"I struggle with anointing any single wine, and yes, this from the guy who compiles an annual '10 Most Memorable' list.
I gave the question of my most memorable wine a lot of thought last night. The more I thought about it, the more I kept viewing my wine history as a map of many dots of varying brightness. Would tasting an Yquem from the 19th century – Hardy Rodenstock [the controversial rare-wine collector] in no way being involved, mercifully – trump a cold cellar visit with Ted Lemon [Littorai]? Both of those were very bright dots, for what it's worth.
It seems that context is the real question here. So I settled on two particularly memorable moments.
The first was a tasting of the 2003 Barbera from Bartolo Mascarello in his cantina in 2004, with his daughter Maria Teresa. This was about six months before Bartolo's death, but he was still very much alive, eating an ice cream cone and flirting with his female visitors.
I honestly had very little clue who he was at that point, and it was dumb luck that had us wandering the streets of Barolo on their one open-house weekend and walking in his door. Maria Teresa took us down into the cellar, showed us the interns scraping tartrates off the botti, and then we tasted. The Barolos, of course, were stupendous, but the perfect freshness of the Barbera, from Europe's year of Hades, was the moment when I finally understood that great wine really is about focus, dedication and belief. It's actually the wine that started my 'most memorable' custom.
The second – and I settled on this perhaps because it's fresher in mind, and perhaps because it's closer to home – was in my top 10 most memorable wines last month: the 1971 Ridge Eisele Vineyard* Cabernet Sauvignon.
Again, context is everything, and in this case it was one of those perfect visits to Monte Bello. Winemaker Paul Draper was in a great mood and perhaps more upbeat about California than I'd ever seen him.
We'd just tasted the 2009 Monte Bello, which really is one of the best cabernets I've ever tasted. The tasting of the '71 wasn't planned. A group of collectors were visiting with a bottle of the '71 Monte Bello, and the '71 Eisele got thrown into the mix for comparison, blind.
Paul always prided himself on the greatness of the '71 Monte Bello, and I'd heard tales of the Eisele before, as one of these experiments Ridge took on when it was figuring out where it wanted to go – and mind you, Paul was just 35 when he made it.
Both wines were great, but the Eisele was simply mindblowing. I pegged it for a good decade younger than it was. Mind you, this was an era when Calistoga [in the northern Napa Valley] wasn't an obvious place for cabernet; everyone was thinking Oakville. The two wines together, but the Eisele in particular, so clearly underscored how all of California wine's great hopes 40 years ago have come full circle. It was a perfect moment of hope."
Fast facts from Wine-Searcher's search engine:
*The 35-hectare (86.5-acre) Eisele Vineyard is now owned by Araujo Estate.