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Mark Squires' E-Zine on Wine


Sommelier Competition at the Wine Box

The visit to the Box....

Too long in the coming, I was feeling as if I was the last Prodigy person to visit the fabled Wine Box, the Los Angeles wine storage cum party facility once owned by Steve Ein and Lee Lynch. Herewith, the tale of the Road to Mecca. Or, how I achieved salvation in one besotted weekend.... Thursday: Initiation and Rites of Passage

I arrived in Los Angeles Thursday knowing that Ein had planned a sushi dinner with some wine friends. When in La-La Land, do as the La-La's do, I suppose. Di Lampkin, another Prodigy person, arrived early and all too generously poured a 91 Nielon Batard-Montrachet, one of the best white burgs I've had, and that's from someone who thinks white wine containing chardonnay should be viewed with suspicion. This was a warmup, and got my palate in fighting shape. Then, to the sushi. You must suffer before attaining entry to the Box, I suppose. Ein and I, real men, had only cooked fish. But I did bring an 83 Zind Humbrecht Vendange Tardive Hengst Gewurzt, a wine that was not as sweet as the 83 Gueberschwir VT I had recently, but tasted so fresh you could hardly believe it to be 12 years old. A monumental achievement.

Preview... Having successfully passed the sushi initiation without making fun of other diners and getting arrested, Ein deigned to bring us back to the Box for a brief tour, in private, no doubt to see if I was worthy of being publicly unveiled tomorrow. Along the way, he casually opened an 88 Yquem 375 ml, which was sweeter and more viscous than any young Yquem I can recall but not as tannic or dense. A winner, no matter what style you love. It seems we've now gone through about $300 worth of wine more or less. And the party hasn't even started. A lull before the storm. No pun intended, as L.A. sunk beneath the freakish, monsoon weather.

Friday: Ascendance to the inner sanctum

Finally, Ein had given me directions and a time for the Box Friday Night party, with a twist this week because of a double blind contest between a sommelier panel and Box clients. As befitted the occasion, I descended the steps on my knees, rending my clothes periodically and crying ritualistically "In vino veritas." Finally, the inner sanctum, in public, the tasting room of the Wine Box. Holy of Holies. Pre-Contest wines: As casual warmups, the Box clientele provided all sorts of goodies. Let's see:

87 Thackrey Orion; 91 Ogier Cote Rotie; 93 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir; 88 Sullivan Merlot; 86 Pahlmeyer; 74 Heitz Martha's; 85 BV Reserve, 82 Musar; 79 Niebaum-Coppola; 89 Grange Hermitage (Ein's foolish infanticide....). These were merely the casual drinking wines, and only the ones I tasted. I probably only tried about half. The Pahlmeyer was unimpressive to me, a bit thin and sour on the finish. The BV I found to be classic cab with an intense focused core. It was open a long while, too. The Sullivan was a revelation, one of the finest USA merlots I've had, and from an off vintage at that. Lots of structure and concentration, atypical of the vintage. I liked the intense Orion. I don't like the Ogier as much as Stuart, while conceding it was pretty good stuff. I prefer a bit of lush fruit; this was tight and somewhat austere, perhaps closed. The ABC pinot was weedy and green. Regular bottling. The Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon: what can I say? I continue to be unimpressed. Then, palates refreshed...

The Contest

Then came the contest, staged for a Cystic Fibrosis benefit. Among the wines tasted double blind were 79 Calera Reed Pinot (mine); 90 Aligote Ramonet; 89 Beaucastel; 89 Spottswoode; 75 Beycheville; 85 Silver Oak AV; Heitz Martha's; Qupe Marsanne. This was a lot of fun. My good guesses: I was sure the Aligote was French from the Burgundy region. I thought Macon. Most said it was a chard. I was close. I pegged the Qupe as a Rhone varietal, guessing viognier. Nobody else was close. I picked the Beaucastel (drenched in bretty flavors?) on the nose but for the year. I knew the Israeli shiraz was an odd wine, I guessed chambourcin. Other guesses from the panel were merlot and Oregon pinot. Those were my big moments. I struck out with Italian wines. (I don't drink them much; not fair.) My one humiliation was identifying the Silver Oak as a pinot. Hey. It seems to show a lot of sweet mint and licorice. One of the sommeliers initially said the same thing. I esp. liked the Beycheville, the Heitz and the Calera in this grouping. The Chalone 90 Pinot Blanc was pretty nice, too. The most interesting wine: my old Calera. Everyone pegged it as a fine Burgundy. It opened some eyes about what Jensen is achieving and how well they can age.

Post Contest at the Box...I tried to leave.

Fully initiated now, I nonetheless had a moment's pause. The Black Knight (aka Terry Stacey) awaited me in the hall. Understand, these Box guys aren't shy. Post tasting wines included 85 Leroy Volnay; 89 L. Latour Chevalier & Batard-Montrachet; 91 Leroy Pommard. Among others. I approached TBK and held out a glass. With scorn, he said "You need two." Dutifully returning, I was poured both Latour white Burgs, preferring the Chevalier. The sommeliers were leaving, but the allure of the Black Knight and his wines stopped them. Perfectly understandable. The Pommard seemed tight and closed, hard to judge; the Volnay is at peak and dregs eating good.... Finally, jet-lagged, I had to leave.

Saturday, Palm Springs

The other half of the trip was supposed to be a tennis weekend at Indian Wells. The area survived the rain. Edberg-Sampras and Agassi-Becker were esp. good. That night Ein, Lynch, The Black Knight, his maid of honor and I met again in Palm Springs. As usual, wretched excess. From Ein/Lynch, a 91 H. Lignier Clos de La Roche, a tight, intense, solid wine, drunk too young, but wonderful. From Pixie, an 89 NSG Aux Murgers from Meo-Camuzet.

This wine doesn't have any backbone left, but it's so soft, friendly and sweet, you had to like it anyway. TBK's 89 Clos Vougeot Meo Camuzet showed what the NSG lacked: structure and backbone. The 89 Chassagne-Montrachet from Ramonet was very good, but, after all, white. The 83 Palmer I brought that had just recently been imported showed why this wine is so famous. As dense, concentrated and rich as Bordeaux can get. Finally, a 64 Szamorodnyi Tokaji. You liked or not. Regrettably, most couldn't deal with the maderization. We stumbled home.

Sunday: Epilog

As if this weren't enough, Lee and Steve took me out to dinner somewhere in the desert. This night we merely killed a little. 86 Forman Chard; 85 Nadeff Mazis Chambertin. Both wines were in pristine condition, and as usual we had too much to drink and wasted some. I especially liked the Nadeff, thought it was in prime condition and delicious.

Final words: A thanks to all generous Boxers, esp. Terry who once again opened half his cellar, and Steve & Lee who kept bringing out the biggies all weekend. And now that I know the secret initiation code, I may as well tell everyone: (in invisible ink, of course):

Copyright 1995, all rights reserved, Mark Squires.