California Collectible Dinner at the US Embassy
By Sara Guiducci, Co-Head of Private Client Sales
It has been 42 years since the 24 May 1976 Judgement of Paris changed the course of California wines, and today California is widely recognised as one of the top wine-producing regions in the world. This year on 24 September, the newly-opened US embassy opened its doors for a Californian Collectable Tasting celebrating the best of Californian wines followed by the first ever black-tie dinner held at the US Embassy. The evening proved beyond doubt that Californian wine has changed beyond recognition and generalisations are impossible. In a post-Parker era, we see both restrained and elegant alongside more heady, opulent wines. Terroir (soil but also microclimate and aspect) spoke as loudly as winemaking and being able to compare the subtle differences between sub-AVAs was thrilling.
For those unfamiliar with the Judgement of Paris, it was a blind-tasting held in Paris by Steven Spurrier, then owner of Les Caves de Madeleine in Paris, in which several Californian wines were blind tasted alongside some of France’s greatest wines including several First Growths and Grand Cru & 1er Cru white Burgundies. To everyone’s astonishment (including that of the organisers, judges and American growers), the Californian wines won both the red and white flights.
A re-run of the tasting in 1986 again put California ahead of France and a 30-year anniversary tasting of the Judgement of Paris held simultaneously in London and Napa once again saw California triumph in the top 5 places. The judgement of Paris is a challenge to all of us to ensure we taste blind and with an open mind. It also proved to the world that Californian wines are truly age-worthy.
It is impossible to mention all the wines that were available at the tasting, but Stannary St Wine Co. poured four great wines (yes, I am biased, but the crowd gathering around our table soon supported my claim) and so see my tasting notes below of our wines.
We first poured two whites; 2015 White Hill Chardonnay, Liquid Farm (£360 per 12 IB) from Santa Rita Hills next to 2016 Hudson Vineyards Chardonnay, Failla Wines (£425 per 12 IB) from Napa. Neither wine showed the hedonistic oaky opulence so often criticised by wine professionals. Jeff and Nicki Nelson at Liquid Farm’s original aim was to produce a more restrained wine with lower alcohol and with a low percentage of new oak. 2015 White Hill is taut, Chablis-esque from the cooler Santa Rita and provided a perfect foil for the rounder, impeccably balanced Hudson Vineyards Chardonnay by Failla, which showed more of the Napa opulence, though kept well in check by fresh acidity and restrained alcohol. The room was divided in relation to what they preferred, as it is a stylistic difference rather than a quality difference. Personally, I landed on the side of the Failla, which is gorgeous by itself, but ideal with a roast chicken with barrel fermentation subtly integrating the oak with the aromas of the grape.
The red comparison was fabulous. No new world fruit bombs on our table! I am absolutely smitten with the 2015 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir, Chanin Wines (£480 per 12 IB) from Santa Rita hills. I am not generally a fan of the expression ‘Burgundian in style’ when writing about new world wines, but here it was very apt. Simply a brilliant wine and a highlight of the tasting. The climate of Santa Rita Hills is unusual as its valleys are east/west facing rather than north/south due to a geological fault, which allows full exposure to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean. This helps restrain the alcohol and style of the wines, and Gavin Chanin has crafted great fruit into an elegant Pinot that is a must have for collectors like me that feature too many European Pinots in the cellar.
The Bien Nacido was poured next to the 2016 Royal St Robert Pinot Noir by Raen (£255 per 6 IB) from the Sonoma coast, which is made by the two Mondavi children. As with the whites, the room was divided. It was more polished and enticingly aromatic than the Bien Nacido with the brightness of fruit typical of Sonoma Coast Pinot.
After the tasting, 150 people sat down for an impeccably-served black tie dinner against the impressive backdrop of Bradford’s We The People (32 panels containing the entire U.S. Constitution). Lightly cured halibut with toasted hazelnuts and a black truffle vinaigrette was served with 2015 Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay and 2013 Failla’s Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir. Sandhi’s Chardonnay showed a powerful nose and palate but preserved a great balance. It opened up in the glass and by the time main course was served, it was an absolutely joyous and a wine that I would definitely seek out. I would recommend, though, that those who have it in the cellar should have patience before opening it. The Occidental Pinot Noir was just as impressive. Ehren Jordan from Failla originally focused on Rhône varietals as he had previously studied in the Rhone Valley, but within a few years of finding Failla, he included Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (thankfully for us). The Occidental Ridge is an impeccable Pinot with a fragrant nose and palate that is utterly beguiling. This became my wine of the dinner.
The main course of dry aged beef with thyme fondant, charred sprouting broccoli (tasted better than it sounds) and ceps was matched with three of California’s greatest; 2013 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley), 2012 Rudd Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Orin Swift Mercury Head Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. The latter was sadly too young to drink with dinner (would have been great at the tasting previously) and I was most excited by the Rudd Cabernet Sauvignon as much by because of its balance between sweet fruit and gravelly pencil shavings as by the fact it was the most mature wine on the table and Cabernet is not forgiving when poured young with dinner. Unlike Pinot Noir it has a tendency to dominate in youth either because of its noticeable tannic structure or its dense fruit. I asked for an extra glass of the Failla Occidental Pinot Noir, but was told that it was the first wine to have run out (!) so I settled for drinking the 2012 Rudd Oakville for the remainder of the evening.
Cheese was served with 2014 Amuse Bouche Merlot, a hedonistic merlot-dominated Napa red that paired well with the cheeses and with a beautiful label designed by the owner Heidi Peterson Barrett.
It was an exceptional evening. Those that know me, know that my personal cellar is dominated by France, but I was seriously challenged at the dinner to learn more about California. There were far more restrained, complex wines than the opulent blockbusters and, as the Judgement of Paris has shown us, they are properly age-worthy too. I would be quite keen to repeat this dinner in 10 and 30 years!