Charity Dinner at The French Laundry

  • Robert M. Parker, Jr.

  • 01 May 2002 | Events

This charity dinner benefitted the scholarship program for San Francisco's Hamlin School. One of the distinguished participants on Mark Squires' message board, Bill Langelier, and his wife, Carolyn, purchased this dinner. Aside from the brilliant cuisine of owner/chef Thomas Keller, part of the appeal was a remarkable array of some of California's most highly prized wines, along with some top-notch white Burgundies. I was thrilled to participate in such a remarkable assortment of wine and food.

Some comments on Thomas Keller and what I see as the direction of his cooking at The French Laundry. Over the last few years, The French Laundry has made it into the year-end review of my finest meals. That being said, I wonder if Keller is not beginning to put concept over performance. He has always been known for brilliant artistry in the kitchen, serving small portions of miniaturized dishes that are impeccably put together, innovative, and intensely flavored. A meal here can last 4-5 hours, and it is almost impossible to feel full, even after what would appear to be enormous quantities of food. For those who have never eaten here, it seems to me that Keller's cooking is still at a high level, but it appears that the portion size has become even more miniaturized, to the point where he may be becoming a victim of his own philosophy. For example, the third course, the Jelly Belly, was served in a large, over-sized bowl (6-8 inches in depth), with a quarter of an inch of food in the bottom. One good spoonful, and the dish was history. It had fabulous flavors, but this type of extremism seems to be an overwrought exercise in miniaturized cooking at the expense of the diner. Now, don't get me wrong. Some would say I'm just a glutton, always wanting too much food, but when I tasted the phenomenal Cochon au Lait, I literally had two tiny forkfuls on my oversized plate. The flavors were fabulous, but the portion carved for a table of ten was essentially a portion for two. I admire this guy's cooking, but I wonder if his effort to miniaturize everything hasn't been carried too far. As far as flavors and artistry, no one will be disappointed. I would just liked to have had more than one or two spoonfuls per dish.

As some readers may know, Thomas Keller is opening a branch of The French Laundry in, of all places, mid-town Manhattan. I wish him all the success as he is a genius in the kitchen, but my prediction is that if the portions are this tiny, and he is an absentee chef for most meals, that city will prove to be a hard one to win over.

Bill and Carolyn Langelier, as well as all their guests, were great company, true lovers of food and wine, and passionate about everything we ate and drank, making the night a great deal of fun.

As for the wines, the 1990 Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill is great Champagne. Still young, vibrant, full-bodied, and loaded, it is the type of sparkling wine that is produced nowhere else in the world. It was followed by a provocative flight of white Burgundies. My favorite was the sensational 1985 Louis Jadot Chevalier Montrachet Les Demoiselles. Jadot's winemaker, Jacques Lardière, tends to do only a partial malolactic for his whites, giving them an aging potential as well as vivacity that has as many admirers as detractors. Nevertheless, this wine stood out in the flight as pristine, pure, and incredibly young for a 17-year old white Burgundy. Michel Niellon's 1997 Chevalier Montrachet had some excess SO2 in the nose (a problem I have noted in almost all his 1997s), but once it blew off, there was plenty of texture and richness. While still young, this 1997 appears to have a promising future. But how could a guy as good as Niellon be so heavy-handed with the SO2? The Domaine Ramonet's 1978 Bâtard Montrachetrevealed a more mature, fino sherry-like nose as well as mineral notes. It was medium-bodied, with vibrant acidity giving it a tart, fresh feel on the palate, but the acidity seemed to compress the wine. It was somewhat paradoxical, with mature aromas but lively, high acid flavors. I couldn't get excited by it, particularly after the brilliant 1985 Jadot Chevalier Montrachet.

The flight of Araujo Estate Cabernets proved once again that the 1995 Eisele Vineyard is one of the greats. The 1995 outperformed the brilliant 1994 and the more tannic, monolithic 1996. Like the 1994, the sensational 1995 is loaded with minerals, blackberry, and crème de cassis-like fruit, offered in a remarkably elegant, medium to full-bodied style. Those who keep insisting that so many of these limited production California wines are overly wrought and too big and thick must not be tasting the wines. In any event, both the 1994 and 1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard cuvées are delicious now, but have a good 15-20 years of life ahead of them ... at the minimum.

Jean Phillips' remarkable Screaming Eagle was striking in all three vintages, including the much maligned 1998, a year that is not that bad for some of the valley floor Cabernet Sauvignons. Of course, the star was the surreal, perfect 1997, a wine with opulence, unctuosity, and lightness on its feet. Extraordinarily pure black fruits burst from a glass of this prodigious Cabernet. It is so young, yet so harmonious that I suspect most of it will be drunk over the next 10-12 years, before it even begins to develop a secondary bouquet. The 1996 revealed big, rich, crème de cassis flavors, extraordinary purity, and impeccable balance. It will last 15-20 years, although it does not possess the dimension or sweetness of the 1997. The 1998 Screaming Eagle revealed a personality reminiscent of a ripe, opulent Bordeaux. Notes of spice box, cedar, and dense, concentrated black currant fruit, along with hints of earth and minerals are found in this beauty. Medium to full-bodied, it is ideal for drinking over the next 15-18 years.

There was a mini-vertical of Harlan Estate, still my candidate for the most singular expression of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. The only problem was the 1995, which was badly corked and undrinkable. However, the other two Harlans were pure perfection. Bill Langelier and his friends debated the merits, trying to decide which was the better wine, even though both were awesome. The full-bodied, opulent 1994 is French in style, with its complex cedar, spice box, licorice, and black currant aromatics. The 1997 is a freak, but what an extraordinary one. Unctuous, thick, and port-like, with incredible intensity yet remarkable balance, it is a tour de force in winemaking. Although we won't know for sure for another 25-30 years, it may be a California version of a 1947 Cheval Blanc or Lafleur. A wine of massive viscosity and thickness, but brilliantly balanced, it is at the limit of richness, but so, so compelling. Both of these wines should evolve effortlessly for 20 or more years.

There were two wines I had sent to the dinner from my cellar, just to prove a point that some of the superstars of yesterday still merit attention. The 1974 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard, which I bought at auction, was not one of the best bottles I had had of this wine (it can merit a nearly perfect score). This bottle was beautiful and elegant, but seemed lighter than past bottles I have had. Some of the minty eucalyptus characteristics were present, but it also showed plenty of leathery, black currant flavors, amazing elegance, and terrific freshness and vibrancy for a 28-year old Cabernet Sauvignon. Old timers no doubt remember some of the blockbuster, impenetrable wines produced at Mayacamas during the late sixties and early to mid-seventies. The 1974 Mayacamas, which I remember first tasting in Saucelito and hand-carrying back six bottles on the airplane, is still a baby. Still a dense purple color with no hint of pink, it offers notes of licorice, blackberries, cassis, and a hint of minerals. While still youthful, the fruit purity is something to behold, and the wine is enormously rich, dense, and beginning to sweeten in the mouth. There is still abundant tannin, but it is more integrated than it was a decade ago. This wine is a candidate for 30-40 years of additional aging.

I didn't know it at the time, but Gaston-Huet, the renowned proprietor in Vouvray, had just died. If I had known, I would have toasted him in a manner appropriate with his brilliance. His 1997 Vouvray Cuvée Constance is a textbook example of balancing acidity with high sugars. The wine does not taste all that sweet, although I am sure the residual sugar is mind-numbing, but the brilliant acidity and extraordinary purity of the fruit (100% Chenin Blanc), make for a striking wine that is seemingly easier to drink than some of the world's other famous late harvest wines. It will age for 50 years ... at the minimum. It was an appropriate foil for the desserts at The French Laundry.

All in all, this was an extraordinary evening of passionate people, great wines, and brilliant cooking ... if only there had been more of the latter.

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