"Woody Allen may think that going West and dying are the same thing," said Gerald Asher, organizer of the most prestigious food and wine event of the year, the California Vintner's Barrel Tasting, "but we're going to prove him wrong."
That was a year ago. Last Monday, just about everybody who counts in the world of wine went west--to the Stanford Court and the first Barrel Tasting ever held outside of New York City. There were 11 courses and 26 wines. Dinner began at 7. At midnight people were still eating. And drinking. It is often long, occasionally tedious, and usually far too filling . . . but the Barrel Tasting is alive and well and living in San Francisco.
"This is a lot more relaxed than it ever was in New York," said wine writer Barbara Ensrud, a veteran of all 11 Barrel Tastings. "The people here are more accustomed to listening to people talk about wine. For the first time I felt that the audience was actually listening when I spoke."
This is how it works: California wine-makers submit samples to organizer Asher, who chooses a series of wines to taste. Along with the latest vintage (1985), the wines that are still in barrel, wine-makers are asked to send the same wine in an older vintage of which they are particularly proud.
The logistics of these dinners have always been horrendous. But as the event moved west the stakes went up, for one of the main reasons behind the move was that New York's Four Seasons Restaurant simply couldn't handle any more people. The pressure for tickets has become so intense (last year there were 10 applicants for each of the 220 seats) that Asher decided to enlarge the dinner. This year there were 300 people at the Stanford Court Tasting; feeding them required more than 9,000 glasses.
"Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi (of the Four Seasons) told me that this was to be not a dinner, but a wine tasting," said the Stanford Court's James Nassikas, "and then Gerald Asher told me that this was not a tasting but a dinner." Nassikas never did quite figure out what it was, but he took great care in pairing the wines with food. In some cases this worked wonderfully, as in the way the crisp young Chenin Blancs, (Martin Brothers and Chappellet) were shown off by a creamy dish of tiny Olympia oysters snuggled into little puffs of pastry and covered with a blanket of chive cream. This dish was extremely generous to the wines. Foie gras with a ginger-sesame dressing was not nearly so kind to the Chardonnays (Chateau St. Jean and Morgan), but this was remedied by a rather incredible dish of Louisiana buster crabs. These exploded in the mouth with a burst of flavor and the Chardonnays suddenly blossomed.
With the Gamays (Shaw and Preston Vineyards), there was a disaster of a dish. These wines are rarely big favorites, but they were not well served by a dish of sauteed mushrooms and sweetbreads surrounding a pallid shallot flan. The Merlots were more fortunate; the soft, pleasant wines of Shafer and Gundlach-Bundschu were served first with a daring and delicious couscous timbale, and then with a beautifully poached filet of beef.
But the real stars of the evening were the Cabernets. Asher paired McDowell Valley Vineyards (Mendocino), Sebastiani (Sonoma), Beaulieu Vineyards (Napa) and Jekel (Monterey). The young wines, encouraged by a very fine broiled breast of marinated squab in port and cranberry sauce, showed all the characteristics for which they are famous. The Monterey wine was briary, while the Napa wine displayed all its minty tones. The oldest of the wines, and to my mind the finest, was the 1978 Beaulieu Private Reserve, elegant against a rather clunky 1981 Sebastiani. But the '85 Sebastiani was fruity, round and very promising; it showed how far Sam Sebastiani had come before being kicked out of the winery in the family feud that is Sonoma's latest soap opera.
After the Cabernets came cheeses, desserts, coffees--the Barrel Tasting is a meal that separates the real eaters from the dilettantes. And over brandy came the inevitable post-mortems. Could the West Coast version ever begin to compare with the East? There was some grumbling about dropped plates and cold dishes. Finally one veteran piped up: "The first year in New York was far from perfect. Dinner seemed to go on forever ."
And that's probably how long the Barrel Tasting will go on. After all, nobody comes to drink (barrel wines are green, gawky and far from friendly) or eat (does anybody really like eating 11 courses?), but simply because the Barrel Tasting is an event .