Bonding: $400 a bottle
Consider it more than a coincidence. Two identical silver Mercedes SL 55 AMGs sit side by side in the Zen-inspired courtyard of Jefery Levy’s glass and steel 1960s house in Laurel Canyon. One belongs to Levy, a collector of rare wines, the other to Japanese chef Kazu, the proprietor of an eponymous gem of a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Great connoisseurs think alike.
Tonight, Kazu’s formidable culinary skills will complement Levy’s equally formidable collection of one of the world’s most coveted wines — Australia’s Penfolds Grange — that has taken him nearly a decade to assemble.
Levy, a screenwriter and director (“Inside Monkey Zetterland” and “S.F.W.”) is host to about three wine tastings a year, events he’s dubbed “guys’ nights.” They typically involve a dozen or so men, a couple of bottles of outrageously good whites followed by some serious reds, steak supplied by Harvey Gus, the butcher who services Spago and Campanile, and chasers of Cuban cigars. Levy’s wife, Pamela Skaist Levy, co-founder of the casual fashion house Juicy Couture, usually takes refuge upstairs.
“There’s a core group, a finite number of wine collectors in L.A.,” says Levy, listing among them a few of his guests: TV and movie producer Stephen Gelber (CBS’ “Fargo”); writer-producer-director James Orr (“Father of the Bride”); cinematographer John Schwartzman (“Seabiscuit”), nephew of director and vintner Francis Ford Coppola; and the former chairman of Capitol-EMI Joe Smith, who’s a member of L.A.’s oldest ongoing wine group, WOW (Wines of the World).
Despite the sophisticated, often rarefied context, a gentlemen’s wine tasting is not that far removed from a spectator sports gathering, inspiring the same raucous enthusiasm as a slam dunk by Shaq or a home run by Shawn Green.
“It can be a more cerebral and solitary pastime but it’s also a sensual and visceral experience. Girls fetishize clothing and shoes. Wine is a more immediate form of gratification for guys,” says Levy. At the moment, however, he is enjoying no such immediate gratification, being far too preoccupied with inspecting 500 rented goblets and flutes set out on the two interior courtyards that are part of his H-shaped abode.
With the help of Smith’s son Jeff, who designs wine cellars, Levy tackles the tedious business of labeling each glass according to the vintage that will be sipped therein.
Tonight is Levy’s most extravagant production to date, a vertical tasting of the iconic Aussie Penfolds wines — Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay from 1995 through 2000, then the extraordinary Penfolds Grange from 1990 through 1998. When the ’98 (described as “absolute perfection” by critic Robert Parker) was released in May 2003, collectors bought up the fewer than 9,000 cases in a frenzied rush. Within a month, the price shot up to more than $400 a bottle.
Levy’s home, built by an obscure industrial architect, Boulder Thorgusson, looks primed for the occasion. Shrouded by greenery, it seems purposely hidden from casual passersby. Once inside, however, the open-plan structure — in keeping with the era in which it was built — has a striking, though hardly private, visual flow.
Constructed almost exclusively of glass with wood and steel support beams, the house affords unobstructed views from room to room — an effect akin to viewing a split-screen TV.
From the courtyard deck, Levy and Smith have a straight view into the kitchen, where chef Kazu is wielding a perilous sashimi knife. “I haven’t cut myself in some years,” he assures as he slivers monkfish liver, or ankimo, a traditional Japanese appetizer.
The two men also have a perfect sightline into the living room, separated from the kitchen by a granite-and-wood cocktail bar. Matt Lane, a wine expert from Penfolds, is decompressing on the white leather Minotti sofa, but from time to time he peruses notes from Parker’s reviews, which granted Grange’s ’98 a near perfect 99 rating, one echoed by the other unparalleled arbiter, the Wine Spectator.
“There are only a handful of Grange collections such as Jef’s, and to open his private cellar like this is unique,” says Lane, who has brought with him a bottle of Great Grandfather, the tawny port that Penfolds’ founder, an English doctor, originally made for medicinal purposes.
Later in the evening, Gelber seconds Lane’s assessment of Levy’s magnanimous gesture. “The compulsion to own something that is very rare yet can be consumed drives many into the game of hoarding collectible trophy wines,” he explains. “Sometimes that very compulsion precludes sharing, or even drinking their treasures. I derive the greatest pleasures in sharing my wines with family and friends. Wine opens your senses and gives you a greater appreciation of other exquisite and ephemeral things.”
As a couple, the Levys throw more traditional dinner parties, with takeout from some of their favorite restaurants — India’s Oven, the Ivy and Ca’Brea. Tonight, Pamela is off to a movie theater with her business partner, Gela Nash Taylor, and costume designer Susan Becker. Taylor’s husband, John Taylor, drummer for Duran Duran, and Susan’s husband, Harold Becker, director of such movies as “Domestic Disturbance” and “Sea of Love,” will be at Levy’s tasting.
Levy is left to see to the intricate preparation of this mother-of-all guys’ nights, and he’s had the foresight to hire servers along with Kazu and his trusty staff. Twenty-plus friends are expected, a concoction of regular connoisseurs with a few neophytes and a handful of actors such as Stephen Dorff and Robert Davi thrown in for good measure. “Whomever I’m working with at the time,” explains Levy. He’s just wrapped the indie film “Man of God,” starring Peter Weller and Nikki Reed (“Thirteen”), which he hopes to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. (Levy’s first film, “Drive,” won the International Critics Award at the 1991 festival, and his third, “S.F.W.” was in the competition at the 1995 festival.)
Levy disappears upstairs to change and returns wearing the same black jeans and short-sleeve shirt. “I was going to put on a suit, but I have too much work to do,” he says cheerfully.
He has already spent the day running to the Beverly Hills Cheese Store and to his humidor at the Grand Havana Room, and he’s decanted the wines twice. They’ve now been open 24 hours, something that normal wines wouldn’t tolerate. “These wines are so big you can’t get your arms around them. They have to be open that long,” Jeff Smith explains.
The house is now aglow like a glamorous light box, with the lap pool glistening in the distance. Guests start to amble in. “I called it for 7 but you know how people can be in L.A,” says Levy, putting Miles Davis on the CD player. Pretty soon the house is awash in men tricked out in what must be the guys’ night regulation attire — dark slacks, black turtleneck and black leather jacket. A few others have broken rank and donned slick suits and ties. In general, though, says Levy, “a taste for fine wine frequently does not go hand in hand with good fashion sense. In fact, quite the opposite.”
Despite his casual dress this evening, it’s clear from the haute Modernist decor he favors that Levy also knows furniture designers as well as he knows vintners. In the living room sit two midcentury classics: a Mies van der Rohe daybed and Corbusier chaise longue in pony hide.
The men seat themselves in Lucite chairs at the huge Lucite dining table, both custom-designed. Latecomers — primarily the less experienced enthusiasts — are relegated to the adjoining living room.
“The mix of guests is important even for a wine dinner which is all guys,” says Levy. “It’s boring if everyone is in the same business. I like people like Robert Uhl, an SEC litigator — he had a good year — or Brian Schuster, an entrepreneurial investor, to be part of my world. It’s also great to have a mix of ages. I find older men [particularly] interesting.”
Levy’s bonhomie and excitement, only mildly tempered by a reverence for the wines, infects the room that’s now filled with men who are bonded in their singular pursuit of perfection in a bottle.
A 1989 and 1990 Chateau d’Yquem are served, trailed by the ankimo, now fully dressed with ponzu jelly and caviar. Conversation focuses on the fluid matter at hand, peppered with anecdotes and good-humored jibing.
“At a certain point there just aren’t that many things left that you can go ape about,” says Uhl, perched rather unceremoniously on a white leather Mies van der Rohe stool, pitched too low for the dining table.
Thinly sliced bluefin tuna and kanpachi crowned with arugula sprouts, pine nuts and pinker than pink peppercorns, and a tenderly warmed salad of king crab, are served with Yattarna. There are now half a dozen glasses in procession in front of each guest, except Orr, who seems to discriminate against whites. “Save your livers for the reds,” he counsels. Dorff, whose good looks are rendered null and void under a baseball cap, concurs.
Actress Gina Gershon, the honorary female guy of the evening — Levy likes to invite just one, just for fun — makes an entrance, straight from doing a Catwoman voice-over for a new “Batman” series, and joins several men in the living room. Levy’s 3-year-old son, Noah, who has been watching a movie with his Juicy Couture-clad nannies, wanders in. “He’s in training,” quips his father, as Noah yawns and promptly returns to his bedroom.
The whites make way for the reds, praised for being among the most exotic and concentrated on earth. Toro tartare — the buttery section of the bluefin tuna finely chopped, redolent with creamy wasabi sauce and three kinds of caviar — is served, followed by a combination of flamed cooked Washu-gyu (American Kobe beef), more Toro and freshwater eel atop sushi rice.
There are appreciative murmurs, showy swirlings of glasses and attempts to coin the most accurate aroma identification. Arcane insider terms “printer’s ink,” “saddle shoes,” and perhaps the best, “Sophia Loren,” are bandied about in a bid to nail these larger-than-life wines. And — this being a testosterone-fueled occasion — the competitive urge is spent determining which wine is best. The ‘98, which happens to contain the highest alcohol level (14.5%) in the wine’s history, wins hands down.
Even Becker, who earlier seemed a tad blasé, is now thoroughly swept up in the mystique, while Taylor, who hasn’t touched alcohol in years, retains some perspective. “I’m here for the company,” he says, downing Rouge Bourbon, a Parisian tea. “I’m sick of Diet Coke, so I’m always looking for something with a bit of kick — especially when the drinkers start to take off.”
Levy is starting to look a little harried, tromping a well-worn path between the kitchen and reception rooms. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to enjoy the party. My job is to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and has a nice time. It’s quite similar to directing actually,” he muses, while allowing a temporary lapse in his standard protocol of opening and pouring every bottle himself. A waiter opens one and, inevitably it would seem, it shatters. “That was bad,” Levy murmurs, but quickly recovers his cool, simply explaining to his guests, “We’ve lost the ’97.”
Palette fatigue is setting in. Peter Getty, grandson of oil czar J. Paul and proprietor of Emperor Norton, the record label that released the “Lost in Translation” soundtrack, jokes that he can no longer distinguish between the red and white, while cinematic tough guy Davi playfully reprimands a waiter who’s prematurely whisking away his glass. “Hey, that’s my ‘98!” he shouts, sounding not unlike Heidi Fleiss’ rogue boyfriend Ivan Nagy, a character he recently played. Even at the connoisseur table, the adjectives are erring on the side of primitive and irreverent, verifying that, while these men might be serious about wine, they’re not solemn.
“It’s hard to avoid getting happy even though we taste minute amounts of each wine,” says Levy, polishing off a glass of Great Grandfather.
After Gershon departs, the men retire to a deck outside the dining room to smoke Zino Platinum selection cigars.
“I know the evening is a success,” says Levy, smiling, “by the number of people who are out here on such a cold night.”