Icebreakers And Tastemakers

LONGTIME readers of NATIONAL REVIEW will recognize the contest announced on the next page as a repetition of our very first contest ever, announced in the December 2, 1969, number of the magazine. We are repeating it because, now more than ever, conversation starters have become a necessity in our constant meeting of strangers. Too many people have known the agony of sitting mutely next to an equally mute unknown person. Thus, ever sympathetic to unnecessary agonies, we devised this contest to break the ice. En avant, dear readers, and show your mettle!

RECENTLY, I went to a luncheon introducing the 1983 vintage of Opus One, the vastly overpriced but excellent red wine developed jointly by Robert Mondavi, of California’s Napa Valley, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of Chateau Mouton in Bordeaux; it is made at the Mondavi winery by their respective winemakers.

Opus One was inaugurated with alot of fanfare in 1981. We sampled the 1981 vintage last week, along with the 1982 and 1983 wines; they all showed a continuing style and rich flavor. They were introduced by Michael Mondavi, president of the winery and son of Robert Mondavi, and by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the loud-voiced, garrulous daughter of the wine’s French father. A fortune must have been spent to hold the luncheon at Maxim’s, a New York restaurant all done in luxurious plastic, meant, I fear, to re-create the genuine aura of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, and failing to do so with a very loud bang.

Opus One is a luscious red wine,as it should be for a price of around fifty dollars a bottle. It is largely made of Cabernet grapes but does not taste like California Cabernets, which are usually very heavy; instead it recalls a first-growth Bordeaux. It comes in a handsome bottle with an elegant and interesting label–a masterly representation of the blending of two powerful egos, showing, in silhouette, a Janus face of Robert Mondavi and the Baron. It is a very good wine for people who want prestige and don’t mind your knowing they can afford it. I imagine that Mr. Mondavi and Baron Philippe had something like this in mind when they created the wine.

FOR WINE WRITERS, wine tastings are worth while only when they feature wines one does not know, or is not likely to be able to buy oneself. In general, wine tastings, receptions, lunches, trips, and other freebies are not as free as the public might imagine–one of the problems being that the promoters, not unnaturally, expect writers who accept them to write in flattering terms.

In my case, I go only to events that pique my curiosity. Thus, last week, I betook myself to the monthly luncheon of the Wine Writers Circle, a professional organization to which I belong. I was curious to meet the pioneer vine-growers and winemakers of Long Island, next door to New York City, and about the last place on earth where you would expect good wines to be made.

Alex and Louisa Hargrave, a handsome couple, both of them extremely nice, with serious college degrees (literature and chemistry), were presenting several of their products. Besides being curious about Long Island wines, I wanted to meet the Hargraves, who started producing wine long before anybody else on Long Island. We sampled five wines–white, pinkish, and red– from a number of vintages. All were remarkably clear and brilliant, thanks to their having been made as naturally as possible, with barely a hint of fining to clear the wine. Suffice it to say that the Hargraves’ Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot taste very good, as does a pinkish Blanc de Noirs.

My favorites were the 1977 Chardonnayand the 1981 Merlot. None of the wines bore any resemblance whatsoever to California wines; they also had very little, if any, kinship with their European counterparts. The 1982 dry Johannisberg Riesling was a well-made wine, though not as luscious as I like that kind of wine to be. The upperclass tastes of the young couple are apparent from the labels on their bottles: full-color reproductions of the works of famous modern artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Elaine de Kooning. I would advise anybody who is interested in good wine to try the Hargraves’ products. The wines cost around nine or ten dollars a bottle, with the exception of the Blanc de Noirs, which costs under six dollars.

MONSIEUR HENRI wines, a division of Pepsico, evidently is the sole importer of Rumanian wines, under the Premiat label. Among the four new vintages, two whites (Johannisberg Riesling and Chardonnay) and two reds (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), I liked the Merlot best– but then I usually like Merlot wines. (From the days when we made our own wines in Tuscany, I remember that it is easier to make good red wines; eheu fugaces!) All the Premiat wines are excellent buys in everyday wines, costing only about three dollars a bottle. This incredibly low price is possible only because the wines are subsidized, either by Rumania or by Pepsico, or both. Nevertheless, you can’t do any better for the money, since the two reds and the white Chardonnay, especially, are great for casual drinking.

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