L’Auberge Sommelier, Todd Brinkman, recounts his experience at Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to work the Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival as a sommelier.  Even better, I was able to take the time off from real work to go for the whole weekend.  I did not know what to expect other than what was listed on the general itinerary of tastings, lunches and dinner service.  I would be doing service alongside some of the top wine professionals in the business with cuisine from some of the top chefs in the country.

After leaving work on Wednesday, I flew right into Monterey only to check into the hotel and finish some office work and grab a quick bite to eat.  I knew that this would be the last chance for me to follow up any work for the weekend.  The next morning I met Seth Kunin, owner and winemaker of the eponymous winery, who is in charge of the motley crew of sommeliers for the event.  We took a quick ride over to the lodge at Pebble Beach for a tasting and luncheon put on by Penfold’s and Treasury Estates.

The panel was led by DLynn Proctor with Geoff Kruth MS and Ray Isle from Food & Wine as we did a blind tasting of ten wines.  I am pretty confident in my palate, however I was sitting in a room with a dozen master sommeliers.  The one to my immediate left is no other than Larry Stone who is an icon of somms.  We taste through the first three to find very distinct differences in all three.  My initial reaction is that these were blending components of a blend.  One is light with cranberry and pomegranate, another is rich dark and earthy while the third is ripe and spicy with integrated complexity.  If I didn’t know better we tasted Grenache, Mouvedre and Syrah individually.  They would not do that for this crowd of seasoned tasters.  Plus these were exquisite wines, each in their own way.  The panel discussion turned to the use of oak on these wines and an esoteric analysis of the different phenols present in each wine.  By a show of hands the second wine was generally agreed to have the most new oak influence, while the third was believed to be second most with a lighter and defter integration.  Even Master Stone was preaching the intense oakyness of #2.  Low and behold #2 had no new oak on it at all, but it had an intense density of fruit, while number three was aged in new oak for several years.  The three wines were revealed as Chave Hermitage, Penfold’s St. Henri Shiraz, and E. Guigal Cote-Rotie ‘La Ladonne’, all 2008 vintage.  They were three brilliant wines that thoroughly confused master tasters as well as a simpleton like me.  We went through and blind taste the remaining wines which included older vintages of St. Henri as well as Penfold’s Grange.  We also were the first group to taste the 2008 release of Grange.  Only the Wine Advocate had tasted previously in their sample tasting a few weeks prior to give it a point rating.

The gem of the tasting was not even a wine we were going to taste.  It was a wine that nobody will probably ever really taste.  It was the limited release of Penfold’s Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004.  This has gotten quite a bit of press lately as it was just released with a price tag of $168,000 per bottle.  Planted back in 1885, known as ‘golf course block’, it is one of the oldest continuously growing Cabernet vineyards in the world.   Max Schubert recognized the potential of the 10 acres of rows and it has been an important holding for Penfold’s from the start.  It had only been bottled as a single vineyard six times.  In 1953 Grange was composed completely of Block 42 and then it was bottled again in 1961, 1963, 1964, 1996, and 2004.   Traditionally when it is made there are a mere 200 cases, but in 2004 there were only 12 bottles!  They sealed the wine in a glass ampoule and held in a pendulum within as ornate wooden cabinet.  I have heard about this bottling, but was lucky enough to actually get up close and personal with it.  It was like getting to see Sir Stanley’s Cup, with security closely standing by to ensure that this bottle stays intact.  This was the last bottle that would be sold as the others were already purchased or will remain in the hands of the Penfold’s Estate collection permanently.

The Penfold’s tasting was followed by a lunch where a lot of the sommeliers got to chat and get to know one another better.  This was merely the first half of the first day of the four day event.  More to come.

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