I went to a winemaker dinner a few months back.
I jotted this anecdote down shortly after the event that I'm about to reveal, but ever since, I've been wrestling with whether or not to relay the tale. While I won’t name specific names involved, it is still a rather sensitive issue and reveals something of the internal machinations of the wine industry.
In the end, I've thought over and over, that at the very least, this is a story worth telling.
I attended a highfalutin' affair in a hotel grand ballroom, catered by a prominent local chef, and filled to the brim with some of the wine world's luminaries. A collection of the biggest winemakers, proprietors and sommeliers were in attendance. This was not a dinner of ignorant wine newbies or braggadocios wine collectors; these were the knowledgeable workers, the seasoned makers, and the crème de la crème of the wine world, in all its various facets, which made this situation all the more perplexing.
As is customary at many of these industry events, the winemakers will often bring along special bottles to share with the group. Typically these "special bottles" are older vintages of their best wine or an obscure bottling that is hard to find. Whichever it happens to be, it's always a treat.
So, at my table, there happened to be two winemakers, a couple of proprietors, and three or four wine directors of well-known restaurants from various cities around the country. These people knew their wine. Two seats down from me was a very big name in the American wine scene. He was the winemaker and heir to a Legendary Winery, and was regaling the table with stories of the early wine industry, prior to the fame or high prices that his wines now commanded.
For context, it was a bit like sitting next to Steven Spielberg relaying tales of his early days with George Lucas and John Milius in the mid-70s prior to Jaws, Star Wars or Conan hitting the cultural zeitgeist.
After the appetizers were served, and we'd been sipping on a single-vineyard Syrah and a Chardonnay, Mr. Legend unmasked a bottle he'd been hiding under the table. My jaw literally dropped as he revealed his surprise bottle. It was a 2003 Reserve Cabernet. It was the top bottling from his winery and had 13 years of age on it.
For us wine geeks, the wine meant a bevy of butterflies in my belly like seeing your first love. I was about to drink the "Mona Lisa" or, at the very least, Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans."
It took every ounce of restraint inside of me not to drop kick the guy next to me and leap across the table to siphon off a glass. I sat patiently, sipping the 2012 Syrah in front of me, imagining what was about to slip past my lips, while Mr. Legend slowly unfurled the capsule, dipped his corkscrew down into the neck and popped off the cork, perfectly sounding like a smacking pair of lips.
He poured off a sample, smelled and finally tasted it, nodding his head in approval.
Only then did he offer the bottle around our table, pouring short glasses into each person's wine vessel, one by one. I was second to last in the line, and as each person took their splash, they appeared as if they might as well have been taking communion from Jesus himself. I felt the same. One by one, I watched each of the others smell the special wine, taste, and smile like it was the elixir of life.
Finally, Mr. Legend deigned me worthy of having a taste and I offered my glass to him, trying not to tremble. The dark purple, almost black, liquid poured out like a dense waterfall. I smiled my approval and nodded my thanks.
"This is a treat," I told him as a whispered orison. "Thank you."
He already knew that it was a treat, his smile told me. He winked.
I could feel my cheeks flush with excitement as I thrust my nose deep into the tipped glass, my heart daring to run into attack mode. With a deep inhalation, I took in all of the dense, mouthwatering aromas of black raspberries, cassis, and--old cardboard. I stopped, confused. That couldn't be right. I stuck my nose past the glass's rim again, inhaled. Rich, black fruits, chocolate, a touch of charcoal and the overwhelming aroma of a closed-off attic filled with old boxes. Musty mothballs.
The bottle was corked. Clearly corked. What should have been the wine of the night was absolutely corked. Really bad. Not the worst corked bottle I'd ever experienced, but bad enough that I couldn't look past it. If I could have plopped it on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being a faint, barely registered flutter of corkage and 10 being like slurping back the liquid form of moldy cardboard, this was a 6—clearly corked, but not totally overwhelming the wine.
I looked back over to the winemaker, about to utter my judgment, but then I noticed something incredible.
A different winemaker, sitting to my left, with slicked back, shining black hair, called out to Mr. Legend, “Wow, thanks for this. This is quite special,” just before he gulped back a mouthful of the juice without an adverse reaction.
Across the table from me, a jovial sommelier from Boston cooed loudest as if he were on the verge of singing, “This has held up soooo well.”
On and on, around the table, each and every person was talking about how great the wine was—and to be clear, this was a great wine typically, to be held up in circles with the very best of Napa and Bordeaux—but this sucker was horribly corked and all of these wine industry professionals were unabashedly gushing about how great it tasted.
It was an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes moment and I was the unfortunate commoner that had to speak up about the truth. It was up to me to speak about how this, capital "G", Great Winemaker from the Legendary Winery had no clothes…but I didn’t have the courage. I couldn’t get the words out. Although I felt absolutely certain about my calculation that the wine was indeed corked, listening to these other wine professionals praise the magnificence of this wine drove me to questioning my sanity.
Was I crazy?
I picked up a different glass to taste. It was perfectly fine—a 2012 single vineyard Syrah, deep and brooding with licorice, blackberry and pepper. Delicious.
Then I returned to the legend—Musty Cardboard. It was amplified by that point, screaming at me. Clearly corked. The 6 had been cranked up, all the way to an 11.
I looked around the table once more and the same proclamations were offered about the Legendary Wine as they dove back into the '03 Reserve again and again.
This was utterly perplexing. I went back and forth, growing more and more conflicted about what I could say or if I should say anything at all. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I continually circled back to the unrelenting feeling that I couldn't possibly offer a critique to a Great Winemaker who, by every account, knew far more about wine than I did.
Eventually, Mr. Legend left, needing to make it to another appointment, and the rest of the table continued the drinking and partying. I pushed the Legend Wine away from me, attempting to forget about it by partaking in the other available wines and conversation with my neighbor.
Of course, my mind continued to linger on that elephant at the table and minutes later, another sommelier from a different table passed by ours, and like a moth to flame, grabbed up the Legend bottle. He was a hipster wine guy, handlebar mustache and all, and poured himself a glass. I watched this with great interest. I spied on him, waiting for his telling reaction, as he brought his glass to the tip of his nose, which immediately crinkled. My eyes went wide. The hipster's entire face twisted with disgust and he pulled his glass away from the foul smell.
"Isn't this corked?" he asked the table yet no one, except me, noticed.
I almost leaped up from the table, but I contained my glee. Instead, I nodded with him solemnly, agreeing that it was a bad bottle. He shrugged his shoulders and poured out his glass into a waiting spit bucket before moving to another table.
I was correct in my assessment, but I was the loser. I felt vindicated, but still wanted to tasted that 2003 Reserve in all its glory. Perhaps one day.
This situation has caused me to question varying aspects of the wine world on several, different levels. I've wondered if the entire wine industry is just full of itself, ready to proclaim a wine great solely because of its assumed clout and acclaim rather than its particular merits? Could wine professionals even be trusted on a good wine even though they weren’t able to spot a corked bottle that was plain as day? And how did this Great Winemaker from the Legendary Winery miss a clearly corked bottle although his knowledge of winemaking was, no doubt, immense?
And the most perplexing question for me of all: Was I just as bad—or worse—since I didn’t even say anything about its being corked?
I have no answers, so I guess I'll have to mull over these deep-seated queries with a bottle of '82 Petrus. Hopefully it won't be corked.