David Gordon nibbles absentmindedly on his thumb. Alex Adlgasser, his face overwhelmed by a bulky pair of dark-tortoiseshell glasses, taps the side of his head with a pencil and scrunches up his mouth. Olivier Zardoni, preternaturally pale and thin, looking all of 17, stares at the blank sheet of paper in front of him. He finally bites his lip and begins scribbling furiously. And so it goes, all around the room.
A bad case of final exams? In a way. Sitting around a table in the upstairs boardroom of the James Beard House are eleven of the best-known sommeliers in New York, among them Alex Adlgasser of Danube, Jean-Luc Le Du of Daniel, David Gordon of Tribeca Grill and Nobu, and Olivier Zardoni of Cello (he admits to being 26). The test set before them: to identify, "blind," five glasses of wine. All the wines were red and French. Contestants were to guess the region, the vintage, and the domaine or château from which the wines came.
George Sape, quizmaster and host, breaks the tension. A big man with a voice to match, Sape bellows out: "How come you're all so quiet?" The only reply is nervous laughter. After all, reputations are on the line.
It all began as a lark. "I wanted to do something nice for my dozen or so favorite sommeliers," Sape explains. "I wanted to give them a dinner. Reward them for being such great guys." Then he chuckles. "But you know, there's a price to be paid for every reward you get in life."
Why take the bait? The answer is easy: George Sape. Sape is a wine collector of international renown and a storied bon vivant. As Tim Kopec, the wine director at the restaurant Veritas and a participant in tonight's tasting once said, "Every sommelier in New York knows Mr. Sape. The guy's a force of nature."
"Zees eez zuh best," announces Jean-Luc Le Du. "Blackberry, strawberry -- and a little beet of dung."
Sape caught the wine bug in college, in the early sixties, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After law school, during a stint at the State Department, he was dispatched to Europe, where he took classes at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. Today, he's the managing partner of Epstein Becker & Green, a 300-lawyer firm with headquarters in New York, which affords him the opportunity to do, shall we say, a lot of wining and dining. Pretty much on a nightly basis.
But Sape doesn't confine himself to restaurant wine lists. He's a mighty big collector of fine and rare wines. The collection isn't what it once was: Sape's several cellars, which at one time numbered more than 10,000 bottles, are now down to a mere 8,000.
"You gotta drink 'em sometime," he says. "I'm not getting any younger, you know." To begin with, there's the matter of "daily consumption," as Sape puts it: "a bottle here, a bottle there." Then there are the "events" put on by Sape, the most famous of which was an eightieth-anniversary Armistice Day tasting of 1918 clarets, which featured four bottles each of all of the Bordeaux first growths, plus bottles of the same year's Château d'Yquem. That, needless to say, was but one evening in more than 35 years of sniffing, spitting, and swallowing. "On the whole, though, I prefer swallowing," laughs Sape.
Spitting, however, is definitely in order for the first 30 minutes or so of tonight's affair. Sape himself, a black apron over his Turnbull & Asser shirt and tie, a tin cup (rather than a sommelier's silver taste-vin) tied around his neck, is tonight's sommelier. The five wines have all been decanted in advance, so there will be no guessing based on the size or shape of individual bottles.
Consider the possibilities for embarrassment -- serious embarrassment. What if, for example, that wine you thought was a '47 Cheval Blanc turned out to be, say, a bottle of 1998 plonk? Or the one you were sure was a "mature old claret," say a 1961 Lafite, was instead a truly ancient Burgundy, a 1911 Beaune-Avaux from Bouchard, perhaps?
When at last time's up, the Austrian-born Adlgasser mops his brow with a handkerchief. "The pressure was really on," he says. "Whew."
"Who wants to go first?" asks Sape.
Silence reigns until Daniel Johnnes, the wine director of Montrachet, takes a deep breath and launches forth. He finds a "common thread, a genetic similarity" in all five wines: "I think they're all old Cabernets, mature Bordeaux." Could this, he wonders, be a tasting of the wines of a single château or of two châteaux lying side by side? "Maybe Pichon-Baron and Pichon-Lalande," he says, referring to the two famous Pauillac second growths. "Yeah, second or third growths. Hmmm, but not first growths."
"You think George would spring for first growths for us?" hollers David Gordon.
The sommeliers crack up.
"But they are old," adds Johnnes. "I'd guess '28, '29, '49, '53, and '59," he suggests, invoking five of the greatest vintages of the century in Bordeaux.
Johnnes picks up a glass of the first wine, studies it for a moment, and, looking Sape square in the face, announces, "The wine in this glass is very hazy. Did you have a problem decanting it?"
The sommeliers laugh again. Sape is pouring badly tonight.
David Gordon is up next. He shakes his head: "Gee, I thought the wines were white." More laughter. "Rhine wine." Getting serious, he ventures that they're "not as old as Daniel thinks, but they are fully mature. Bordeaux, old Bordeaux, yeah. But vintages? I don't know."
Tim Kopec thinks the youngest wine is a '70, but, unlike Johnnes, he "can't find a common theme." The wines, he guesses, come from the Right Bank of Bordeaux, from St.-Emilion or Pomerol. They're more Merlot-based than Cabernet. Pétrus, perhaps, with the oldest wines coming from the fifties. Olivier Zardoni of Cello agrees that the oldest wines are from the fifties, but he thinks they're "more Pauillac," more Cabernet.
After that, it's around the room. The only consensus: The wines are from Bordeaux.
Since Sape is widely known to be a claret lover -- "a big Bordeaux man," in his own words -- that's not too surprising. One sommelier guesses that the wines are from the sixties and seventies and that at least one is "a trick," maybe a Pomerol in a tasting full of Pauillacs and Saint-Juliens. Another guesses that No. 4 is a ringer, "Syrah, a northern-Rhône wine, maybe an Hermitage."
Still another guesses that the youngest wine might be "an '82 Bordeaux."
No one makes pronouncements, however. "Maybe," "perhaps," and "I think" are the keynotes of the evening.
And the winner?