A question on Quora today sent me off on a trip down memory lane. Someone asked: „Which bottles should be tasted at least once in the life of a wine lover?“
My answer was:
Tricky, because simply going by name and vintage can backfire completely. In the 80ies when I worked as a freelance restaurant tester and wine critic for “Playboy” magazine, I was invited to a blind tasting competition in Wiesbaden hosted by Helmut Wodarz, the legendary chef at the “Ente im Lehel”. There, the best Bordeauxs money could buy (and we’re talking ’49 Mouton Rothschild, ’59 Latour and ’61 Haut Brion here; wines that cost over $100 then and probably more than $1,000 today) were to face off against some of the best Californian wines provided by the Nappa Valley Vinters Association who were out to prove that they could hold their own with the best in the world. The Californians brought along a selection of relatively young wines, above all the legendary ‘74, the “last of the old cabs” grown on vines that were 25 years old and more.
It was very simple to determine who was who: If the wine was brownish, muddy and had a “widow’s ring”, it was sure to be a Frenchman. If it was dark red, crystal clear and unblemished, it came from California.
The jury consisted of about 20 old and experienced wine writers, many of them also far past their prime, and they absolutely hated these “Coca-Cola wines”, as they called them, before they even tasted them. And since everybody could see which were which, they consistently downvoted the Americans and awarded undeserved extra points to the Frenchmen. It was farcical!
By far the best wine of all was a 1974 “Bella Oaks” which was presented by its grower, Joe Heitz from St. Helena, who sadly passed away back in 2000. I was privileged to sit next to him, and what an experience that was!
Remarkably, his wine, which he named after his wife Bella, had a very, very faint hint of mint at the back of the palate, which I found interesting and enjoyable. The old fuddyduddies seized on it immediately, complaining of the wine’s “bubble gum taste”.
I asked Joe where he thought it came from. “Well, the vineyard is located up on a hill near an oak forrest, and some wild mint grows there”, he said – maybe 100 or 200 feet away from the vines. But such is the power of grapevines to pull every tiny bit of flavor and aroma from the surrounding terroir that the mint made its way into the bottle anyway.
The geezeres couldn’t completely ignore the superb quality of the wine, but they managed to give it only enough points for it to come in third behind two totally undeserving, badly-aged Bordeaux.
But the evening wasn’t a total loss: I managed to persuade Joe Heitz to sell me a whole case, which was remarkable because the vintage was always sold out at least a year in advance.
I cherished those bottles and only allowed myself a single one each year, so I probably had the last sip of the best wine I ever experienced some time around the turn of the century – but the taste still lingers!