Mar 182013
 

FacepalmIf you’re going to stage a blind tasting (or any other type of event, for that matter), you should do it right or not at all. Veuve Ambal’s Battle of the Bubbles left a bad taste in my mouth and it had nothing to do with the wine.

Members of the press were invited to “an exceptional and unique blind tasting of sparkling wines from Bugundy…” It turned out to be quite exceptional – exceptionally poorly run. Unfortunately, an event that held such promise became a lesson in too much and too few at all the wrong times.

After explaining that the wine was produced in the same manner as that of Champagne (Méthode Traditionnelle), the invitation posed the question, “Are you ready to challenge your expectations about Champagne and be amazed by a sparkling wine from Burgundy?” I was suitably intrigued and looked forward to the challenge. Would I be able to spot the Burgundian sparkler among its Champagne colleagues? I wasn’t sure, but I was curious to find out.

When I arrived I found only a few colleagues assembled, but, over the next 20 minutes it became extremely crowded. Relegated to the bar area in the front of the restaurant (the remainder of the restaurant was off-limits as the staff prepared for that night’s dinner service), there was insufficient room to move.  And, quite a few folks were obliged to stand. [Maybe they thought it was a Battle of the Bands?] So, we kicked off the event with too little space and too many people. Not an auspicious start, but I continued to keep an open mind.

After sitting around waiting for the masses, we were eventually formally welcomed and the event’s format was clarified. Each participant would receive a single flute, go up to the bar and have the first sample poured for them, at which point, they would taste the wine, before asking for the second blind sample. Everyone had been given a card on which to rank their preferences from 1 to 5 (with 1 being one’s favorite and 5 the least favorite).

Attendees were further advised that their rankings would be tabulated, with the results and all of the wines’ identities to be revealed via e-mail a few days later. [Another pet peeve was the misspelling of Nicolas Feuillatte in that e-mail, but I digress.]

The format itself posed its own problems; chief among them was too few glasses. Allocating each person with a single glass meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to truly comparison taste. Even when taking careful tasting notes, it is always preferable to be able to taste all of the wines together to be able to fully evaluate the nuances among them. [A point which is presumably important if the event is intended for people to rank the wines against one another!]

Even more egregious was the choice of stemware. The flutes were not at all conducive to evaluative tasting. Their hollow stems potentially caused people to warm the wine unintentionally simply by holding the glass. Moreover, the pours were quite small, which while not a complaint on its own, meant that most of the wine sat in the narrow stem instead of the glass’ bowl, making it extremely challenging to adequately assess the wines’ aromas. [Again, an important point unless I am I missing something here?]

Additionally, getting out from my table was simply impossible and even my colleague, who graciously schlepped from the bar to the table and back again, had difficulty getting past people without bumping into them or spilling wine. On occasion, we did luck out when the proprietor of the winery walked around with the next sample and poured at the tables, saving us from having to negotiate the crowds, but this was haphazard at best.

Equally haphazard was the passing of hors d’oeuvres. The event was held at Petrossian, a high-end New York restaurant known for caviar. While I know there is significant debate in some circles about whether Champagne (or similar sparkling wines) and caviar really are a match made in heaven, I was more than prepared to do some field research. But while servers were seen with trays of smoked salmon, caviar blinis and caviar mousse, after visiting our table once or twice, were never heard from again. Consequently, we each had a single taste of the three different canapés and I think we were the lucky ones. As veteran journalists, we didn’t expect a full meal (and certainly not one of caviar), but thought it was really strange to host the event at this particular venue if too little food would be served. [Perhaps we could at least have had some neutral crackers or bread on the table to cleanse our palates in between tasting?]

A few days later the e-mail arrived and I was quite surprised by the results, which placed Veuve Cliquot first, followed by the Veuve Ambal. While my table may not have been a representation of the total group, none of us had spoken favorably about the (then unknown) sample of Veuve Ambal. In fact, I had it dead last in my line-up. But, frankly, the results weren’t really a concern.

At the end of it all, I did discover that I have a preference for Moet & Chandon’s Imperial Brut, but would be nearly as pleased with Taittinger Brut. And, I’m still waiting to conduct that caviar-Champagne tasting research should anyone need a volunteer! I might even be willing to re-taste the Veuve Ambal under more conducive circumstances, but I will definitely think twice about attending any future battles.

Nov 072012
 

ExhaustedI can’t tell you how many people have told me that they want my job.   And two weeks ago, I was open to offers.  I started by flying to NY for the Simply Italian tastings.  That meant that I got up at 4:30 PDT to catch a flight to NY.  The next day I was up at 5:00 PDT to  race over to the NY Public Library to start getting the tastings organized.  Among other things, I introduced the first speaker, my old friend Riccardo Riccicurbastro from Franciacorta, and also give the last seminar, on the wines of the Veneto.  In between I was running upstairs (seminars) and down (grand tastings) as needed.  Did I mention that we were also organizing a film shoot for the wines of Friuli there?  That night, I was at A Voce for a magnificent dinner with the Grandi Marchi wineries—and back to the hotel around 11 p.m..

So far, so good, right?

Next day, up at the crack of dawn to catch an early flight back to California, so that I could get some work done and teach my class at Napa Valley College that evening.  The class ended at 9:30.  That was a long day.  And it was made even longer by the fact that I raced back to the airport after class to catch a red-eye leaving SFO at 11:45 pm for Chicago, so that we could do the whole Simply Italian event all over again in the Windy City.   I arrived at the Hotel Sax in Chicago at 6:30 a.m. and had a breakfast meeting.  And yes, we also did the video shoot in Chicago.  By the time I wrapped up the Veneto session, I was pretty darn tired.  And that’s when the Grand Tasting began.  Four hours later, all of it on my feet, and I was ready to clean up the ballroom, and take the film crew to dinner.  Steak, of course.  It was Chicago.

In bed by 10 p.m., and the next morning I was back at O’Hare to catch a flight to SFO and drive home.

Four days.  Four flights.  Almost 10,000 miles. Three cities, two seminars, two introductions, one night class, two Grand Tastings, three business dinners (and a breakfast), two video projects (including two interviews with me) and one red-eye.

I slept pretty well on Thursday night.