Palme d’Or Restaurant, The Biltmore Hotel - A charity dinner benefitting Camillus House in Miami, Florida
This was one of two special dinners held in Florida to benefit several charities, one being my local charity in northern Baltimore County, Maryland, My Neighbor’s Foundation, and the other the Camillus House in Miami. Both were organized by Bob Dickinson and his wife, Jodi, who have long been generous contributors to charitable events both in their hometown and throughout the United States. The objective of Camillus House is to eliminate homelessness in Miami. From all accounts, they may be among the most progressive and successful charitable donors involved in this ongoing and very worthy effort.
The first dinner was held at the famous Biltmore Hotel (Al Capone used to stay here) in Coral Gables, a sort of retro, fascinating, old style building that I had never before visited. The wines all came from local cellars, and the plan was to focus on great, classic vintages of older California wines. With the exception of the 1995 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, that’s what we did. The Taittinger was delicate, fresh, lively and still youthful at age 18. I have had very little experience with most of the California wines that were served, with the exception of a couple tastings of the 1974 Heitz, the 1951 BV Private Reserve (one of the greatest wines ever made in California, in my opinion), and the 1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve. Consequently, this was a fascinating evening for me, and the California wines performed brilliantly.
The first course was a gorgeously delicious fricassée of lobster in a red wine sauce served with three, 30+ year old Pinot Noirs. It was fascinating because we had the 1981 Kalin, which came from the Dutton Ranch in Sonoma, the 1980 Chalone Reserve from the Pinnacles appellation south of San Francisco, and the 1982 Joseph Swan, another Sonoma Pinot Noir. The top wine in this flight, the 1981 Kalin DD was out-of-sight. A wonderful floral/forest floor, pomegranate, plum sauce, Asian spice and dark berry fruit-scented nose jumps from the glass of this light garnet/ruby-colored wine. Medium to full-bodied with silky tannins, decent acidity and loads of complexity, it is a dead ringer for a premier or grand cru Vosne-Romanée. The 1980 Chalone Reserve seemed youthful despite its 32 years of age. At the same time, it was monolithic, somewhat simple and less complex than the Kalin DD. It exhibited a healthy dark ruby color with more saturation than the Kalin, but it never seemed to open up, although it possessed some of Pinots distinctive earthiness and herbaceousness. It just didn’t “sing.” The 1982 Joseph Swan seemed to have been excessively acidified by the winery. It would be interesting to know what the numbers were on this wine, but it is hard to imagine you can produce a wine with such ripe fruit as well as such tart acids! The color is healthy and intact, but because of the acidity the wine has remained somewhat vigorous and youthful. However, it lacks complexity and the acid is clearly excessive for the wine’s overall constitution and length.
With the second course we moved into some ancient Cabernet Sauvignons with the roasted squab and lentils. The star was the 1958 Louis Martini Special Select, which is still young and rich with lots of berry fruit, tobacco leaf, licorice and cedarwood characteristics. Medium-bodied and fully mature (probably for two decades), it seems to be holding on to its fruit and personality. The 1958 Charles Krug Vintage Select Cabernet Sauvignon showed more herbaceousness, dusty, loamy soil, spice box, and red and black currant notes. However, it faded at the end of the mouth with noticeable tannins kicking up. This wine is slightly past its peak, but is in no danger of falling apart. The 1958 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignonis from a vintage that was apparently renowned in Napa Valley. It exhibits lots of cedarwood and spicy oak (amazing given its age), sweet currant and plum sauce flavors, medium to full body and an attractive finish. As the wine sat in the glass, it was the first to begin to show some hints of oxidation, so owners may want to “pop and pour,” and hope for the best.
With a filet of bison with creamy potatoes and a black truffle sauce, we had three legendary wines, the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974 Conn Creek Eisele Vineyard and 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. The 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was the star. It offers extraordinarily subtle mint and eucalyptus notes intermixed with explosive aromas of black currants, cedarwood, an expansive, full-bodied mouthfeel, a nearly unctuous texture, and great purity, freshness and vigor. I had the good fortune to drink the only magnum of this amazing wine in my cellar with the Wine Advocate team in Baltimore a month earlier. This is one of those touchstone wines that admirably demonstrates what California is capable of achieving. In the past, I have rated the 1974 Conn Creek Eisele Vineyardextremely high. It can be nearly perfect, but sadly, this bottle was marred by a damp, musty cork aroma which refused to dissipate. However, one could tell by the texture and richness that this wine was stuffed. The 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is not as great as they produced in 1990, 1991, or more recently, but it is holding on to life. The 1974 has been criticized because of excessive levels of volatile acidity, but this bottle was very pure, with no VA, but lots of cedar, black currant and loamy soil notes that came across like a classified growth St.-Julien. This fully mature beauty showed no signs of falling apart. 1974 was a hot vintage in Napa Valley, and most pundits argued for drinking the wines very young, but these wines have certainly stood the test of time at age 39. Remarkable.
Lastly, the best was yet to come, as the last flight was surreal. I had had multiple bottles of the 1951 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the cellars of the now defunct Lion d’Or restaurant in Washington, DC. It had always stood out as one of the most singular and great Cabernet Sauvignons I had ever tasted from California. This bottle was in spectacular condition with an extraordinarily perfumed nose of cedarwood, sweet, jammy black currants, cherries, dusty, loamy, Rutherford dust-like notes and a full-bodied mouthfeel with no astringency or hardness. It was an amazing treat, and I hope that before I kick the bucket I will see this wine again. Nearly as impressive is the 1970 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard. Seeming younger than the 1974 with a deeper color, it is quite rich with lots of mint, crème de cassis, licorice and spicy oak. This full-bodied, powerful 1970 should continue to drink well for another 20+ years. Ridge’s Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains can be almost immortal in terms of its aging potential, often giving rise to comparisons to Pauillac’s famous first-growth, Château Latour. If the 1968 Ridge Monte Bello is any example, you cannot cellar these wines long enough. I have been slightly disappointed in some of the 15- to 20-year-old Ridge Monte Bellos I have opened lately because they have been way too young and overtly oaky. However, the 1968 appears to have hit its stride at age 45! It boasts a dark garnet color as well as an extraordinary nose of forest floor, sweet plum, black cherry and black currant fruit intermixed with hints of loamy soil and earth in the background. Full-bodied and opulent, this tour de force in winemaking is remarkable, and may be the finest wine I have ever tasted from California.
I did not know what to expect from the 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel, which must tip the scales at nearly 15% alcohol. Whatever residual sugar it had is now buried in the wine’s pure extract and richness. The youngest wine of the night, it is still grapy, intense and full-bodied with loads of kirsch, an unctuous texture and thick, juicy flavors that were not overbearing, heavy or cloyingly sweet. It is a fabulous Zinfandel.
This was a great night thanks to the generosity of Bob Dickinson and his wine groupies.
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