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Sweet Home Chicago

The 2004 California Wine Experience turns a blues town red, white and sparkling

Dana Nigro
Posted: November 8, 2004

Jim Belushi (aka Zee Blues, left) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) entertained Grand Award Banquet attendees with music and back flips.
The Wine Experience made its first-ever appearance in Chicago this past weekend, and the new location felt like a home away from home right away. Longtime friends and familiar faces gathered from around the country, even the world, eager to partake in three days of stunning wine tastings, stellar restaurants, a vibrant nightlife and a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Robert Mondavi, Francis Ford Coppola and chef Emeril Lagasse.

In an age when large corporations are taking over an ever-greater share of the wine business, a strong sense of family ran through the event--the close-knit families of the world's great winemakers, the families of parents and their grown children tasting wine side by side, and the extended family formed by people related only by their passion for wine.

James Suckling with Château Margaux director Paul Pontallier and owner Corinne Mentzelopolous.
On Friday afternoon, Napa Valley winery founder and former Chicagoan John Shafer shared the stage with his son Doug, who is now president of Shafer Vineyards. Along with winemaker Elias Fernandez, they reminisced about the winery's 25-year history during an eight-vintage vertical tasting of Hillside Select Cabernets. The next afternoon brought nine vintages of Château Margaux, from the classic 2000 vintage to the monumental 1982, all made under the guidance of the Mentzelopolous family. Owner Corinne Mentzelopolous spoke about carrying on the legacy of improvements started by her father, André, who bought the Bordeaux first-growth in 1977, and of consulting with her daughters before deciding to buy back full control of the estate from her partners in 2003.

Sons and daughters of well-known winemakers were in evidence everywhere, speaking at the daytime seminars and pouring at the two evening Grand Tastings, showing that the next generation is ready to take over when the time comes. Barbara Sandrone of Barolo producer Luciano Sandrone, Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm in Germany, and Alberto Moretti of Tuscany's Sette Ponti represented their respective fathers on various panels. And this year's Distinguished Service Award winner, wine importer and winery owner Tony Terlato (another former Chicagoan) was flanked throughout the event by his sons William and John, who help him run Terlato Wine Group.

Sometimes the connection to the family business ran in the opposite direction. Central Coast producer John Alban, whose Alban Vineyards pioneered Rhône varieties in California, brought his proud parents along, and they could be found pouring samples of his 2002 Reva Syrah, which is named after his mother.

Winery owner Naoko Dalla Valle pours her 2001 Dalla Valle Cabernet for guests.
Among the guests were eight members of the Walsdorf family of Texas; parents Neill and Beverly were accompanied by their children and their children's spouses for what Neill guessed was their "tenth or twelfth" Wine Experience. Another Texas couple, H. Daniel and Maria Fawcett, who have attended the Wine Experience for 15 years, brought along their just-turned-21, college student son, Joseph Daniel, so that he could learn more about wine by tasting alongside them. "Joseph has a better palate than I do," admitted his father.

The repeat visitors have formed their own community, building friendships that have lasted over the years, spawned tasting groups and prompted cross-country trips for shared dinners and stays in each other's homes. Most visible among them were the growing group of red-hatted Wine Warriors, who turned out cheerful and perky for their now-annual 7 a.m. breakfast on Friday, despite late, wine-soaked nights dining at Chicago hot spots such as Charlie Trotter's, Tru, NoMi, Blackbird and Bin 36. Talking about tasting at 9 a.m., one Wine Warrior said, "You try to explain this to someone who doesn't do it, they look at you like you're certifiably insane." Yet each year, the regulars lure along more friends and convert them to their ranks. This year, about 15 percent of the audience was first-timers.

Robert and Magrit Mondavi received a standing ovation from the audience for their contributions to the California wine industry.
Many guests lined up at the ballroom doors well before the first night's Grand Tasting started, anxious to be first to get a sip of Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate. The lineup of 182 California wines was dominated by Napa Cabernet, of course, with established stars such as Opus One and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and newcomers such as Gemstone, Hundred Acre and Marston. But the state's diversity was on full display, as sparkling wines, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and dessert wines guaranteed something for everyone.

While the evenings were devoted entirely to California wine, the seminars during the day toured the world, providing a counterpoint to the Golden State's ripe, rich wines. The Wine Spectator Top 10 Tasting and a panel on Syrah and Shiraz both contrasted Old World-style wines from France against New World bottlings from Australia, Chile and Washington, as well as wines from Italy and Spain that showed international influences.

There was also an early look at eight top Barolos from the 100-point 2000 vintage in Piedmont, and a chance to sample the luscious wines of Hungary's once-legendary Tokaj region, which is rebounding from the Communist era of mass-produced, oxidized wines. Presenter Matt Kramer coaxed out enough of the tiny-production Eszencia--a nectar as thick as melted butter and as sweet as pure honey--for the audience of 1,200, marking the first time that this rarity has been poured for such a large group. Producer Janos Arvay earned a standing ovation for his generosity.

Top toques (from left) Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck matched their humor with serious food and wine pairings.
The big crowd-pleaser was the celebrity chefs tasting. This year, Chicago superstar Charlie Trotter joined last year's trio of Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. The wisecracking, energetic group kept the audience laughing with their friendly competition, while at the same time providing a serious look at how they pair wine with food. Each tried to outdo the others with dishes that reflected their personal styles, from Trotter's elegant terrine of eel and mushroom to Puck's luxurious marriage of salmon and foie gras, to Batali's celebration of the joys of pork and Emeril's exuberantly flavored lamb confit.

Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken gives a Grand Award to chef Rick Tramonto of Tru in Chicago and sommelier Scott Tyree.
But it was hard to top the fun delivered at the final evening's Grand Award Banquet. First, the annual honors were dispensed. Napa vintners Jim and Barbara Richards accepted the 2003 Wine of the Year award for their 2002 Paloma Merlot; at 95 points, it's the highest-rated California Merlot ever and a value at $45. Among the four new Grand Award winners were two restaurants in Italy: Bottega del Vino in Verona and La Pergola in Rome. Emeril Lagasse earned his second Grand Award, this one for his Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, while Chicago, with the addition of Rick Tramonto's Tru, now has four Grand Award holders.

Calling Tony Terlato "a hometown boy made good," Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken presented the Distinguished Service Award to Terlato in recognition of his 50-year career, which has spanned retailer, wholesaler, importer and producer. "While most consumers probably don't know his name, they are opening millions of his bottles," Shanken said. Terlato Wine Group markets 1.5 million cases of wine annually, owns Rutherford Hill and Chimney Rock in Napa Valley and represents wines such as Chapoutier in France, and Gaja, Pio Cesare and Santa Margherita in Italy. "Terlato almost single-handedly put Pinot Grigio on the map," Shanken said.

Terlato Wine Group's Tony Terlato was honored with the Distinguished Service Award.
Terlato offered a few words of advice to "the future quarterbacks" of the wine world, and he could have been speaking for many of the pioneers and current leaders in the room. "Consider quality a way of life, because quality endures, and don't waste your time looking for substitutes."

Reflecting upon the weekend drawing to a close, Shanken reminded the audience that the Wine Experience is all about philanthropy. Over the years, the event has raised more than $8 million and given out more than 400 scholarships to students at the University of California, Davis, and at other wine and culinary programs. It's all made possible by the wineries that donate the thousands of bottles consumed and the sommeliers who give their time to oversee the decanting and pouring. Next year's event will be held in New York, Oct. 20 to 22; then in 2006, the California Wine Experience will return to its original hometown of San Francisco.

With that, it was time to party. The band struck the first chords, and the crowd roared as Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi stepped onstage in the Blues Brothers' trademark dark suits, dark hats and dark shades. The band broke into Sweet Home Chicago, and while Elwood Blues (Aykroyd) mugged for the audience and wailed on the harmonica, Zee Blues (Belushi) danced crazily and threw in a back flip.

Director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, who own Niebaum-Coppola Estate, attended the Grand Award banquet.
Things started to get wild as the band moved into I'm Ready. Belushi jumped down into the audience, pulled women from their seats to dance and leaped onto a glassware-filled table. Soon, much of the crowd was on its feet, clapping and singing along. Evening-gown-clad women strutted their stuff on-stage and the Blues Brothers danced with Shanken, who gamely participated in their antics. The band wrapped up with Soul Man, then, as the crowd determinedly whistled and stamped their feet, returned for an encore.

By the end of the weekend, many guests were asking for an encore of the Wine Experience in the Windy City, echoing the Blues Brothers' lyrics, "Oh, baby don't you wanna go/Back to that same old place/Oh, sweet home Chicago."

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