the Montelena team's contributions were deemed by others to be so historic in Napa Valley, California and U.S. history," said Bo Barrett, master winemaker at Chateau Montelena, in a press release. "I have to say it is a huge compliment and we all are extremely honored."

• Maybach Family Vineyards, maker of classic-rated Napa Valley Cabernet and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, is turning 10 years old this year, and to celebrate, the family is holding a blind charity auction for charity of 75 limited-edition boxes featuring a four-bottle vertical of their top bottling, the Oakville Materium Weitz Vineyard Cabernet. Each cherry wood box also includes a bronze grape cluster sculpture by Catherine Schmid-Maybach. Online bidding at MaybachWine.com starts at $1,050 per box, and winners can choose among nine charities to which 100 percent of their winning bid will be donated.

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