June 19, 2008


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Fortune favors Opus One
How hard work leads to good wine
By Tim Protzman letters@hippopress.com

My father’s aunt lived on an island in the middle of the Ohio River. It was called The Island and it was part of Wheeling, W.Va.

The homes were nice, but not stately. They had really big basements, tall ones, because the area flooded every few years. Most people were used to it because The Island was old. People had lived there for a century and a half. But one spring in the early 1980s the waters rose.

Aunt Ruth had lived in Manhattan, got married, moved to Pittsburgh and lived in the first air-conditioned house in the Shadyside District.

“They had servants,” my mother would say.

But Ruth’s good fortune didn’t last. Her husband died and she moved back to Manhattan, where she worked for a law firm until she retired to her childhood home on The Island.

Aunt Ruth wore hats and white gloves and was quite the bourgeoisie lady. She used Estée Lauder and always smelled nice. She was tolerant, but there were certain people — bikers, teens in leather jackets, rodeo riders — around whom she didn’t feel comfortable. It was funny because there was a racetrack on The Island and she always took us there when we visited.

The spring the river came up found Ruth prepared. Everything was moved out of the walk-in basement to the first floor. The water had never breached the first floor, which was almost nine feet off the ground. But that spring it did. And Ruth, who opted to stay, soon regretted it. But early one morning a bunch of bass boats came to her front porch, which was inches away from being submerged. Out came these roughneck guys and some sorry-looking hippie-type teenagers. Soon they had all her living room furniture on the second floor. They even got her refrigerator up on the landing, safe from the river. By afternoon the first floor was under six inches of water. Ruth asked the guys why they came.

“We’re just going around helping people,” they said.

After that Aunt Ruth always picked up hitchhikers, the rattier-looking the better. And at her wake there were quite a few railbirds from the racetrack. Apparently, every so often she’d put on her hat and her white gloves and plunk a sawbuck on a horse. And as my father found out, she was pretty good.

That’s how we went to Bermuda, but that’s a different story.

I’ve been thinking about Ruth for a few days, ever since one of the wine rookies told me about his brother Mark. Mark was a wild teenager, but now he’s a sedate, respectable 26-year-old roofing executive. He and his partner own a large company. They were working on a house, a big house, and got friendly with the owner. The owner invited Mark in one day to tour his wine cellar. It was huge.

The owner said, “When you finish up on Friday, we’ll pull a few corks.”

Mark called his brother.

What kind of wine should I pick out? He didn’t know wine, but the owner said it was a nearly $300,000 cellar. He wanted to impress him, but not pick the most expensive bottle.

Avoid Richebourg, Clos Vougeot, Gaja, and Romanee-Conti. Avoid large bottles and anything more than 20 years old, Justin told his wino-phyte brother.

Say things like “How about a fresh, well-rounded Burgundy?” “A nice Rhone from the late 1990s sounds good.” And “why don’t you choose your favorite Californian wine and we’ll sample that.”

The advice turned out to be good, because the cellar master opened a 1996 Opus One and a 1996 Dominus. They tasted them in the cellar, side by side. Mark said they were “really good.”

My only question is, why don’t these things happen to me more often?

Opus One and Dominus are Napa Valley wineries with a European pedigree. But almost every Napa vineyard has a European pedigree. Opus One is a partnership between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe Rothschild. Both these wine pioneers are dead (Mr. Mondavi died last month) but both lived a long time.

The wine was extraordinary, although I never tasted it alongside the Dominus, like Roofer Mark got to. Dense and muscular. Violets, plum, leather and tobacco smoke. It had a nose of Band-Aids and hay, which is a little olfactory trick good wine plays on my nose. The finish was long and subtle, changing in the mouth and lingering for a long moment afterward. And when I bought it, it cost only $96.99, which was way less than what you’ll pay today (prices are running from $130.99 to $197.99 depending on vintage). I can almost guarantee that Roofer Mark’s cellar master bought his Opus One by the case and payed wholesale.

I’ve tasted Dominus many more times than I’ve tasted Opus One. I think the wines are, and this is heresy, very similar. While Opus has the Mondavis and Rothschilds of Mouton Rothschild (but not Château Lafitte, which is owned by a different branch of the family), Dominus has the Chateaus Petrus and Trotanoy in Pomerol in Bordeaux. Both wines are about as good as you can get in California and when I last sipped the Dominus in 2006, it reminded me just how extraordinary Californian wines can be.

The only thing I tasted this week was:

• 2008 Budweiser ($5.99) By Anheuser-Busch. Little and a bit like soda water, but I love the crisp clean finish with hints of lemon zest and hops.

God, it’s been a long hot dry week..

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