What’s My Wine?

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?

Daniel Johnnes, who was bang-on right about the wine’s being Château Pichon-Lalande. But forget ‘28 and ‘29. The wines tonight were: 1940 (a rare, though not memorable, wartime vintage, which was nevertheless holding up well; a second bottle, sweet and inviting but cloudy in color, was ignominiously poured down the drain), 1950 (rather weak at the knees), 1953 (a famous vintage that quickly fell off in the glass), 1955 (No. 4, “the ringer,” which indeed seemed quite different from the rest, slightly metallic), and 1959 (easily the best, a truly grande année).

“I think I need a drink,” a corrected sommelier mutters.

A scant 15 minutes later, the table has been cleared and reset, and les plus grands sommeliers du monde, as Alex Adlgasser terms this slightly chagrined group, sit down to eat, drink, and gossip. The chatty Adlgasser leads off with his tale of President Clinton’s recent visit to New York: “So Clinton is having dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, and David Bouley, the chef-proprietor of Danube is doing the cooking. And I’m there, and we’re serving 1970 Latour. Dinner goes three hours, and you know what Clinton is drinking all this time? Cans of Diet Coke! Can after can. Oh, it’s awful.”

Adlgasser’s story is received with much tongue-clucking and head-wagging. Wide-eyed looks, however, greet the news that a well-known Rhône winegrower has been hospitalized: “A liver transplant, can you believe it?” someone at the table says.

No one laughs.

As usual at the beard house, the cooking is being done by a visiting chef, this time Jennifer Maloney of Kansas City’s Café Sebastienne. Her cooking is good but strongly flavored; the courses and the wines don’t often match. The ‘94 and ‘97 Corton-Charlemagnes from Domaine Bonneau du Martray, for example, are overwhelmed by the coriander-and-sesame-seared ahi tuna with bok choy, crispy noodles, and spicy ginger sauce.

Being sommeliers, though, these guys taste the wines first. The verdict on the ‘94: “Marshmallows,” the French-born Zardoni mutters. “Zees eez not uh …”

Tim Kopec fills in the blanks: “Not very Burgundian.” Zardoni agrees: “Napa. Zees eez Napa, not Bourgogne.”

Finally, the pièce de résistance of tonight’s dinner arrives on the scene: an imperial of 1970 Pichon-Lalande.

It is spectacular – “smoky, very smoky,” Zardoni says of it – and fortunately this time the grilled pork tenderloin with blackberry-mustard reduction and potato-fennel gratin matches it well. “This is a bull’s-eye,” Tim Kopec says of the pairing. He also likes the Pichon-Lalande: “This is a death-row wine. I don’t think it will be as good as this tomorrow or ever again. But you don’t care. You’re not thinking about tomorrow.”

The talk now is all about comparisons with the ‘70 Pichon-Lalande as well as old vintages: How the ‘62 Bordeaux were “lost in the shadow of the ‘61s”; a tasting of the ‘28 and ‘29 Palmers; the ‘29 Château des Jacques (a Beaujolais, no less – tasted at 70 years of age); and how similar most of the Pichons really were.

“The ‘59 eez beautiful. But zees eez zuh best,” announces Jean-Luc Le Du. “Blackberry, strawberry – and a little beet of dung.”

Murmurs of assent.

Finally, it’s time for dessert: a delicious warm chocolate budino with fresh cream and berries. Against that, the wine, a fairly delicate 1975 Sauternes from the lesser-known Château Filhot, is pretty much dead in the water: a fizzled firecracker.

It matters not; by now the sommeliers, almost to a man, are floating. Someone’s teasing Alex Adlgasser about his bright yellow bow tie:

“It’s a clip-on, isn’t it? You didn’t tie that thing.”

“Oh, you hurt my feelings,” Adlgasser replies in mock pain. “Of course I tied it myself.”

“Attention, attention,” Sape interrupts, as if snapping out orders to a squadron of World War I pilots. “I want to thank you all for coming tonight. By now the lights are blinking. It’s time for the sommeliers to go home, or wherever sommeliers go when the lights go out.”

Olivier Zardoni knows where he wants to go: “Somewhere where I can have a glass of really good old cognac and a cigar. I only smoke Cubans.”

As for Daniel Johnnes, he’s ready to party some more. Nineteen French chefs, led by Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc, are dining at Nobu tonight. On their menu: sushi and sake. “Let’s go!” Johnnes hollers.

“Sake?” someone groans. “Who wants to drink sake after this?”

“Who said anything about sake?” Johnnes replies. “We’ll stop by Montrachet and pick up some Burgundies. Real wine, George.”

The jovial George Sape is savoring the pleasures of his evening. Behind him the magnums, bottles, and an imperial the size of a small water cooler are all lined up in a row on a sideboard. “This was serious, really serious tonight,” he says, a glass of 1959 Pichon-Lalande in his hand. Then, gesturing to his glass, he asks, “Is this alive or what?”

What’s My Wine?