This is of course, a ridiculous thing to say, for me of all people. As I may have led you to believe in my past ramblings, I am not an advocate for indulging in preference. Rather, I am an advocate for indulging in understanding. I think that the idea of 3 or 5 or 10 or 20 or 1000 all-time favourites is A.) Unnecessary. B.) Impossible. and C.) Unnecessary. No, I don't really believe in ranking things, because I don't believe in winners any more than I believe in losers. They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose. The line from Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" has guided me in many ways. I look for the charm and the stories of the losers and middling bits as much or more as I appreciate the fabulously popularized and championed. Life is life, and pretending that it only has a beautiful form and not a gritty underbelly is simply ignorant.
The three wines that I am going to tell you about are an experiment for me. I thought to myself, let's come up with the first three wines from my history of drinking that come to mind in a significant and especially memorable way.
The results, which took me about 45 seconds to decide on, told me something interesting. It wasn't always the wine itself that made these wines so memorable. So much so that one of the wines in question I actually cannot remember the vintage of. Yes, two of the wines are not going to surprise many wine enthusiasts, and they're not going to impress them with their uniqueness, either. The situations and sets of circumstances in which these wines came into my world are really what made these memorable.
Let's get to it, in no particular order.
1. 2009 Ridge Monte Bello
Of this small grouping, this is the one wine that I would probably also include on the list if it were only based on taste and pure wine-enjoyment. However, the experience itself was very happenstantial and unique. I was working as a sommelier at a large hotel restaurant and had just finished my shift. I walked around the corner to my regular post-shift haunt for a beer. This haunt was a corporate-chain steakhouse that happened to be right next to the haunt of most of the servers and staff where I worked. I didn't like to mingle too much, and this spot was quiet. The bartenders treated us like VIPs, and I loved how it was easy to talk to anyone who was there without having to yell. This particular night, the bartender who usually took care of us was working. As soon as he saw me, after pouring me a cold beer (Bourdain always said: my favourite beer is cold and served quickly), he ran behind the bar and came back with a list.
"We're clearing out some long inventory from our cellar. I thought of you immediately."
Not only did I know that whatever wine I was about to see had been stored immaculately in this establishment's cellar, but the sad part for them and happy part for me was that they wouldn't even know what they had been sitting on. I didn't particularly care for most of the bottles on this steakhouse chain's list, so I wasn't expecting anything that exciting. But lo and behold, this bin-end list read:
2009 Ridge Monte Bello - $220
That price happened to be the going rate AT RETAIL for the current release of Ridge Monte Bello, which if you weren't aware, is probably one of the world's greatest expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, by consensus.
And someone was going to serve it to me in a restaurant with 7 years age on it. They also happened to have plenty of red meat on hand to accompany this fortuitous offering.
I called my best friend and the GM of the restaurant I worked at immediately and said, "when are you off get down here right now!" without waiting to hear his response.
He didn't take long. This was my first experience with this wine that I had only read and dreamed about, and the fact that it came to us so spontaneously in a moment where we were looking for simple relief but were handed pure ecstasy, history, and too-good-to-be-true value makes this my de-facto #1.
2. 2011 or 2012 Martin's Lane Riesling
I don't remember if it was the 2011 or 2012 Martin's Lane Riesling from Mission Hill in the Okanagan Valley. And when I tell you why this bottle was memorable, you'll give me a pass on that. Needless to say, THERE SIMPLY WAS NO TIME TO TAKE A PICTURE.
Well, back when I was a newbie wine salesman and well on my way to formulating the "drunken" part of my current title and brand, there was this luncheon that happened around Christmas where all the wine reps in Vancouver got together to eat at a different Japanese restaurant that had no wine list to speak of, so that there would be no squabbling over listings at the account. The restaurant allowed us to bring in as much wine as we wanted. Every rep would bring a few bottles. How lovely. Well, I'm a few hours into my first luncheon and chumming it up with a couple of blokes from another wine agency and enjoying myself. Luncheon ends, and we decide we should carry on with the festivities. Since we didn't know where we wanted to do just that, we decided to walk down to our cars in the parkade, shed some shoulder-bags and laptops and sales sheets and make the call to a cab. The wine in question here was the pet project of the proprietor of Mission Hill. The "vineyard", which may have been a loose term, was supposedly named after his late father, (Dr.?) Martin. Although, this is vineyard seemed to change locations every so often when it suited the marketing agenda to produce a wine from somewhere else under the Martin's Lane "Vineyard" label. Did I mention that Fritz Hasselbach was a consulting winemaker on this Riesling? He only happened to be a great friend of the proprietor and one of the greatest producers of Riesling in the world. May he rest in peace. ANYWAY. This Riesling was apparently supposed to be pretty special and we were selling it for something like $25 at the time and now it's going for $50 or something silly. Well, I only had one sample bottle left, and I was supposed to be using it to show to various accounts and attempting to gain luxurious placements at some top restaurants. But I was thirsty. And my new wine rep friends, they were also thirsty.
I called them over to the car, gave the spiel in 2 seconds, cracked it at car temperature, and we downed it in 3 gulps, one for each of us. From the bottle, of course.
I'd describe the wine as quaffable. I laugh about this moment to this day. I named the proprietor of the winery, yes, but I shall keep the names of my wine industry peers confidential to protect their dignity. As for mine...
3. 1988 Möet & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon
This memory (I'm realizing that's what these are; They are not "bottles") also involved my trusty compatriot from the Ridge Monte Bello evening, the GM of the restaurant I was sommeliering in at the time, which was, if you hadn't guessed at this point, the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, more specifically, the restaurant called YEW. I always wanted to put an exclamation point behind YEW. YEW! It just seemed so much more vibrant that way. Digression.
We had the former GM of the hotel and current Director of Food & Beverage for the entire Four Seasons company coming to dinner with a bunch of his wine collecting pals. 8 men were to bring 2 bottles from their cellar, one Red Burgundy and one "white". I'm not sure why they skimped on a specific category for the whites. But I also don't run in those circles, so who am I to say?
Well, there was a lot of pressure on me this evening. I had to open at the appropriate time and keep 16 wines straight for 8 guests who were shuffling their glasses all over the place. My job. No problem. But the service had to go, as I like to say, fucking mint, or I guess I would have felt bad.
It doesn't seem like such a big deal now.
I was putting on my tux in the office when the GM barged in.
They're early. Shit. I just left my normal pants on and kept the tux jacket on with the vest up top. They don't care what pants you're wearing, I thought. Just go.
The gang leader had brought a magnum of 1988 Dom Perignon to share with the boys for the reception. My GM was trying to open it when I arrived. He called me over.
"I can't get the cork out."
"Oh, give me that!" I blurted out, as if to say, "what's the matter with you, you, you wuss!"
I proceeded to rip the top of the cork off of the bottle. Now I no longer had a magnum of '88 Dom on my hands, I had a several thousand dollar bomb waiting to go off. No durand tool on hand (rookie), I plunged my corkscrew into the cork. The bottle was sitting in an ice bucket which had melted at a relatively rapid rate and which was partly water. I grabbed the corkscrew and pulled. And pulled. There were decanters full of expensive Burgundy everywhere.
Water. Ice. Everywhere. The cork comes out and releases a huge recoil of pressure. I thought the bottle had exploded. In a matter of seconds, what I thought were glass shards, I realized were just specks of water that had splashed onto the glass wine-room walls. I looked down.
Everything was perfect. The cork had been removed.
One of the most important traits of working as a sommelier is the ability to keep cool. I was exploding inside with nerves.
"Did anyone see that? Because they certainly must have heard it..."
I had no choice but to begin service. My GM was standing beside me this entire time. Probably nervously chuckling. I began pouring the wine into the flutes, sweating. And Marc, the GM I keep referring to for some reason not by name, would casually and occasionally take a linen cloth, wipe the sweat off my brow as I poured, and prop my glasses back up onto my face, as the sweat had caused them to keep slipping.
I turned around, I served the '88 Dom. Like nothing was unusual and like I didn't almost shatter glass into 16 decanters full of the evening that each of these successful men looked forward to all year.
Each one smiled and graciously accepted, the host offering me a glass.
I took a small one, enjoyed it briefly with Marc, and carried on with the evening.
The day after, I received a note from the host and one of the guests saying to me that it was the most well-organized and executed version of the event that they had ever held in all of their years doing so.
I felt really good. And I remembered the brief taste of that magnum of '88 Dom, as well as the panic and turbulence around it.
What a bottle.