By Monty Preiser
If you were asked to design the quintessential retail shop for the true oenophile, you would be hard pressed to do a better job than simply copy Andrew Lampasone’s Wine Watch in Ft. Lauderdale. Not a millimeter of wasted space, scores of vintages and thousands of wines from around the world, a designated area where a loyal clientele gathers to share wines they bring and ones Andy opens from his own stock, and a proprietor (Andy) who is both expert in wines on a global scale, and perfect in his knowledge of where each bottle is in his own place. In fact, such a legend has this establishment become that few vintners or sales people get to south Florida without making a stop.
Yet Andy takes it all a step further by offering almost weekly tastings of rare and/or outstanding wines. Whether it be Cult Cab night, Madeira night, or a simpler dinner featuring the current releases of a top winery, something is always going on. if you live in or visit the Lauderdale area, you should certainly be on his mailing list.
I (that’s why the column is in the singular – Sara could not attend), along with 15 other tasters, cozily sidled into Wine Watch’s back room for a vertical of “Miles’ favorite wine,” the Chateau Cheval Blanc St. Emilion. As you probably know, the blend of this wine is close to 2/3 Cabernet Franc and 1/3 Merlot each year, and the winemaker gives credit for its longevity to the Cab Franc. For me, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about as I had never tried it. For everyone else (the majority, interestingly, were doctors) old Bordeaux samplings seemed to be almost passé.
The lineup of wines did indeed seem staggering. Robert Parker’s 100 point (if you put much stock in that sort of thing) 1949; Bordeaux Book’s 95 point 1953 (half bottle); Wine Spectator’s 96 point 1982; Wine Spectator’s 92 point 1985; Bordeaux Book’s 89 point 1986; Parker’s 98+ point 1990; Wine Spectator’s 91 point 1996; and Parker’s 93 point 1999. To give you an example of the value of these wines, the 1990 was released at $250.00/bottle and Andy had it marked at $1,175.00. Winesearcher shows about 8 shops worldwide carrying the 1949, with prices ranging from $1,500.00/bottle in Northamptonshire, U.K. to $3,500.00 per bottle in Centre, France.
[As an aside, there is an interesting story reported by Elin McCoy in her book The Emperor of Wine: the Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste. It seems that Jacques Hebrard, the then manager of Cheval Blanc, was less than pleased with Mr. Parker’s 1981 barrel sample rating of his wine. Mr. Hebrard asked for a re-taste. When Parker arrived he was attacked by Hebrard’s dog while the manager simply stood aside. When Parker asked for a bandage to stop his leg from bleeding (Hebrard denies that it was), Parker says Hebrard instead gave him a copy of the offending review. Apparently Parker isn’t one to hold a grudge as he did re-taste the wine, found it markedly different, and updated his evaluation.]
There is no denying that my palate runs toward California style wines. I have, however, tasted most of the great reputation wines from Bordeaux, many of them old vintages as well – and many selling for $500/bottle and above. And of course over the years I have sampled scores of younger wines with more modest prices. Nothing has changed my opinion that (as prize fighters are described) pound for pound and ounce for ounce France can no longer compete with California.
Thus, the most interesting part of my night was the question of what, if anything, we were really learning by tasting this vertical. Or was this perhaps just a fun exercise? The Francophiles in the room (almost everyone else) were enthralled by this opportunity and, to a person, they agreed the importance of the experience was to see how the Cheval Blanc aged. They concluded that since the 1949 and 1953 were still so beautiful, all the newer wines would age in the same or similar manner.
While I agreed that the 1949 and 1953 were exquisite (in fact, the 49 is on the list of the best wines I have ever tasted), I disagreed with the final opinion expressed above by the vast majority. To me, and I think it is borne out by logic, tasting an older Bordeaux from a particular winery has minimal bearing on how well most younger wines from that same winery will age. In that region of France it is all about vintage. In other words, wines from most Chateaux will age wonderfully in a good vintage year, and, conversely, will age poorly when the year’s weather and/or other conditions have been problematic. Thus, winery x’s great 1979 does not accurately predict how winery x’s 2012 will age.
Contrast that with California, where, except for an aberration like 2011, the weather is consistent and vintages are so similar that it is often hard to distinguish one from another unless they are tasted side by side. It is only under these conditions, I argued, that one can tell how a 2012 wine from winery y is actually going to age by tasting older winery y vintages.
I wish I could say that my position sparked a heated and collegial debate, but most in the room held the prevailing opinion otherwise and apparently saw no advantage to commenting on my observations. Not surprising, really, but this belief was actually and inadvertently contradicted by one of the doctors who had generously supplied the wines for the evening at a low cost. He pointed out the Bordeaux wines he cellared were all excellent because, “I don’t buy bad vintages.” This is really a tacit admission that in Bordeaux, at least, it is in fact all about vintage, which, I hasten to point out here, was, and is, my point exactly.
With that background, I can report that the 1949, 1953, and 1985 vintages were indeed magnificent. In fact, we all chose our two favorites and but for a few hands raised in favor of the 1990, the three named above took all the votes. And while I thought its still aromatic and fragrant nose coupled with spices, wood, and black fruit put the 49 out front, the smooth and aromatically brilliant 1953 was the choice of the group.
As to all the others? I thought they were marginally OK. The 1999 seems to bring $315 – $440/ bottle and the 1986 $330 – $530. You would not find me spending anywhere near that much. Most were too thin for my liking, and, as validated by the entire group, less enticing than the big four (’49, ’53, ’85, and ’90).
We concluded with a gift from one of the docs, a 1992 Chateau d’Yquem. Not bad. In fact, everything about the evening, including the erudite company, was lovely in all respects. Andrew, keep up the good work.
It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.
Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.