Until last month, I had been able to taste every wine I've ever wanted to try -- except Domaine de la Romanée Conti.
I once asked wine importer Kermit Lynch about the best wine he ever tasted, hoping he would pick some obscure Hungarian white. But he said it was a DRC wine (forgive me, but I forget exactly which). I've never gotten over that Lynch said, “I didn't know a wine could be that good.”
So DRC has been the one wine for me, and for my wife, to taste before we die. My wife wants me to keep a list of places I could buy DRC in a hurry in case we get early warning of an extinction event like airborne Ebola.
That's a tough list to compile. DRC is highly allocated; just as a critic aspires to try it, a merchant aspires to sell it.
DRC prefers restaurants to retail stores. Yet at a time when most wineries are begging to get on wine lists, DRC vets the restaurants allowed to carry its $2000 bottles. A sales representative for Wilson Daniels, DRC's American importer, explained that restaurants must already have an extensive list of expensive Burgundies, because DRC doesn't want to be just a trophy purchase.
Once I went to a bar in Baltimore for crabs and they had a half-dozen wines under $30 and Cristal Champagne for $300. So DRC doesn't want that.
Uniquely, DRC can also choose its critics. When I was at the San Francisco Chronicle, my WRO colleague Linda Murphy was my editor. DRC had a tasting, but they didn't invite either of us: they invited a former Chronicle writer, giving us the choice of running his story or not. Linda was angry, but we ran it.
I don't know how I made DRC's list of 16 invitees to taste the 2008 vintage last month in St. Helena. Only two other journalists were there: Jon Bonné and Jordan Mackay. The other seats were taken by sales and marketing reps. Why 16? That's about how many tasting-size pours you can get from a single bottle of each wine.
The tasting went like most serious tastings. There were eight wines: Seven reds had been poured when we got there, and the Montrachet was poured chilled after most of us were finished with the reds. We all sniffed, sipped, and yes, spit. I regret now that I spit every taste, not taking one last swallow of the Montrachet.
DRC's Aubert De Villaine then talked about the vintage, which sounded like it nearly didn't happen. The summer was humid and botrytis was all around.
“In the second week of September it rained every day,” he said. “On September 13 it rained all day. I remember at the end of the day we said, it's possible we won't produce any wine in 2008.”
That would be a brutal business decision. DRC makes about 14,000 cases of wine annually, and with retail prices above $1000 per bottle, that could cost them more than $20 million.
“The rest of my life, I'll remember the morning of Sep. 14,” de Villaine said. “All the clouds were chased away by the north wind. Clear weather, not very hot, but a lot of light. The botrytis stopped and was dried by the wind. The north wind also took the water out of the berries.”
Then de Villaine asked for our opinions. Bonné and Mackay competed to show off their expertise. Mackay talked about a wine called “The RSV,” his personal acronym for Romaneé-St.-Vivant. Bonné said the characters of La Tâche and Romaneé-Conti were reverse of what they normally are, and talked about “normal” taste profiles of Richebourg and “The RSV.”
It takes an idiot to admit, in that crowd, that one had never tasted DRC before. Of course I am that idiot. I got a chuckle, but you get a chuckle if you do a pratfall on a banana peel.
My tasting impressions of the wines seemed to mirror everyone else's. Sorry, the tasting notes are behind the Wine Review Online subscription wall, but look at it this way: A subscription is a cheap way to vicariously enjoy them.
In sum, I loved the Montrachet, one of the best Chardonnays I have ever had. The La Tâche was elegant and beautiful.
These were great wines. I scored them in a range from 93 to 99, and it's tempting to go to 100 on the Montrachet.
I don't know what I was expecting: How can any wine live up to the hype? Would it be the best raspberry flavor ever?
In fact, I was surprised at the savory, even salty character of The RSV (hah! Now I'm a cool kid too!) and the Richebourg, which finished with salted licorice. The world's most expensive wines are not one-dimensional, and moreover, unlike California cult Cabernets, most of which are created to knock your socks off no matter how little you know about wine, these are wines for wine lovers.
It made sense to me that DRC doesn't want people unfamiliar with expensive Burgundy drinking them; they don't want some football team owner complaining that his pricey wine tastes like salted licorice when what he really wanted was big fruit.
I brought a 50 ml silver flask that I use to bring Scotch into movies. I wanted to bring my wife a single taste of one of the wines. But my flask smelled like Scotch, so I didn't.
A smarter man would have left it in his pocket. But I admitted what my plan had been, and looked not like a suave wine critic but some goofball who carries a flask of Scotch.
A Wilson Daniels rep mentioned that one critic who brought home a test-tube of DRC had never been invited back. So not only am I probably never tasting DRC again, I have given myself a reputation in the wine industry as a pocket Scotch carrier.
And now I'm spreading that rep to all of Wine Review Online's readers. That airborne Ebola plague really can't start soon enough.
But you know what? When it happens, I guess I'll go happily enough. Because at least I've finally tasted DRC.