Unlike the events of the past few weeks, I remember my first winemaker's dinner in detail. That's because I was working it. I was a waitress at a tiny pasta joint called Ricco's in Southern California, and, except for my husband who was a busboy, I was the only one who knew how to uncork a bottle of vino. The Clos du Bois vineyard had sent enough vintages for six courses. By the end of the meal, for which Italian-Swedish owner Ricco Erickson charged a measly 30 bucks, including tax and tip, my fingers were numb as an Eskimo's in winter.
Flash-forward, oh, let's say a decade, and I'm on the other end of the pour. For the first time since I've come out of the anonymous critics' closet (it was getting a little stuffy in there, what with Lee and Victoria and Pamela crammed in, too) I've accepted every winemaker's luncheon, dinner, and tasting invitation that's come my way. Conversing with the wine writers, merchants, and vintners who attend these soirees is among the best ways to expand my knowledge of wine, which I admit can sometimes be provincial. Or, as Paul Moe, the southeastern division manager for the San Francisco Wine Exchange put it at the David Bruce comparative pinot noir tasting at Ortanique on the Mile, I know enough "to be dangerous." Really, the lingering hangover is a small price to pay for knowing which wines are safe, so to speak.
Although I've never accepted the invites before, I've always received them. And it seems to me that this year, there have been more events than ever. Rick Garced, a sommelier for Johnson & Wales University, shrugged when I asked whether he agreed. We were at an intimate dinner, just three of us, at The Strand. "It's the season," he said simply, uncorking the umpteenth bottle of wine from his personal collection to complement Michelle Bernstein's delectable fare. By the end of the meal, I couldn't remember where I lived.
In vintners' eyes it certainly is the season to celebrate a good harvest, which 1999 is proving to be. Or to unveil new vintages that haven't been ready till now. The Biltmore hosts an event every autumn for Bordeaux growers called the Tour de Bordeaux. More than 40 winemakers bring their products for wine writers, merchants, and assorted enthusiasts to taste; this year they poured both 1997 and 1998 vintages. For the most part, this was quite a serious event; winemakers barely wet the glasses with enough liquid for one or two swallows. A worldly acquaintance chided me for finishing my glass. "You're really drinking the wine!" she exclaimed in horror (or horreur, since she's French). Sorry, I replied, but I have a fear of shooting the contents of my mouth into the communal spittoons that waiters are constantly delivering to the kitchen to empty; I'm more of a dribbler than a spitter. Besides, I have a motto: Don't walk away from wine. I escaped from The Biltmore before the doors were opened to public (two hours after the time the press was allowed in) and hungry divorcées started trawling for wine-educated mates.
It's also the time of year for Beaujolais Nouveau, a.k.a. red wine as unfinished as a Salman Rushdie novel. Previously tasted only by the vintners to determine how the wine was going to age, Beaujolais Nouveau became the rage in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Unveiled annually in mid-November, merchants await its arrival anxiously, then herald it in the streets. Literally. I once witnessed a caravan of Harley-Davidson motorcycles bringing the Beaujolais Nouveau from the airport to a French restaurant on Ocean Drive, where it was greeted with as much enthusiasm as Bastille Day. Bikers and Beaujolais -- talk about an unusual pairing.
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This year, despite my lackluster enthusiasm for the glorified grape juice, I attended the Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau tasting and dinner at Petrossian (an excuse to sample the food, I confess). This wasn't so much of a wine dinner as an excuse to party, to a strolling accordion player with an amplifier, no less. The Beaujolais was only poured for cocktail hour to enhance amuse-bouches, such as the silver spoons filled with scrambled eggs topped with caviar. Ah, the irony of a silver spoon and Beaujolais Nouveau in the mouth almost simultaneously. It became increasingly difficult to care about the wine at all when confronted with main courses like lobster-stuffed sole.
Some of these celebrations are open to the public, like the Duboeuf dinner at Petrossian ($60 per head) and the recent Iron Horse Vineyard dinner at Pacific Time ($95 per head). Chefs such as Norman Van Aken enjoy the challenge of pairing dishes with specific wines, and frequently host such events. Not too long ago at a Kendall-Jackson dinner, which featured both Van Aken and a budding chef from Hawaii, the vineyard representative provided a brief description of each wine as it was poured. We drank so many vintages that guests like CBS anchor James Hill and his wife confessed they're sometimes called Barbie and Ken, and the gentleman sitting to my left whispered suggestive comments into my ear despite my husband's glare.
Other celebrations have been prepared not because it's the season, but because it's the century. At Baleen, Beaulieu Vineyard poured an unprecedented selection of reserve and collection vintages, each one richer and more complex than the last; the millennium marks the 100th anniversary of the vineyard. During the Moët & Chandon champagne-tasting luncheon at The Strand, we sampled the rare Esprit du Siècle champagne, a blend of eleven vintages fermented in the Twentieth Century. Only thirty will be available for retail, and the asking price is $20,000 each. As we polished off the magnum -- one of only four allotted for tasting in the United States (the others were uncorked in Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas) -- we moved to the bar with undisguised glee to taste the millennial vintage. By this time, after 90 minutes of bubbles and no bread, cookbook author Linda Gassenheimer requested brioche to staunch her buzz. To no avail. We had three more vintages ahead. She could have eaten a bakery and still wouldn't have been able to drive home.
Events such as the ones at Baleen and the Strand are geared toward the press and local merchants like Crown Liquors. The sponsors intend that we pass on what we learned to the rest of South Florida, which is the third-largest consumer of wine and the biggest consumer of champagne in the nation. It's a major responsibility, but until my carpal tunnel syndrome kicks in from all that swirling and tasting, I figure I'm up for it.