Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chalone Night with Master Ben

Ben was in rare form. On the patio with a view of the serene garden, while everyone was preoccupied with the Champagne preliminaries (I even had a Syrah in one glass), Ben, without warning and pomp, poured the 1974 Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay as he sat next to me. I secured a splash for my glass then passed on the legendary bottle. The anticlimactic start was almost comical, but its spontaneity truly Zen-like. We shall receive more lessons from Master Ben later in the evening.

Thirty-six years after placing third among the whites in the celebrated 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting--ahead of the 1973 Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches, the 1973 Ramonet Batard-Montrachet, and the 1972 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles--the 1974 Chalone Chardonnay rushed out of the bottle with a worryingly brownish color. Seemingly tired, a golden patina held the wine together for a good hurrah. It still tasted fine and fresh, and the color magically transformed to a pale amber--or were my eyes playing tricks on me?--within minutes. The Chardonnay was as good as we could hope for, round and luscious, with green apple notes, and even a hint of oak. It was graceful, and there was some brilliance left, I could only imagine how it danced in its youth.

The flight of three vintages from the late 1970s Pinot Noirs produced by Chalone was stunning. Both 1977 and 1978 (12.5% alc) were private-labeled for the venerable San Francisco wine retailer, John Walker & Co. Chalone sourced the grapes for these bottlings from Edna Valley Vineyard in San Luis Obispo, a grape supplier to Chalone which it helped manage and later co-owned. The third wine in the flight was the 1979 Chalone Estate Pinot Noir from grapes grown in its estate vineyard high up in Monterey's Pinnacle hills. The two Edna Valley Pinot Noirs showed their affinity. They have ripe crushed berry flavors, exotic notes, and sweet spices, as well as an underlying rustic character. The 1977 (13.5% alc) was fuller and expansive, with earthy, underbrush notes. The 1978 (12.5% alc) showed much of the same fruit character but less poised, though it left a trail of lovely spice in my mouth. Someone compared the 1977 to a Romanee-St.-Vivant, and I wouldn't be opposed to that--certainly the power and seductive fruit give it that range--although I didn't see enough finesse to be convinced.

I thought the 1979 Chalone Estate Pinot Noir was unquestionably the star of the flight. Of course, it tasted quite different from both 1977 and 1978 Edna Valley bottlings, but there was also a separate issue. We opened two bottles, each from different cellars, and quite apart in bottle number that Chalone used to mark on the label. There were about 26,000 bottles produced of the 1979, one bottle we drank was number around the 2,000, while the other was around 25,000. The latter, which was stored at 49 F constant showed a brighter edge, somewhat tighter, and was more subdued in the nose. The other 1979, kept at about 55-57 F constant, offered an alluring floral, spice perfume. After some time in the glass the two bottles started to converge but never fully became identical. Suffice it to say that this vintage is truly spectacular, offering a quality one expects from an outstanding grand cru Burgundy, particularly from Clos de Vougeot. Broad, rich, gamey, and fleshy flavors, with a mile-long finish, it had plenty of power and depth to spare. Truly aristocratic.

The next Pinot Noir flight were all Chalone Estate wines from the 1980s. They were good, but not nearly as long-lived and interesting as the previous flight. These '80s were softer and showing cracks. Everyone, I believe, loved the 1981 best. I thought it offered much of the qualities seen in the 1970s with its ripe, luscious layers--black cherries, licorice, red currants, sweet spices--but with less refinement. As we moved on to the 1982 and 1986, the quality declined further, but still offered pleasurable drinking--the '82 showed interesting earthy, floral notes, while the '86 had dollops of soft, ripe cherries.

Just before dinner started Ben called me out to check on the 1991 Chalone Estate Pinot Blanc that I brought. It looked alarmingly like iced tea in Ben's decanting pitcher. I gave it a minute or so in the glass then tossed it--there wasn't much life left. Thankfully, I brought another bottle which had a more honey color and significantly in better shape. Still, that didn't prevent Ben from suddenly propping up another bottle of Chalone Estate Pinot Blanc on the kitchen counter. My jaw dropped when I saw the vintage on the label. 1969! But is it still good? He opened the bottle with the long cork puller. Amazingly, the color was a pale yellow and it tasted like it couldn't be more than five years old. Ben already had it chilled and ready to go! He is the true Master!

Unplanned, as far as I knew, we magically had a flight of three Chalone Estate Pinot Blancs! I said during the run-up to this dinner that I was going to bring a 1991 Chalone Pinot Blanc, and that got the group excited. But that was that as far Pinot Blancs were concerned. Ben lamented that way back when he and Mayon had a lot of Pinot Blancs, and that they aged better than the Chardonnays. He was right and it would be proved in this unbelievable flight.

The 1991 Chalone Estate Pinot Blanc on release was the most critically acclaimed Pinot Blanc from Chalone. From a ripe vintage, it was Chardonnayesque, viscous, blockbuster style that wine critics fall for, especially back in the 1990s. It drank well enough, showing waxy, pear flavors, with a very deep golden color and no oxidized notes. Yet, it was soft and on the brink, lacking sufficient liveliness to be exciting.

On the other hand, at eight years older, the 1983 Pinot Blanc showed a much lighter color and vivid fruit, with flavors of pear and buttered yellow corn. California whites aren't supposed to last thirty years, but this one has and remains youthful.

As I mentioned, the 1969 Chalone Estate Pinot Blanc appeared magically as a last-minute replacement. The vintage was just the fourth for Dick Graff since taking over the estate in 1965, but after some years of adjustment he finally improved conditions in the vineyard and put together the winemaking approach he wanted in time for one of California's greatest vintages. It was said that his future business partner, Philip Woodward, a successful executive at Touche Ross, resigned from his job to join a fledgling Chalone in 1972 after tasting a bottle of 1969 Chalone Pinot Blanc!

I can tell you that after drinking the forty-three year-old 1969 Chalone Pinot Blanc a few days ago I can fully understand why Woodward gave up his cushy job. It must have been a Damascene moment, and akin to Steve Jobs wooing Pepsi CEO John Sculley to join Apple, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

The 1969 Chalone Pinot Blanc has a transformative effect, as we experienced first-hand this night. The color belies having aged at all. A pale yellow. On the palate the freshest acidity and the brightest fruit conveying intrinsic Pinot Blanc flavors with brilliant precision. Not so intense and terribly complex but youthful. Gentle layers of pear, almonds, buttered brioche, and popcorn. Round and mineral on the finish, with a hint of wheat ale. A blast from the past, though nothing about the wine seems old. It exists in the here and now, in a good place where Master Ben has led us to in this unforgettable Chalone night.

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