Sometimes it’s difficult to convey the essence of what a full-length Slow Food event is all about to people who haven’t planned or attended one. You can tell them that they’re about conviviality, education, great food, and fun, but often they don’t really get the essence of the event.
That’s why it was such a pleasure to have Master Sommelier Matthew Citriglia of Vintage Wine Distributors and Jonna Brandon of The Twisted Vine run this one for us. They both got it—in spades, and seemingly by instinct. The result was an exemplary event in many ways, one that the participants will be talking about for quite some time.
It started months ago, when Jonna landed some vertical flights (1995-2000) of Château Belgrave, a Grand Cru Bordeaux. Realizing the potential for a taste education event, she asked us whether we wanted to reserve one. We looked at each other, took a quick straw poll of the people in the room, and said, “No—we’d like to reserve two.” She set them aside.
Then, purely by chance, I met Matt at a mutual friend’s house. We got to talking, and he mentioned something that surprised me: with a vertical flight this compact, variation in weather from one year to the next would probably make a much bigger difference in taste than age would. Once that had sunk in, and another discussion about terroir had shown me how disarmingly down-to-earth and amazingly informative he was on the subject of wine, I asked whether he’d be interested in doing us a favor—a big one—by leading the Belgrave tasting. (Why is it a big favor? Well… though you wouldn’t know it from Matt’s quiet demeanor, in the whole country right now there are about as many Master Sommeliers as there are United States Senators. And in Ohio, there are fewer. The demands on his time are not inconsiderable.) To my great pleasure he readily agreed.
We like to have some printed material at our taste education events, and the weekend before the tasting I hadn’t seen anything, so I started to get nervous. Being data-oriented, I dug around for temperature and rainfall data for Bordeaux for 1995-2000 and sent it along to Matt and Jonna in the hopes that they could use it—only to arrive at the tasting to discover that, between the two of them, they had provided twenty pages of reading material to go with the wine. (My. Kind. Of. People!)
It was lucky that we’d reserved two flights, because the 1996 in one of them turned out to be badly corked (another education opportunity, though a tragic one, as the ’96 was well loved; we each settled for a half glass.) Matt dove in to his subject, and we started reading and sipping.
Looking over my own notes as well as the typed ones, it’s impossible to know where even to begin. The subjects we covered were a whirlwind—sun, heat, soil, terroir, the complementarity of Cabernet and Merlot, the variability of heat in 1997 and its impact on wine, the difference between a classic and an opulent style, the fact that Belgrave adopted a more modern style in 2000, possibly confounding the effects of weather… at some point we spent about 15 minutes learning more than I’d ever thought there was to know about sake, of all things, including the fact that sake is the only beverage in the world in which starch is converted to sugar and sugar is converted to alcohol simultaneously.
Further evidence that we were in good hands arrived midway through the tasting, when Jonna, who had started us off with cheese and sausages, brought out a green lentil cassoulet that she’d made herself, with Bluescreek Farm bacon and sausage mixed in. I can tell you from experience that, as soon as you start running a Slow Food chapter, people get very intimidated about cooking dinner for you… without reason, I should hasten to add!… but Jonna didn’t hesitate, and we were glad. The cassoulet was really good.
And the wines? Andrew Hall’s notes on Wine Berserkers are the most comprehensive writeup we have. In general it was much easier to tell the first flight (1995-1997) apart than it was the second (1998-2000), which reflects the fact that whatever’s distinctive about a wine gets more distinctive as it gets older. (Sort of like people, it occurs to me….) I really wish I’d tried the 1996 first, as the leather-y varnish-y finish of the 1995 made it difficult to evaluate and it was the favorite of the folks who had a lot of experience.
But one of the most interesting, and to me compelling, parts of the evening, was that you might not have known that if you hadn’t been paying pretty close attention. Matt emphasized, again and again, that the best wine is the wine that you like, not the one that an expert tells you you should like or that got a 90+ Parker rating. It takes a lot of humility, and respect, for someone who knows that much more about something than you do to tell you to trust your own tastes. But it also brings home the responsibility of knowing your own tastes… and by savoring events like these, we hope to do just that.