Hanging with wine-industry icons

I know what you must think: He spends all his spare time voguing in swell places, swilling other people’s free (and fabulous) wine. Wrong. Rarely happens. But when it does, the occasion’s memorable. And just to prove what a decent, magnanimous, and caring guy I am, I’m going to share. True, your experience will be vicarious, but I’ll do my best …

One aspect of my recent lunch at Merchants Grand `See “Waiting for the ‘Grand’ moment,” May 7-13` that can’t be replicated is the opportunity to hang out with Gary Jones, 35-year veteran of the wine industry and one of the prime builders of the Beringer brand in the ’80s and ’90s. Jones was in town representing Vintage Point, a newly organized company with a wide-ranging portfolio, and he opened with a wine we will all want to stock for summer swilling of our own, the 2006 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc (the ’07 will be out in June). Retailing at around $11, this California charmer packs crisp and herby grapefruit flavors into a package that my notes call “New Zealand light” — and this is not damning by faint praise.

Next up was a lean, almost Burgundian, 2006 Carneros Chardonnay from Joseph Carr. It offers appealing yeast and toast plus a little citrus, all at about $15. You’ll have to lay down around $20 for Carr’s equally elegant ’05 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, but in return you’ll be rewarded with a classic Bordeaux nose and
elegant light cherry and plum flavors.

Carr’s labeling is appropriately classy and restrained. The Layer Cake line, on the other hand, seduces shamelessly with an image of a multi-layer chocolate creation missing a substantial slice. The ’06 Côtes du Rhône opens very French — which is to say a little tart until you get to know one another — and then expresses its Southern Rhône sourcing (and Syrah backbone) with cassis and crumbly earth. Jones says it will be available primarily in restaurants until August, at which time certain upscale H-E-Bs will carry it and its cross-border sibling, the 2006 Layer Cake Primitivo IGT from Puglia. Seek this one out where you can. Nearly opaque, it had smoke and spice in spades, and blackberry fruit by the bushel. (Primitivo is said to be a zinfandel precursor). Both wines should retail for under $15. “Try the malbec, too,” says Jones.

Committed VV purists may now avert their gazes, for here’s where we jump the tracks: Jones next poured the first release of a Sonoma
County 2003 cabernet sauvignon
from Hidden Ridge. (The ’04 will be out soon.) Like a debut novelist who hits a home run with the first book, this beautiful bottle showed chocolate, tobacco, black plum, and enough more to earn a 92 from Wine Spectator. Expect to pay nearly $75.

And expect to shell out some serious sheckels for Jones’s final salvo. Yes, here is where all your fantasies do come true. The nectar in question was the 2004 Hundred Acre Ancient Way Shiraz, another first release with a promising career ahead of it. Hand-farmed, this low-yield Barossa Valley baby could be enjoyed by simply sniffing alone. I got big blackberry — and then even bigger pepper on the palate balanced by beautiful acid. Jones says the wine goes for $700 on some Houston restaurant wine lists, and you may now stop coveting: VV’s presumed position of privilege stops way short of restaurant dinners with $700 wines — though my own fantasy life is fairly active as well, and hope does spring eternal.

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