As Wolfgang Puck makes his customary evening rounds of the dining room at Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif., the members of our party glance up from the formidable palisade of crystal wine glasses before us. "Here comes Wolf," someone says. "Do you think he’s coming over?" another asks. "Well, if he sees what we’ve got here tonight," laughs still another, "he’ll do more than come over—he’ll pull up a chair."
Our group consists of three couples, all passionate wine collectors. We have asked the invitees to nominate the wine each believes to be the best ever produced, and to come to dinner prepared (as any passionate connoisseur of wine always is) to defend that selection. All of the participants collect not to acquire trophies, but to experience the vintages they love; and so, happily for those of us about to imbibe, they insist that we drink the contenders as we discuss them. Unfortunately for Puck, when he reaches our table, sommelier Christopher Miller has yet to pour the first wine, and the culinary impresario cheerfully leaves us to order our courses without realizing the pleasures his palate has missed.
Sweet "Burg" of Youth
The first bottle has been chosen by Elliot Grover (name changed upon request)—an investment banker—and his wife, Alice, who have a particular fondness for Burgundy. "The first time we visited Burgundy, we went to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti," Elliot recalls, laughing. "We peered around and tried to break in. Then Bernard [Noblet], the cellar master, came around. He looked at Alice and decided to let us in. We brought some DRC back to New York, and La Tâche was absolutely our favorite wine. So if we have a ‘bucket list’ wine, it would have to be the DRC La Tâche 1962."
On this evening, the 1962 exudes a deep, earthy perfume and aromas of attar of rose; the palate exhibits surprisingly lively fruit, including red raspberry and ripe strawberry. "The Sixties was a great decade for the Romanée-Conti wines," says Joe Wender, an investment banker and vintner. "The ’61, the ’62, the ’64, the ’66, and the ’69 are all really quite good. But the ’62 somehow or other is the most youthful."
"This wine is incredibly beautiful," adds Wender’s wife, Ann Colgin, founder of Colgin Cellars in Napa Valley. "It’s got this gorgeous sweet nose that’s like crushed rose petals. It’s got great backbone and flavor—a lot of earthiness and meatiness to it."
"The fruit in this wine is unbelievable," adds media executive Carl Parmer. "It’s a perfect blend of fruit and earthiness; it’s just a fabulous wine. I think the ’62 is my favorite La Tâche."
That "Certan" Something
The second wine poured is the most unusual wine of the evening: the 1947 Vieux Château Certan (VCC), contributed by Wender and Colgin, who debated whether to include in our selection this wine or the 1947 Château Lafleur. Ultimately, they chose the Pomerol as much for its rarity as for its layered, complex profile.
"I love this wine," says Wender. "About a month ago, there was a tasting of VCC going back to the Twenties—80 years of it—and this was the star of the show."
This unusual wine has acquired an elegant patina, exchanging the lush fruit of youth for more subtle characteristics. Its delicious medley of cool earth and sweet mint greets the nose, while its supple tannins and acidity support a lively assortment of flavors that range from smoky cumin, cinnamon, and anise to black currant and sarsaparilla.
"With 1947," says Elliot, "you can’t go wrong. Everything on the Right Bank is fairly spectacular. The VCC is so rare—it’s an interesting find. And to have it is unique and a real pleasure. It’s very subtle; it hits you in the right way. It’s got fruit that sort of lingers in your mouth."
An Accidental Legend
Parmer’s selection is also a 1947 Bordeaux. Described by the château itself as a "happy accident," Château Cheval Blanc 1947, like the VCC, flourished in a difficult vintage, the heat of which, according to accounts, literally baked the fruit on the vines. Yet despite this adversity, the wine proved outstandingly rich and resilient. In fact, this particular vintage prompted critics to question the 1855 Bordeaux classification, which included none of the Right Bank estates. Time has continued to enhance the wine’s reputation.
"It’s so interesting that you can have these two wines that are both over 60 years old that have retained their character this way," observes Wender.
"I think they’re both excellent examples of what they are," says Parmer, who notes the Cheval’s dense, portlike texture and rich taste. "It’s in a time warp. For a wine that’s over 60 years old, it’s fresh, young, and it has this viscosity. And then it also has just huge flavors—chocolate, sweet jam, ripe fruit—and a great finish. This wine not only is good today but will be good in 20 years."
Various and Vinous Verdicts
Robb Report’s contribution, the final wine of the evening, is Château Petrus 1961. Also the product of a hot, dry growing season, this Merlot-centric masterpiece exudes rich, concentrated wild-berry and strawberry aromas; in the mouth, its solid structure and sturdy tannins soften, releasing warm flavors of maraschino cherry, chocolate, cinnamon, and orange pekoe tea.
But this younger Pomerol’s charms do not sway the judges in its favor. "I’m a Petrus fan," admits Parmer’s wife, Kathy. "I love Petrus, and I was really excited about this wine. But in the end, the first three wines were my favorites, particularly the Cheval Blanc."
"If I had to pick two," says Carl Parmer, "it would be the ’62 La Tâche and the Cheval. But I’m biased. It’s like your own child. But every single one of these is a winner. The only one that I don’t have in my cellar is the VCC—only because it never comes up for auction. It’s so rare. It’s a privilege to be able to drink that along with the other wines. If you’re an oenophile, the complexity of these wines, each in its own right, is absolutely magnificent."