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Peter Birmingham, Sommelier Extraordinaire, Part Two

on 24/03/11 at 3:29 pm


AS I open the door to Hatfield’s where Peter Birmingham is wine director and sommelier extraordinaire, he rips open a small letter and flippantly hands me an invitation to a wine tasting. Not just any wine tasting mind you. A Kermit Lynch trade wine tasting. This is a big deal. There has never been a Lynch trade tasting as long as Peter’s known him. Like since 1984. It must be the state of the economy and wine business for this to happen. And Lynch’s portfolio is bulletproof with nothing less than stellar French and Italian wines. I can only fantasize what this tasting would be like.

We continue the second part of our interview with a preamble about the day’s headlines veering into a discussion of a potential nuclear nightmare…so, Peter, what wine would you want your last bottle to be? Without hesitation a 1980 La Tache. Do you have a bottle? No, but I can get one if I need to. Cool. I note that maybe I should try and track one down too. Later, I checked wine searcher and found 5 available – 4 in the UK, one in France, $1800 – $2100 a bottle, excluding sales tax and shipping. Not too much considering it’d be the last taste of life on earth before boarding Battleship Gallactica and life on, perhaps, a wineless planet. But I digress.

Considering the astronomical prices for some bottles of Napa wine, are they worth it, Peter? Does a bottle of Harlan at $500 a bottle or the recent auction price for a magnum of Screaming Eagle for $18,000 really taste like Nirvana? Peter: Well, if you can afford it. Which doesn’t say anything about how the wine actually tastes. It just means you can afford a ridiculously expensive wine to say you can buy a ridiculously expensive wine. People order by price to impress. What motivates people to buy wine is the same as buying a car, it’s how they want to be perceived. The people that embrace the heroically scaled wines are enjoying these wines in the context of a “mashed potato” palette, which is fine. Everyone has a level of appreciation for certain styles, but their taste hasn’t matriculated to appreciate nuanced and balanced wines. Yet. There is none of the nuance and elegance of French wine. Those ‘heroic’ wines are like seeing a body builder on Venice beach. I understand what it takes to get there but it’s grotesque, to me nonetheless, and it’s the simplest, easiest wine-style to achieve. Ah ha, I think, wine on steroids.

Peter continues: Since we are both anti the “Brash & Dull” style of California winemaking, wines the equivalent to the art of KISS’s rock ‘n roll. Yes, I loved KISS, too, when I was 10. In the 5th grade. So I postulate my theory about why this ‘grotesque’ wine style is so embraced. Aside from our revered Founding Fathers who cherished French wine, Americans have been raised on fast food and evermore monotonous flavor profiles that deliver big bang tastes as the common denominator. Hence, the ‘hit you over the head with a 2 x 4’ aggressive wine style. And they want instant impact, love the obvious, no patience for subtlety.  He nods in agreement. Yes, I would say that’s true.

As the esteemed sommelier that you are, what would you recommend when you are asked for a BIG ASS WINE. In other words, the best of the ‘grotesque’? For red, that would be Alban Revas Syrah, Edna Valley. It’s minimally worked and I double dare you to find a bigger wine. Even people who want a huge wine are thrown back in their chairs when they taste this one. Even for them, a bit of a shock. And for white, Stone Street “Upper Barn” Chardonnay, Alexander Valley, Old Gauer Vineyard. Slathering creamy richness.

Peter, why do California winemakers stick with this overly aggressive, ‘grotesque’ wine model? Peter: Why do so many people live in OC? LOL! There’s no accounting for taste, he adds. More LOL! I chuckle at Peter’s candidness and applaud his telling it like it is. He’s at a place in his career where he is so respected, admired and secure at this time of his life. How refreshing not to have him tiptoe around the diplomacy imperative.

Is there anyone making California wine that is on the right track? Oh yes, there’s Ted Lemon of Littorai. He’s one of 5 top California winemakers almost all of who trained in France or use the French model. Ted understands terroir with gracefulness and finesse, and is a great judge of flavors. Also, “Larry Brooks ‘Campion’ (30$ or less p/btl) wines are models of “terroir” driven flavors and ‘Soliste’ (75$ or less p/btl), a project out of Sonoma where Claude Koeberle has sniffed out some of the best patches of grapes to exemplify great vineyards and the art of blending. One of the ways I choose a great wine is very simple: open the bottle taste bung the cork back in and revisit it every day until the wine falls apart. For every day open, the wine displays the backbone and ageworthy-ness. The ’08 Soliste Syrah from Bennett Valley was open for 6 days before it started to go south. I would expect that wine to improve for 30 years.”

Look, wine is nothing without food, he intones. The enjoyment of the beverage itself is enhanced with a bit of food – a potato chip, popcorn or a slab of beef. It’s how the salt, the crunchy exterior or the fibrous shell of the potato itself launches bubbles of flavor on the tongue. That charge is the excitement of the nuance of both food and wine together. They need each other. It hit me when I was 4 years old. My first time having lobster. My mother first gave me lobster alone. Delicious. Then lobster and melted butter. Umm. Then she introduced lemon to the lobster and butter, and then added salt at the last. Delectable. The simple sophistication of introducing these simple flavors is what life is all about.

And, finally, what about a drink that isn’t wine? Oh, I like Cinzano Bianco with a splash of tonic with lemon. An Aperol with Prosecco and blood orange juice. That’s a Spritz.

With that, it’s time to leave Peter to his dreaded computer and other technology challenging devices. He would rather use an abacus or a stone tablet. What happened to the old tax table? It’s enough to drive him to drink. Peter eyes the Lynch invitation and hands it to me. Here, you go! OMG, me? Really? Thank you, thank you. Some day I would love to follow you around at one of these tastings. I’d just be a fly on the wall, listen and hopefully learn something. Well, in that case, I’ll go with you, says Peter. I am beside myself. Awesome.

By Boozenews Editor: Judi Laing

Peter Birmingham, Sommelier Extraordinaire, Part One