Raise the Bar

"I figured there would be a lot of riesling. That’s why I brought a chardonnay – but it’s a different sort of Australian chardonnay, the Bindi Composition.”

You don’t often hear sentences like that – someone explaining that they brought chardonnay as a counterpoint to the abundance of riesling, then rushing to make clear that it’s an unusual (read: lean and minerally) example of the varietal. That is, unless you’re at a gathering of sommeliers, such as the one hosted by master sommelier/corporate entertainer Eddie Osterland at his home a few Sundays back.

“I’ve been here for 15 years,” he explains, “just watching people catch on to wine. And I think it’s just mushroomed in the last 7 or 8 years because you have all this young talent. I’m seeing more players out there, more wine directors given the responsibility for initiating a wine program. It’s raising the bar for everybody, and I thought it’d be nice to celebrate the fact that these people are…improving the food-and-wine scene.” (As far as Osterland knows, it’s the first such gathering in any city anywhere; Riedel glassware was excited enough about the event to donate a pair of Sommelier-series glasses for each wine director/sommelier in attendance.)

And there was a lot of riesling – someone had brought the ’06 Dönnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Spatlese. (Go ahead, read it out loud – it’s delightful.)

Damon from the German wine shop Truly Fine Wines blind-tasted a willing somm on a bubbly:

“It’s got to be Sekt.”

“It is Sekt.”

“It’s pretty rich. It doesn’t taste like riesling.”

“It is riesling. A ’99 from Gutzler.”

“Wow. The dosage is so dry.”

And someone else had brought several bottles of ’89 Auslese from Bert Simon. Auslese is a weighty wine, rich and often sweet – the sort many folks would drink at the end of a meal, if at all. But the sommeliers opened with it, and Osterland approved.

First, he’s friendly to the notion that you “start with your best wine first. Appetite is very fragile; you don’t stay hungry for more than 30 minutes. So I want to give people the very best wine in the first 30 minutes.” The unspoken premise: it’s easier to focus your attention on what you’re consuming when your appetite is sharp. It’s why Osterland’s party began at one o’clock in the afternoon – “By then, if they haven’t had a big breakfast, people are ready to enjoy.” (It’s also why the fare consisted mainly of appetizers. “After the third bite,” notes Osterland, “most people are into eating mode; they’re starting to shovel. So when you entertain, why not serve portions that allow for three bites before you move on to a new dish? If they really want more, they can come back to it.”)

Second, he’s happy to start sweet. “People will come to my house and say, ‘I brought a bottle of d’Yquem!’” – only they’re breaking out their sweet Sauternes at the end of the meal. “I’ll say, ‘Take it back, and bring it over on some Sunday afternoon, and we’ll start with it. That’s what they do at Château d’Yquem.’ I don’t care if it’s sweet – it’s sweet with enormous acidity.” Meaning: it’s balanced. “What’s important to me is that people understand that I don’t care what your favorite flavors are; I just want you to know that when you taste a wine, the wine sweetness, sourness, and bitterness are either harmonizing or one of the elements is outstanding – a rough edge.” It’s the sort of thing he tries to teach at the corporate dinners he orchestrates – pairing two vintages of the same wine to illustrate the way one excels the other, thanks to superior balance.

Back to the party: sommeliers and wine directors milled and mixed, sipped and (sometimes) spat, compared notes and shared gossip. Wine Spectator had recently been duped into honoring the wine list at a fictitious restaurant. “Why even apply for the award anymore?” someone asked. “It’s a waste of $250.”

I asked Jeff Bloom, assistant general manager at Oceanaire, why he got into wine. “I saw an auction listing in a magazine – someone had paid $32,000 for a magnum of ’82 Château Pétrus. I wanted to know why someone would pay that much money for a bottle of wine.”

Osterland had a big bottle of his own to share that afternoon: a Salmanazar of ’87 Reserve Cabernet from Sterling. He hadn’t paid a dime for it – the bottle was a gift from the winery for his daughter Elissa’s birth vintage. (She was at the party, fresh from doing her first work as a sommelier while working a summer gig for a wine company in Beijing.) The bottle’s opening received due, if unusual, ceremony. After the cork was removed – naturally, it broke and had to be rescued by one of the expert cork-pullers on the scene – Osterland & Co. ran two lines of hospital tubing into the bottle. Syringes at the ends of the lines provided the suction to get the wine flowing, then the lines were clamped and transferred to a pair of enormous “Flamingo” decanters – another Riedel contribution.

“I crossed my fingers that it would taste good,” Osterland told me later. Luck, it seems, was with him. “I couldn’t believe that after 21 years a Sterling cabernet would be in that good a condition. I’m sure the big-bottle format helped, but it says a lot for Sterling and their ability to make wines that stand up.” Best of all: “It was a pretty wine, a Bordeaux-style, elegant wine.” An Osterland sort of wine. “When I open a bottle of great Bordeaux, often, I’ll have people sitting in front of me who haven’t ever had one. And I’ll get this reaction: ‘Eddie, does this wine really do anything for you?’ And I’m going, Oh, man – you just moved to my B-list. ‘I know it doesn’t thunk you, but if you think about it, if you’re really quiet and you close your eyes and you haven’t got the music on, this is a chemical symphony. It’s so impeccably balanced.’”

(The Sterling was so Bordeaux-style, in fact, says Osterland, that “if somebody had said, ‘This is a 21-year-old Napa cabernet,’ I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I was totally fooled. And of course, wine can fool you.” As evidence, he recounts a story from about 20 years ago. He and a bunch of other celebrated wine judges were brought in by the National Restaurant Association for a major tasting in Chicago – complete with lab coats and seats for spectators. The first round of wines arrived, identified as cabernet. Osterland and his fellow judges did their bit. “We didn’t think they were all that great, but we made our notes and sent them back.” Then, before the next flight arrived, the host made an announcement Osterland would not soon forget: “There’s been an error. I apologize. The first flight of wines were Baco Noir” – a hybrid grape from New York State. “Not one of us questioned anything. I said to myself, Okay, this is a tough game.”)

Osterland’s take on the power vs. elegance question is a charming one – and also deeply practical. “Those big, high-alcohol, high-extract wines…take no prisoners. They beat up food.” It’s not that it’s wrong to like those wines; it’s that they don’t do their job at table. “It’s the same thing as enjoying fish with lemon juice; the acidity amplifies the flavors in the fish. If a wine doesn’t have the requisite acidity, it has trouble doing anything for the food.” That is, if you’re actually using it as a seasoning. “I see people eat three or four bites of swordfish, grab a glass, and drink down their wine. I say, ‘Imagine if you were eating your swordfish and you realized you forgot to put the lemon juice on and so you picked up the lemon and squeezed it into your mouth.’ That’s precisely the way I see the average American consuming food and wine. I tell people, ‘You put salt and pepper on your food, don’t you? Why don’t you try having the food in your mouth and drizzling just a little bit of wine in there?’ Everybody gets it, and it works very well.”

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