Charity Dinner at Charleston Restaurant

A great night that raised a boatload of money for a worthy cause, the food of Baltimore's finest chef, Cindy Wolf, was superb, as usual. It complemented the range of wines, all from my cellar. The 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne is to die for. That was followed by a superb flight of California Chardonnay. Not surprisingly, the 1996 Marcassin Marcassin Vineyard turned in another Montrachet-like performance of great richness, minerality, and incredible precision. All the other Chardonnays admirably strutted their stuff, the only disappointment being a corked bottle of the Kongsgaard 1998. The 1995 Marcassin Gauer Ranch Upper Barn was the most controversial, with some tasters loving it and others finding it too smoky, tasting almost like liquid hazel nuts (which it did). The Brewer-Clifton 2000 Marcella's Vineyard elicited plenty of oohs and aahs. The classicism of the 1999 Peter Michael Point Rouge and Kistler Vine Hill was equally admired.

Flight two included relatively mature California Cabernet Sauvignons for the simple reason that I wanted to prove that these wines do age well, and can become more complex despite their inky styles. I remember all of these wines when they were young since they were purchased right after release. The big disappointment was a wine that can merit 100 points, the 1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia, which came primarily from the Eisele Vineyard. It was badly corked and undrinkable. Even worse, this was the last bottle from my cellar. The 1985 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection had seen better days. It is still elegant and vibrant, but its fatness has gone, and like many Caymus wines, a shell of new oak remains without the nuances one expects. The prodigious 1985 Stag's Leap Cask 23 is a far cry from the acidified, lean, austere wines being produced at this winery today. The 1985 is one of their triumphs. Still vibrant and young, but oh so complex and intense, it is a gorgeously elegant wine that could be called a Napa Valley Château Margaux. The 1984 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Vineyard revealed high levels of acidity, making it taste compressed and austere. It isn't my style. Ridge's 1978 Monte Bello has reached full maturity, but it remains a big, dense, chewy wine with formidable tannin and a youthful color. Caymus no longer makes wines like its prodigious 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection. Its inky/garnet color is followed by notes of melted asphalt, black currants, plums, raisins, licorice, and smoke. Also performing exceptionally well was the 1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve, an elegant, Bordeaux-like effort with notes of cedar, tobacco leaf, black currants, and spice box. It's a beauty, but fully mature. Still youthful but prodigious is the 1973 Mayacamas. The quality of the wines Mayacamas produced between 1968 and 1978 is mind-boggling. It's a shame nothing has emerged over recent years that remotely resembles these earlier efforts. The still youthful 1973 boasts an inky/garnet/purple color along with fabulous aromas of black currants, crème de cassis, licorice, and smoke. It is a fabulous, pure glass of Cabernet Sauvignon that should prove to be immortal.

Flight three was a mini-vertical of Screaming Eagle. All were wonderfully pure, symmetrical wines of great purity with the tell-tale crème de cassis/blackberry fruit well-displayed. Although shorter, the 1998 was a great wine in its own right. It was overwhelmed by the other vintages, which were all more dimensional and concentrated wines. The highlights were the virtually perfect 1992 and 1997. Cynics who continue to say these wines don't age should taste the 1992, which still tastes like a 2-3 year old wine. Its riveting richness, extraordinary purity of fruit, and great perfume are just beginning to emerge. All in all, Screaming Eagle is a great grand cru vineyard from Napa Valley, and the wine is deserving of its accolades, although the price remains absurd ... not from the winery, but in the secondary market. The proprietor actually sells it at a realistic price.

Flight four included a more extensive vertical of the great Harlan Estate proprietary reds, which are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a prodigious tasting, and again provided profound evidence to the eleven guests of just what a great wine this is, and what heights California can attain when you have a perfectionist owner and a great winemaking team (Bob Levy and Michel Rolland). The perfect wines were no surprise ... the 1994 and 1997. However, the 1995 is mindboggling, and is another example that proves that this vintage may be as good as the more heralded 1994. The 1996 and 1993 were also magnificent. The 1998 is only an outstanding wine in a group of immortals. Along with the Screaming Eagle wines, all of the Harlan offerings were double decanted with any sediment washed out of the bottles with mineral water between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. the morning of the tasting. They were tasted 15-16 hours later. I truly believe that wines such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and Dalla Valle's Maya need this type of aeration.

Lastly, the flight of Mayas was also prodigious. The 19911997, and 1992 showing the best. However, the younger vintages remain infant wines that still have not approached adolescence. Like the Harlan and Screaming Eagle offerings, these wines have a good 25-30 years upside. Of course they will not develop along the lines of a great Bordeaux, but they will come close, developing more complexity and at the same time retaining more fruit and palate impact than most Bordeaux. These Mayas possess ethereal perfumes because of the 45% Cabernet Franc included in the blend. Nevertheless, the colors remain youthful, and the wines are fabulously pure. They represent compelling examples of winemaking at its best.

All in all this was a great night, with wonderful guests from Charlotte, North Carolina, the fabulous cooking of Cindy Wolf, and the remarkable line-up of California wines. Santé!

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