Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Unexpected Windfall

The first three were not fated ... but what would we get in the end?

Instant gratification can be overrated. This was proven to me at a dinner not long ago at the charming French restaurant Bon Vivant, tucked away on a side street in downtown Palo Alto. My good friend Daniel and I cocked our heads thoughtfully at the wine list. He has lived in Europe the past several years, and was keen on trying a local offering.

We decided on a 2011 Pinot Noir blend of Russian River Valley vineyards by Davis Bynum that he hadn’t tried before. (Incidentally, Bynum is the first house in Russian River to have produced a single vineyard Pinot Noir, in the 1970s.)

After some pleasant conversation - after all, we hadn’t seen each other in two years - our genial waiter reappeared with an apologetic smile. He was so sorry, he said, they no longer had the Bynum Pinot in stock. Would we like to try another wine?

A taste of the 2011 Lyric by Etude, please, we answered. I’d had this Santa Barbara Pinot Noir before and found it very drinkable. However, I grimaced a bit upon lowering my nose to the glass - the first thing that assailed me was a freshly painted wood varnish scent I instinctively dislike.

Good acidity can balance a wine and give it complexity, but too much leads to this sharp, unpleasant aroma. (It’s ethyl acetate, for chemistry buffs. I’m not a pro but am learning in my attempt to understand wine and flavoring.) I seem to be particularly sensitive to ethyl acetate; I’ve shared different wines on multiple occasions with companions who don’t detect the varnish scent when it all but whacks me in the face.

Thankfully, the wine filled my mouth with mellowness: ripe red fruit and a smooth, elegant finish. I believe a Pinot should always end each sip with finesse, like the end of a flowing musical phrase that leaves you wanting more.

While pleasant, the Etude just wasn’t hitting it for us. We shifted over to the next page in the menu: Cabernet Sauvignon. 2010 Stag’s Leap “Artemis” was a step up, not only in the richness of the wine but in price. But we figured if the Pinots weren’t doing it, we’d go for bigger stuff.

Our final decision on wine for dinner - or so we thought.

Now that this was taken care of, we began to peruse the dining menu. Just as we were debating whether we should have the scallops or the goat cheese mushroom tart as a starter, our waiter appeared with a bottle of wine. Ah, finally!

But the look on our waiter’s face was pinched. We are so very sorry, he began, but we don’t have the Artemis, either. Daniel and I flashed a “For real?!” glance at each other.

“However, we have the Stag’s Leap Cask 23,” the waiter continued, “If you accept this wine, we will give it to you for the price of the one you requested.” He looked at us expectantly, with a great deal of hope on his face. It was a “Please don’t kill me and write a terrible review about our restaurant!” look.

I looked incredulously at the bottle in his hands. Yes, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon from 2009. It was at least $150 more expensive than the bottle we’d requested. Cask 23. A wine with legendary connotations.

Daniel and I looked at each other. “Well, you’ve made us an offer we can’t refuse. That’s very kind of you. We’ll have it.”

Stag's Leap Cask 23? No way! I mean, yes, absolutely!

Cask 23 did not disappoint. In fact, it enchanted. Plush and full-bodied, the dark crimson liquid filled my mouth with the subtle flavor of blackberries accented by bits of toasty bread. Was that a bit of vanilla, too? With a strong structure of balancing acidity, I was free to enjoy these flavors without any of them being overpowering.

Vanilla + toast + undertone of dark berries = Mmm …

A gentle warmth blossomed within me as the wine slid down my throat. I was delighted that such a rich wine possessed an equal amount of restraint. No buzzing sensation in the mouth or lips, just a hushed, elegant close. It felt almost reassuring, as if the wine was saying, “Yes, it’s alllll good,” on the way out.

Cask 23 isn’t bottled every year; it happens only when the winemaker deems the crop to be good enough. This is the flagship wine of Stag’s Leap and is named after the cask in which the wine is aged. In 1974, winemaker André Tchelistcheff noticed its superior contents compared with those of its neighboring casks and thus was born Cask 23.

The wine is a blend of two vineyards, Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) and FAY Vineyard. Grapes are harvested from the volcanic soils of the eastern slopes, as well as from the alluvial soils (meaning they’re loose and gravelly, shaped by water in eons past) of the middle and lower sections from both vineyards. The former gives the wine its full structure and acidity, the latter the lush but restrained fruit and aromatic qualities.

The vanilla and toastiness likely come from the 20 month aging in French oak barrels - the wine of grapes from each section of each vineyard is aged separately, and then combined into one large cask - Cask 23 - for the final aging.

1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon meets 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild
at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. 

Stag’s Leap is more than iconic: Its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon bested French counterparts (including a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 no less) in the pivotal Judgment of Paris, the 1976 competition that put California on the map as a serious winemaking region and forever changed the world of wine.

So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of Cask 23. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I should expect based on research. Why? Wine is to be enjoyed. I always desire to learn the history and provenance of a wine I find exceptional or intriguing. But while in the moment, I simply want to revel in the wine in my glass and lose myself in all its sensory pleasures.

No comments:

Post a Comment