I try not to write in superlatives. (I was going to say I never write in superlatives, but that would have been one.) In the wonderful world of restaurant reviewing, assertions that something is “the best” you’ve ever had or “the worst” you’ve ever experienced tend to strain credulity. Of course, we all speak that way. Even those of us who roll our eyes at the flippant use of the word awesome can be heard exclaiming, “This is the best soup I’ve ever had,” even though it may not even be in the top 10, if you were to spend the time to rate your soupal experiences.
That said, I believe last week I attended the best wine tasting I’ve ever experienced.
It wasn’t just because of the wines, though they were, indeed, stellar: a 12-year vertical tasting of Shafer Hillside Select, one of the premier producers of fine cabernets in California. The lineup included the 1994 to 2005 vintages. It would cost around $3000 to purchase one bottle from each year — if you could find them. As one of the wine experts pouring the wines before the guests arrived commented, the tasting, priced at just $150 per person, could have sold out at the more likely market value of $450 per person.
All of the wines had ratings from wine publications in the 90s, with one vintage, the 2002, earning a perfect 100. It was indeed a fine wine, and the favorite of many, though not all. And some wines, such as the ’97, had petered out a bit. The ’95 was corked. But that was the fun of the vertical tasting: to sample and compare the qualities of the wines over the years, and consider the influences that make one different from the others.
But what made the tasting, which was sponsored by Wine on the Way, even more enjoyable than the opportunity to taste a dozen vintages from the same producer was the guidance of master sommelier Andrew McNamara, who served as guest host for the evening. McNamara didn’t just ask the attendees to swirl, sniff and swish the wines, as is the common practice at such tastings. He challenged us to find nuances in the aroma and taste of each wine. It wasn’t enough to say you taste cherries in the wine, McNamara wanted to know what kind of cherries. Were they black cherries? Bing? Dried? What other fruits can you taste? What nonfruit characteristics? Floral, you say? What kind of flowers?
And all of this was done with McNamara’s dry wit and easy sense of humor. You may recall that McNamara, who had previously been with the Breakers resort in South Florida, moved to Orlando in 2008 to head the wine program for Professional Culinary Institute, which was planning a school in the former Doc’s restaurant space. But the school closed before it was barely open, and McNamara accepted a position with Premier Beverage Company, and he and his family moved back south. Orlando still has three of the 105 or so master sommeliers in North America — John Blazon, George Miliotes and Brian Koziol — so we’re not without our experts. And I’ve had the chance to see them all conduct tastings, and they have the same sense that wine should be fun that McNamara has. But it was the combination of these wines and this expert that made for a perfect evening.
By the time we had worked our way vinically to 1994, all of us gathered in the downstairs wine room/former bank vault at Luma on Park truly had a master class in wine appreciation.
Or maybe I shouldn’t say all.