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A Culture of Excess
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There is something about wine-related events that simply encourages excess — more food than you can, or should, eat and more wines than you can possibly taste or even remember tasting. It's no wonder that the world's leading wine critic, Robert Parker, calls his periodic column/blog the "Hedonist's Gazette." It's simply part of the culture. People are always asking me why I do wine tastings but not formal wine dinners. The real reason is that, with a few notable exceptions like the dinner at Peterson's (Karl Benko actually does it very right), they are overblown, drawn-out affairs, involving either too much or too little food, more wines than you should even think of pairing with one meal and dessert courses that often begin after midnight.

The large public tastings also send shivers down my spine. A charity coerces the wine distributors to supply the staff and wine and rents a large venue, like the Indiana Roof. Then, a thousand people buy tickets and are greeted by table upon table filled with hundreds of bottles available for them to taste. After two hours, with too little food and too much wine, they are on their own to find their ways home...very scary. I taste a lot of wine and I have to say that even if I am taking my time, spitting and taking notes, after the 12th wine I have trouble detecting the components.

And trade events are even worse. Almost every time we attend one, Linda's tells me "never again." Last month I did it again. I talked her into attending one in Chicago. It was a celebration of the 80th birthday of d'Arry Osborn, owner or the famous Australian winery d'Arenberg. Hosted by his son and winemaker, Chester, and his importer, Old Bridge Cellars, it just looked like a party we shouldn't miss.

And it was a great party... but like every trade event, it turned out to be another study in excess. The event was held at the Chicago Conrad, which is a very nice hotel. Perhaps not the wisest $492 we ever spent...but, the robes were plush and the $79 room service breakfast, complete with French press coffee, perfect Eggs Benedict and two newspapers, was certainly a guilty pleasure. Based upon our experience, there may be hope for the food service at the Indianapolis Conrad.

We arrived in time for lunch and a little shopping, the real reason I managed to get Linda to join me on a Thursday afternoon. We settled on a hearty, late lunch at the Tavern on Rush, a decision that later proved providential. If fact, the next time you're in Chicago we can certainly recommend the Yankee pot roast sandwich with mashed potatoes or the ribeye club with chipotle mayonnaise. Both were delicious, and the balcony view from the second floor offered fun people-watching.

The main event began at 6:30 p.m. with a formal sit-down tasting of the current vintages, three flights of six wines, each accompanied by a running commentary by the winemaker. Chester Osborn is a very funny fellow, and he provided some great insights into d'Arenberg's winemaking style. Far and away, his best revelation was how the Lucky Lizard Sauvignon Blanc got its name. It seems that during his first Sauvignon Blanc crush, he rescued a large shingleback lizard that was swimming in the tank. It had come in with the grapes and managed to come through the crusher without becoming part of the wine. I don't think that story was in their press release.

After 18 wines, it was after 8:00, and the crowd filtered down to the restaurant for the library tasting. There, on three tables, were 12 more wines...multiple bottles each of four vintages of each of their three icon wines...The Dead Arm Shiraz, Coppermine Road Cabernet and Ironstone Pressings Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre. "Here's a glass, Mate, the bottles are open...pour for yourself!" Unfortunately at this point, despite my best efforts, I was unable to discern the nuances that separated the 98-point 2001 Dead Arm Shiraz from the 95-point 2003. A little after 9 p.m., the guests gravitated toward the dining room where we were greeted by six stems at each place for the wines that would pair with the six planned courses for dinner.

The single, seared day-boat scallop arrived at 9:30, with the single duck ravioli with Kurobuto pork belly following at about 10:15. At this point, the combination of elegant, but petite portions, paired with the massive d'Arenberg reds, was beginning to take its toll on the guests. I looked up to see the young lady seated across from me sitting asleep upright at her place, and her companion obviously debating how best to wake her.

Shortly thereafter, as the third course arrived — a tiny Kobe Filet Mignon — d'Arry began his speech and Linda began to remind me why she had said "never again" for the last time. As we patiently waited for the lamb course (it was approaching 11 p.m. — midnight Indianapolis time), d'Arry finished his speech and I was able slide in and thank him and his son for the evening. Then, with Riedel stemware still in hand, we topped our glasses with some more of the 2001 Dead Arm Shiraz into our glasses and escaped to our room.

I hope that d'Arry and the some of the crowd (we weren't the first ones to leave) held out for the tiny lamb loin, followed by the Riesling poached pear and, finally, the cheese course, which I had decided would have an ETA of about 1 a.m.

On the way to the room, Linda and I decided that we both would have preferred Yankee Pot Roast Sandwiches and a bottle of the Dead Arm, and I'm guessing d'Arry would have agreed. Oh well, it's the thought that counts, not to mention the budget. So many thanks to d'Arenberg for another hedonistic evening. And...that last glass of Dead Arm was not bad at all with the Eggs Benedict the next morning.

Since I'm sure they invited us in hopes of our selling more d'Arenberg wine, be sure to read our review of the new d'Arry's Original Shiraz's the pick of the week.

October 25, 2006