Dinner to Benefit My Neighbors Foundation

It is very gratifying to participate in a charitable event like this, so generously donated by Joan and Brad Jones from Los Angeles, which benefitted my local charity in Northern Baltimore County, My Neighbors Foundation, which provides numerous services to underprivileged children in the area. This was the second annual event, and this one exceeded the debut event of last year. I can’t thank Joan and Brad Jones enough for their generosity as well as their entourage of family and close friends who all made the trek from Los Angeles to Baltimore for this soirée. Brad also donated some extraordinary wines from his cellar, and as hard as I tried, those that I provided didn’t live up to the ones that he provided.

As for the food, we had some of my favorite dishes from Chef Cindy Wolf, starting with her crispy cornmeal fried oysters, a Michelin three-star dish if I ever tasted one, as she is a master fryer. Everything she fries is very light on its feet and never greasy. Tuna tartare is a very common dish these days in many restaurants, but hers is the quality of a top sushi place. Her soups are legendary in Baltimore, since she starts from scratch early in the morning and makes them the hard way, with great reduction and tremendous flavors. Of course, softshell crabs are in full season in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Maryland softshell crabs are caught in the morning and alive until just before they’re sauteed in butter. They are really one of this country’s greatest delicacies, and are served as fresh as they can possibly be. The other dishes were probably more appropriate for winter, but we needed something to go with all the red wines, and the pan-roasted Turbot, normally a white wine dish, became a red wine dish when served with foie gras and Porcini mushrooms. Ditto for the rabbit cassoulet, which was sensational. Another note on Charleston is the remarkable wine and food service, which is impeccable. I don’t know of another restaurant staff in all of Baltimore better trained or more accommodating than the staff at Charleston and the other restaurants owned by Baltimore’s premier restaurant couple, Chef Cindy Wolf and her husband Tony Foreman.

As for the wines, I hope some time in my life I have another chance to drink the 1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé, especially from magnum. This has become an incredibly pricy Champagne, but what a remarkable wine it was, with a medium ruby color, surprisingly garnet for a rosé, but full-bodied, with loads of cranberry, strawberry and spring flowers. Authoritative and flavorful, this is still incredibly young rosé Champagne that could easily last another 15-20+ years. Flight I was a somewhat mixed flight, including one grand cru white Burgundy, which was outstanding, but the least impressive wine in the entire flight. Certainly by itself it would have been more striking, but the intense fruit of the California bottlings, especially the Point Rouge and the Marcassin, simply dominated the Chevalier-Montrachet, which had more minerality and crushed rock notes, although the Kongsgaard “The Judge” seemed to have striking minerality as well. For that matter, so did the Point Rouge and the Three Sisters, although they also had more fruit, body and richness. However, when we took a poll of the fifteen diners, the two surprising winners were the two white Hermitages, both from magnum. As the cognoscenti of Northern Rhône wines (especially white ones) know, two of the most fickle grapes in the world to age are Marsanne and Roussanne. They can age for 50-100 years in the case of white Hermitage, giving credibility to Thomas Jefferson’s view from his diaries of the late 1800s, where he claimed that white Hermitage was France’s greatest dry white wine. However, these wines often go through a very troublesome oxidative state (usually somewhere between the ages of 7 or 8 and 15). When I examined these two magnums before I took them to the restaurant, the color seemed to suggest they would be okay, but you never know until the cork is pulled, as they say. Chapoutier’s 1998 Ermitage de l’Orée, which comes from the very top of the granite dome in the Hermitage appellation, is pure white flowers and liquified rocks, with extraordinary minerality in an unctuous, full-bodied style. It is an over-the-top wine, and I thought it would be much more controversial given its richness and minerality, but it was a huge success that night. An under-rated vintage, as well as a gorgeous wine, is Chave’s 1997 Hermitage Blanc. Slightly more tropical, with more honeysuckle than the mineral-laced Chapoutier, the wine again was very unctuously textured, and like Chapoutier’s de l’Orée, very fresh, pure and crisp, with both wines showing remarkable youthfulness, a good sign, although this was my last bottle of the Chave and next to last bottle of Chapoutier.

Flight II was a showcase of great Bordeaux, all of which had been double-decanted about 3 to 4 hours in advance, meaning they were poured into a decanter, the sediment washed out of the bottle with mineral water, the wines re-poured into the bottle and left open. One of the legends of the 20th century is undoubtedly the 1989 Haut Brion, which was close to perfection, and although there were so many wines this night, it was my “pleasure” wine of the evening by any standard. It is a riveting wine, with wonderful, velvety suppleness, great richness and intense fruit, but light and delicate on its feet. I suppose you could call it full-bodied, even viscous, but the minerality, the burnt sealing wax, the sweet cassis, cherries and plum are all just so intense, yet the wine so ethereal, it is a majestic effort that will continue to provide both an extraordinary hedonistic and an intellectual drinking experience. The 1990 Château Margaux seemed younger and more structured, and while this wine can be perfect at times, this bottle was magnificent but seemingly very young, which surprised me. It could have just been the context, coming after a much more open and extroverted Haut Brion, but this wine still had a deep blue/purple color, loads of crème de cassis, flowers and hints of earth and oak. The 1989 La Conseillante from magnum seemed fully mature, and I have had better showings of it, but again, perhaps sandwiched after two great first-growths and before a monster wine, the 1989 Angélus, and the massive 1990 Montrose, it just couldn’t strut its stuff effectively. In retrospect, I should have insisted this wine be served before the Haut Brion. At any rate, it is fully mature, with plenty of plum, caramel, toffee, violets, and sweet red and black fruits. Still young and full-bodied is the 1989 Angélus. Dense purple, with a magnificent nose of blueberry liqueur intermixed with licorice, acacia flowers and a hint of barrique, this wine is full-bodied, extraordinarily youthful, and seemingly set for at least another 20-25 years of evolution. The 1990 Montrose, a modern-day legend, was stunning. It was the favorite of this flight for most people, which somewhat surprised me, given the complexity of the Haut Brion. It was even more youthful than the 1990 Château Margaux, had a dense plum/purple color, hints of saddle leather, damp earth and sweet crème de cassis in a full-bodied, super-concentrated style. When the voting took place, even though this wine won the flight, it seemed as though the women all preferred the La Conseillante and the Angélus, and the men the Château Montrose and Haut Brion. Of course, there have been suggestions of bret-infested bottles of the 1990 Château Montrose, and I believe that is probably true if the wine has hit heat, being poorly shipped or stored, which is typical of any natural wine (not sterile-filtered or stabilized). I have been fortunate that the 1990 Montrose from my cellar and others that I have tasted have always been extraordinarily pure and impressive, although there is a St.-Estèphe earthiness that some people love and others find objectionable.

The flight of Hermitages proved to be less exciting than all of us had hoped. The 1990 Chaveseemed lighter than recent bottles. The 1990 La Chapelle, which is often a perfect wine, was clearly the wine of the flight, but it usually trounces just about everything tasted around it, and the 1989 Hermitage La Chapelle (from magnum) was nearly as profound. Both are great wines from Jaboulet, and certainly the two greatest Hermitage La Chapelles made until 2009. Chave’s 1978 Hermitage was showing full maturity and lots of age, with considerable amber and earthiness, plenty of complexity in the nose, but then beginning to dry out ever so slightly in the mouth. The same could be said for the 1978 Hermitage La Chapelle, which had great aromatics of leather, plum, balsamic, black currants, truffle, and licorice, but then in the mouth, the fruit seems to be fading ever so slightly and the wine starting to let its acids poke through. Nevertheless, it was still a super wine.

We finished our red wine flights with some magnificent Châteauneuf du Papes, a move that was probably excessive, but as they says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing excessively,” and this was a great example. An absolutely magnificent wine made by the late Jean-Denis Vacheron is the 2001 Clos du Caillou Réserve. More and more, I think this is the greatest wine ever from this estate, and on the night this wine, which I’d never had from magnum, was absolutely magnificent, offering up notes of graphite, garrigue, pepper, crème de cassis, kirsch, and a boatload of celestial spices. Full-bodied, very youthful, and in need of another 4-5 years, this was riveting wine and for me, a wine that could sit on the table with such legends as the 1990 La Chapelle, 1990 Montrose, 1990 Château Margaux and 1990 Haut Brion. That wine was followed by a very young, very difficult to penetrate 2001 Beaucastel “Hommage à Jacques Perrin.” This will be magnificent, but it needs at least another decade of cellaring. It is still blue/purple, with loads of creosote, tree bark, Porcini mushrooms, blueberry and blackberry notes and enormous body. Starting to come close to full maturity is Vieux Télégraphe’s 1998 Châteauneuf du Pape “La Crau.” Lots of iodine, seaweed, earth, kirsch and pepper are all present in this classic Châteauneuf du Pape that is just beginning to come out of its adolescent stage of development. Another wine that seems to be fully mature but capable of lasting another decade or more is Vieille Julienne’s 1998 Châteauneuf du Pape “Vieille Vignes” (also from magnum). This wine displayed loads of licorice, black currant, cherry and earthy truffle notes in a full-bodied, powerful style. Of course, this cuvée was not made after 2001, but this is a beauty.

Fate has been kind to me lately, and I have recently had a number of 1990 Rayas. In the case of the last two bottles I’ve had, I was the beneficiary of the generosity of Joan and Brad Jones at this tasting, and several weeks earlier, I had the wine from my cellar. Each bottle is different now, and it has clearly passed that perfect stage, where it was between the early 1990s and 2007 or 2008. It is still a magnificent wine, relatively light to medium ruby in color, with the classic sandy, loamy soil notes, kirsch, raspberries, and a wonderfully full-bodied, spicy, round mouthfeel. It was by far the most elegant wine in this flight, but I suspect it was also the highest in alcohol, even though that wasn’t noticeable. (As I recall, the late Jacques Reynaud told me that it was pushing 16% natural alcohol in 1990.) Lastly, we finished the with another magnificent wine that I could have given a perfect rating if I hadn’t been starting to feel palate fatigue. The 1990 Beaucastel “Hommage à Jacques Perrin,” at age 21, is still a young adolescent in terms of its development. Notes of camphor, roasted herbs, new saddle leather, crème de cassis, black cherries and loamy soil notes all jump from the glass of this full-bodied, massive wine, which is still young and evolving. Readers who want to taste the greatest example of a Mourvèdre-dominated wine need look no further than the Hommage à Jacques Perrin. This wine has another 30+ years of cellaring left.

We finished with the 1995 Coutet “Cuvée Madame,” which seemed very good but less stunning than I’d hoped it would be, and the 1990 d’Yquem, which was complex, rich and sweet, but to be very candid, by that time I was dragging in terms of taste. I had enjoyed the first four flights so intensely and had focused so much into them, I just didn’t have much left to think about the last two sweet wines, as the night was winding down in the wee hours.

This was great night of wonderful, generous people, and the evening exhibited the finest things about wine appreciation – sharing, friendship, generosity, and graciousness.

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