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Vintage Birthday Wine Surprise

by Jon Rusciano

I have some great neighbors, well some of them.  Anyway, the two houses to the left of my dwelling on the same street are occupied by two “empty nester” couples that we met soon after moving into our house, at the “turn of the century.”  They are the Hunters and the Bucks, in order of progression down the street.  Bob Buck is a successful Orthodontist.  His wife, Maya is a top administrator for the Houston Community College system, and one of the best cooks on this planet (yes, Sally’s up there as well, OK?).   J.R. Hunter is a retired software business owner and his wife Cindy is a successful interior designer.   My wife and I see more of the Bucks, because the Hunters are gone to their second home in Carmel, CA. for half of each year.  Both men just turned 65 years old, a few weeks apart.

We celebrated their birthdays together, twice.  My wife Cathy has a cousin (Erin) from Dallas, who is a professional chef (also talented, I must say).  We hired Erin to come to Houston on Bob’s birthday weekend, so that she would prepare a lovely dinner for us all in our home.  The evening was a delight, and accented by my opening of a 2005 Shafer Hillside Select.  The wine was as deep and rich as any of these bottles I had ever opened, and smooth as “silk on a baby’s butt.”  Those bottles from Shafer are as consistent as any I have encountered, stored dark, damp and cool in my EuroCave cooler, since their acquisition soon after release.

The next Sunday, as we all gathered at the Buck’s for Maya and Bob’s specialty Thai meal, we began with a magnum of Cabernet that Bob had been storing for me in his built-in wine cellar (half of which he generously allows me to fill with many of my 2005 and 2007 vintages).  The wine was a 2005 Star Lane Cabernet, one for which Magid (my wine connection) had offered at a really good price, years ago.  It was decent, but not “stellar.”  Next we opened a nice Bordeaux wine (one that J.R. had indicated was his favorite) during dinner.  It was one of my bottles of 1996 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou.  After two hours of air exposure, its character had emerged in full form.  The nose was of minerals, licorice and dark fruit, and the taste of the unmistakable spicy blueberry which characterizes this wine’s individuality.  It handsomely stood up to the curry and other spices which adorned our fare that evening. 

At the table, there was a brief mention of another birthday celebration planned in the near future for J.R.’s birthday at a quaint little Italian restaurant named Divino, just minutes from our houses.  Not certain if Cathy and I were invited, I just listened without comment.  The Hunters and the Bucks have been friends for much longer than we have been around, so I was not going to presume our inclusion.

The week before the event, we received an emailed invitation, and I responded immediately with acceptance.  Bob told me that J.R. was bringing the wine and that the other three couples invited would be paying the check for the group.  That sounded perfect.

The day arrived, and in the afternoon hours, I was texted by Bob that J.R. was bringing some yet-to-be-determined vintages of Caymus Special Select and Opus One.  I thought, “What a nice treat!”  Without any further conversations on the subject, we all departed for the restaurant early, because the wines had not yet been opened.  Upon arrival, we were ushered into their special “Wine Room,” for such occasions.  Decanters were offered as the bottles were pulled from J.R.’s travel-pouch.  Yet, Bob’s report had not been completely accurate.  There was a bottle of Caymus Select and one of Harlan’s The Maiden, but the final three to emerge from the pouch had me flush with excitement the moment they were recognized.

On the decanting table behind our dining area were set three vintage Bordeaux classics.  First was a 2003 Chateau Margaux (Robert Parker rated 99), then a 1998 Chateau Le Pin (a Wine Spectator 100 rated Pomerol treasure) and a 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (RP 100).  I have tasted some greats before in my life, but just not that many in one sitting.  The problem remained that they were just being uncorked and it would take some air-time for these puppies to unleash their true potential.  While we awaited some of the other guests to arrive, each decanter was given a swirl, at regular intervals, hoping for the best possible air exposure before consumption commenced.

The 2003 Margaux was the first to be poured.  Some of the ladies were not Bordeaux fans, so they remained with the American cabernets at the table.  As expected, the wine was still tight.  Yet, the fragrance was in full form, so there was a large amount of nose-diving into the glasses for the notes of camphor and licorice as we all attempted to swirl our pours into the greatness we expected.  In another 15 to 20 minutes, the flavor began to emerge.  It was not yet as powerful as might be anticipated for such an RP score, yet the nuances which screamed Margaux were indeed noticeable.

New to me were the aroma and flavor of the next power-house that we tasted.  The 1998 Le Pin was almost indescribable.  The nose was of dark fruits, chocolate and a sweet tropical potion, the likes of which I have never experienced.  It, like the others, required time to bloom in the glass.  Thus, I sipped and pondered my first pour in an analytical fashion, and then held onto a fortunate second/third offering, when the rest of the group seemed anxious to move onto the awaiting Lafite.  This would wait for me in a separate glass until the meal progressed into the dessert phase.  I was the last to finish each course of the meal, due to my studious focus on these liquids.

What can you say about a perfect scoring 1996 Lafite Rothschild?  As my first glass of the wine was swirled and sipped, the etched wooden sign posted at the entrance of Lafite’s subterranean cellar flashed in my mind again… Ce n'est pas le vin. C'est Lafite.  The spicy currant, mineral and licorice essences wafted up for my not-so-expert nasal passages to embrace.  There had been more time for this one to unwind in the pitcher that the waiter had poured it into, lacking the number of decanters we required that evening.  Fortunately, the vessel’s shape offered a substantial surface-to-air ratio.  Its fruit was bold, the tannins noticeable, and the textbook Lafite minerality…“present and accounted for, SIR!!”

Some of the group returned to the remnants of Margaux left in the decanter, which had previously refused to “come out to play.”  Yet at dinner’s end, I was back to embrace my awaiting portion of Le Pin.  The wine was named after a lone pine tree which thrives along the border of its Pomerol vineyard.  You have to name them after something, right?  The reputation of this vineyard has battled that of the current frontrunner in popularity, Chateau Petrus, in recent years.  Noticed now were distinct notes of spice and caramel, late bloomers, so to speak.  The unique characteristics of this purple potion continue to haunt.

During this festive birthday dinner, there were conversations between participants on numerous subjects and personalities.  Our group got louder as the effects of the alcohol loosened natural inhibitions.  Yet, accounts of what was discussed cannot be recalled by this reporter, even at the threat of bodily harm.  I was enveloped in a bubble of Oneophilic bliss which did not pop until we were all outside the door in the chill of the evening, saying our goodbyes.  Special thanks are herein extended to J.R. Hunter who generously opted to include me in this unforgettable occasion, sharing some of his prized blessings of Le Terroir.


Shafer Hillside Select

EuroCave Cellars

Star Lane Cabernet

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou

Caymus Special Select

Opus One

The Maiden Cabernet

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Le Pin
(website unavailable)

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Chateau Petrus

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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