Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.

A Carneros Chardonnay that Failed the Reality Check

I am always conscious at tastings that more powerful wines tend to outshine more subtle wines, or that for whatever reason a wine that tastes well might seem different when accompanying a meal. As in my view wine is intended to partner food, I like whenever possible to perform a reality check: to have a bottle for dinner to see whether a wine performs in the same way over a meal as it did in a tasting. Sometimes my notes are consistent from both conditions, but sometimes I decide that I was fooled at the tasting.

One recent experience wasn’t really a reality check because the dinner did not immediately follow the tasting, but I was struck by the contrast between my tasting note, from a bottle tried together with several others at the producer two years ago, and the evolution of the wine as experienced at dinner last week.

In my original tasting, the wine cut the richness of the New World by showing good acidity to support the citrus fruits, and gave a tight, clean impression. Today the issue is not so much that the wine seems richer, but that the mainstream impression of citrus and stone fruits has been extended into exotic fruits with a slightly stewed impression. The overall balance seems over ripe and alcoholic, with a slightly sweet impression on the finish.

At a meal at Terra restaurant in St. Helena, the wine clashed with the first three dishes (tuna sashimi, wild mushroom salad, and black cod in sake). It showed well only against the lobster with pumpkin ravioli, which itself had a slightly sweet touch. Maybe the wine would go well against cuisine in that modern style which mixes fruity and savory and tends to be slightly sweet, but even then one might find the fruit flavors a little overwhelming.

Did I misjudge the wine originally or did I fail to foresee its evolution from ripe to over ripe? The parallel that comes to mind is 1983 Burgundy, where the wines were delicious one month, but filled with rot the next month, a development which was completely unpredictable from bottle to bottle. Perhaps it’s the same on the edge of ripeness.

Tasting Notes

Carneros, Hyde Vineyard, Ramey Wine Cellars, 2007, 14.5%

February 2012    This wine has become noticeably more exotic in the past two years, with a whiff of over ripe fruits showing on the palate. The citrus fruits that dominated the palate originally remain an important component, but now are accompanied by strong notes of stewed fruits verging on the over ripe. The style now seems too rich and alcoholic; although the alcohol does not stick out directly, I would be surprised if it is really as low as the stated 14.5%. Really too assertive to be a food wine, the over ripe intensity makes this seem a bit clumsy, and I tired of it after a glass. Drink it now before it degenerates into a caricature of a New World Chardonnay.

February 2010    Faintly oaky notes on the nose with underlying hints of citrus. Faint notes of lime and lemon on the palate. a cleaner, tighter impression than the Ritchie vineyard. Nice long finish with citrus and smoky notes of oak coming through.

The Chameleon Grape: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I call Chardonnay the Chameleon grape because its character is so much more dependent on winemaking than place. Vinify Chardonnay at low temperature and you get tropical fruits; go to higher temperatures for a more classic repertoire. Mature in new oak for smoky overtones or a full-fledged rush of vanillin; use stainless steel for a crisper finish. Push malolactic fermentation for those buttery notes of popcorn; avoid it for sharp, citrus flavors. (Yes, I know that Chardonnay shows wonderful nuances of place in Burgundy, most notably in Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, but that does not counter my argument, since there is a commonality to winemaking in Burgundy.)

Dependence on winemaking becomes even more evident at lower price levels, where yields are higher, and vineyard origins rarely feature as determinants of style. The significant impact of the hand of the winemaker was brought forcefully home to me by two mid-priced Chardonnay’s consumed on successive days. The first was the L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State, enjoyed (if that is the right word) on American Airlines between New York and London (The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet). The second was Domaine Mont d’Hortes from the Languedoc, enjoyed with dinner at Galvins Bistro in London (Review of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe), the day after. American Airlines did not think vintage was important enough to state, but the Mont d’Hortes was the recent 2010 vintage. The American wine retails around $17 per bottle; the Languedoc Chardonnay is about half that price.

The L’Ecole No. 41 comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. According to the producer, it comes from two vineyards, Schmitt Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which provides tropical fruit,” and Evergreen Vineyard, “which contributes crisp acidity and minerality.” I buy the producer’s claim that these are cooler vineyards, because I could taste slightly herbaceous flavors in the wine, which I took to represent unripe grapes, although the harvest Brix of almost 26 (producing more than 14% alcohol) might rather suggest over ripe grapes. I can’t say that I could see the wine as “finely balanced between richness and minerality,” because for me it seems more to have a phenolic brutality to the finish, which did not exactly complement the food.

The Mont d’Hortes Chardonnay comes from the Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue, a minor Vin de Pays in the Languedoc, not far north of the Pyrenees. This is a somewhat warmer region, but the nose shows a tang of citrus, quite fresh with just a touch of phenolics on the finish. The palate is quite full, with a fairly rich impression. There is not a huge amount of flavor interest, and once again I found the phenolics to be a little too evident, but a decent balance allowed the wine to complement the food quite well. As evident from the price, this wine sees no oak aging, in contrast with the l’Ecole No. 41 which apparently was matured in two- and three-year old barriques.

I suspect the oak is the culprit! For a wine to carry any significant exposure to oak, the fruit has to have a certain concentration and intensity; otherwise the oak just sits on the surface in a disjointed way. Given the coast of oak barriques, it is awfully hard to justify their use on wines around the $15 level (the cost of a new barrique would amount to around 20% of the retail price, which is to say close to half of cost). I suspect my problem with the L’Ecole #41 was just too much strength coming from the oak relative to the fruit. My issue with the Mont d’Hortes was a bit different: there just didn’t seem to be any character to it that said “Chardonnay.” It is a perfectly reasonable quaffing wine, well made for the price, but I had the feeling the same wine could have been produced from any number of grape varieties with very little difference in the results. Southern heat did not show directly in high alcohol (which was stated as a moderate 13%), but it might be fair to say that it muddied the flavor spectrum. I am not sure that in the case of either wine I really see the point of growing Chardonnay just so you can stick the varietal name on the label, although the wine bears little relationship to those that made the variety famous. Has Chardonnay become a brand or even a commodity rather than a variety?

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”