Louisa Hargrave Column: Expanding horizons through tastings

Photo by Katharine Schroeder

Photo by Katharine Schroeder

The pre-holiday season is literally a feeding frenzy for wine journalists and purveyors in New York, who are fêted and sated by the wine vendors of the world and their public relations pot-stirrers. As a member of the Wine Media Guild of New York, I am invited to many such tastings, among them the Grand Crus of St. Emilion, the Grandes Pagos de España, the Grand Crus of Gigondas, the Food Network Magazine Holiday Wine & Spirits Tasting and “affordable” Bordeaux ($10-$55) ($55 is affordable?!). And those are just a fraction of the trade events all over town.

Many of these tastings are slurpfests at which hordes of vino connoisseurs race around vast pavilions crammed with vendors’ tables, each offering samples of wines from single producers. The walk-around tastings are the least enlightening, most challenging wine promotions and I tend to avoid them unless there is a specific wine producer I want to meet or a seminar focused on some interesting aspect of a style or region.

The best vintners offer small lunches or dinners, often at wonderful restaurants where the wines can be sampled in the context of food. At the mega tasting events, the producers often follow a scripted message (“The wines are made in the vineyard”; “We don’t interfere with what nature gives us”; “although it was a difficult vintage, we made wonderful wines …” All PR, all the time.) But I find that in the intimate setting of a fine restaurant, in sharing stories and chatting about the wine world, many vintners are able to drop their scripts and engage in honest conversations so that, truly, in vino veritas.

At a small luncheon introducing the Burgundy wines of Louis Max, truth and wine merged deliciously as the company’s general manager, Philippe Bardet, poured the assembled wine critics a selection of Louis Max’s value wines and cellar treasures. Bardet described how in 1859 the company’s founder, Evgueni Louis Max, left his family’s vineyards in what is now the Republic of Georgia to plant pinot noir in Burgundy’s northerly Côte de Nuits. Max grew his business, only to see it laid to waste in the late 19th century by the phylloxera that ravaged all Europe’s vineyards, followed by the depredations of two world wars. Eventually, new owners replaced the heirs of Louis Max, expanding their holdings throughout Burgundy to a substantial 130 hectares.

Bardet came on board in 2007 to entirely revamp the company. At lunch he described how, since then, he has converted the Louis Max vineyards to organic protocols, redesigned the packaging, upgraded the winery and made the wines more appropriate for today’s consumers.

I did drink more than my share of the Louis Max Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru — it’s not every day that I get to educate myself with one of Burgundy’s finest bottles — but for me, Bardet’s real triumph is in Louis Max’s entry-level wines. Considering the astronomical prices of Burgundies today, their fresh, expressive chardonnay and pinot Beaucharme are wonderfully accessible, truly affordable wines. And I love their labels, designed by a former New Yorker cartoonist.

I found another feast of good flavors at a lunch introducing wines newly imported by one of America’s most intelligent and genial food impresarios, David Rosengarten. Rosengarten and I go back to the dawn of American wine consciousness, the 1980s. Both of us, in our own ways, reshuffled the deck of existing wine expectations. While I grew wine grapes in a new, unheralded region, he explored novel wine and food pairings. After shaking up established notions in his book with co-author Joshua Wesson, “Red Wine with Fish,” Rosengarten went on to be a Food Network star, wine judge, cookbook author and, now, wine importer.

What I love about Rosengarten is his jovial panache. He’s always got a revolution going on but his battles are fought without anger. He’s the knight of convivial pleasure, with a new “Wine Manifesto” to bring wine drinkers back from the barricades of monster fruit bomb wines to the greener pastures of lively, fresh, non-confrontational wines. He’s exploring the world, hoping to entice us away from oaky chardonnays and clunky merlots toward his delicate, racy, supple, everyday-drinkable discoveries.

I liked many of Rosengarten’s choices, especially his exuberant dry Mosel rieslings from Franz Dahm and his intriguing Opi D’Aqui Les Cliquets Rouge (grenache).

At the tasting, it was also a treat to find another favorite wine friend from way back, Gary Madden (formerly of Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue) now working with Rosengarten to expand our wine horizons.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.