What Are Your 99 Wines? (Part 8)


“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and bring forth words which were better unspoken.”
– Homer

I have relished thinking of the wines and experiences I have enjoyed over the years whilst writing this series of articles. I have had many wines that have influenced me. Drinking a wine one has not had before can open a world of new experiences, and revisiting a wine brings back a forgotten friend.

28. The French Laundry by Thomas Keller – A brilliant symphony!

Iruka and I loved fine dining. We had managed to snag reservations at The French Laundry in Napa thanks to a client and friend of mine who was the manager of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurant at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Thank goodness for friends! I had read about The French Laundry, and I had eaten at other Thomas Keller restaurants. But this was The French Laundry, and we had reservations!

The kitchen at The French Laundry

Let me get this out of the way at the beginning: There are some things that do not live up to the hype. Well, this was not one of them. We loved The French Laundry. I do not know which was better, the food or the service. Perhaps, the two go together like a Bordeaux blend; You have different things that come together, and the result is something new. It is possible that they took special care of us because of how we got our reservations. So, you know what? I. DO. NOT. CARE! Truthfully, I paid attention to how other patrons were treated. I wanted to ask the other patrons if they knew an insider as well because it seemed as if everyone was enjoying their experience as much as Iruka and I did.

The French Laundry

Iruka and I preferred to take time to enjoy our meals. One of the best parts of French Laundry is that you are not rushed. They expected us to take our time. I suggest you go to a different restaurant if you have less than three hours. You will want to take your time between courses, and they afford you that luxury.

I devoured the extensive wine list like it was a Dan Brown novel. They have one of the largest selections of 375 ml bottles I have ever seen. Of course, Napa, Sonoma, and other California wines were well represented, but there was a plethora of options from every wine region in the world on the wine list. The waitstaff was extremely knowledgeable of the fare, describing the food meticulously. They also had much more than a cursory knowledge of wine.


Our server proposed that the sommelier could suggest some interesting wines for pairing with our dinner. The sommelier was extremely knowledgeable and charming, and he and I got along well. His suggestions were exceptional. I do not recall all the wines we had that evening. The one I do recall is Cade, “Estate,” Howell Mountain from Napa Valley. This was my first time having Cade, but it would not be my last, as I have several vintages, as well as its sister wines, PlumpJack and Odette, in my cellar.

Each course was expertly curated, and the presentation was unequaled. We were full without being stuffed. At the end of the evening, we were invited to tour the kitchen, which was exquisite. The cleanliness was amazing. How could they move as many meals as they do each night and the kitchen still look like it did before anyone started working? The kitchen was the orchestra, and Thomas Keller is the conductor. The result was a brilliant symphony.

We talked with our sommelier about more than just wine. I learned that our sommelier was a former investment banker from Texas. I had lived in Texas, and I was involved in banking at that time, so we spoke of both. He spent more time with us than I would have expected, considering we were not ordering über priced bottles of wine. I am sure it did not hurt that I was with a beautiful woman, but he made us feel as if we had his full attention. It was also unexpected to see a Black sommelier as the head sommelier at such a restaurant. That made me enjoy the experience just the more. It was one of the best meals we ever had.

André Mack

As it turned out, our sommelier that evening was André Hueston Mack. He had formerly been named the Best Young Sommelier in America. I did not realize until about a half hour into a Zoom call during the Covid-19 quarantine in 2020, that André was the same charming sommelier from the French Laundry years before. I also realized that he was the owner of Maison Noir Winery in Willamette, Oregon. I ordered a delightful Pinot Noir from Maison Noir called Oregogne about 10 years ago, and it was excellent. I also joined the Vegas Wineaux and others at a dinner last week, and I brought another of André’s Pinot Noirs, called Touché. Everyone enjoyed that wine as well.

André is truly a Renaissance man, and his book, “99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide to Life-Changing Wines” is the impetus for this series of articles.

It is a very small world, indeed.

29. Colgin IX Estate – Because all celebrations deserve a signature wine.

I grew up in the Middle East, and I was taught to negotiate for things at a very young age. Arabs pride themselves in their ability to negotiate. Negotiation is a way of life in the Middle East. You go to the market and negotiate the price of milk. However, I have learned there are certain things that simply cannot, and in some cases, should not, be negotiated, such as Pratesi sheets, Lasik eye surgery, a vasectomy, and a very fine wine. There are some things in life that are simply worthy of the price.

Krug Champagne

I was an attorney on a team negotiating the acquisition of a multi-billion dollar publicly traded company several years ago. The negotiations were intense, and they dragged on for months. At long last, we consummated the transaction. We had a joint celebratory dinner at one of the best restaurants in the city, as is tradition. The new CEO of the acquiring company took the liberty of ordering the wine for us. The celebration began with copious amounts of Krug Champagne, which is my favorite.

Our entrées arrived, which consisted mostly of grilled steaks and lamb. The CEO ordered several bottles of what he referred to as a special wine from the winery of a friend. The wine was Colgin IX, 2002. Colgin IX is an estate grown and bottled Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, from Napa Valley. The wine was tight, as it was a recent vintage, but it was remarkable. I could imagine what it would become with the advantage of years of cellaring. This wine was driven by notes of dark fruits, vanilla, chocolate, oak, graphite, and leather, with gripping tannins that would only soften with age.

I had read about Colgin Cellars, but this was my first time tasting any of its wines. Colgin Cellars was co-founded in 1992, by Ann Colgin, a noted art collector and philanthropist and her husband Joe Wender, a Goldman Sachs partner and investment banker. Colgin Cellars’s wines have become one of an elite group of California classic wines. I say “classic,” because Ann hates the term, “cult” wines.

Colgin Collection

Colgin Cellars is known for its limited production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style blends, and Syrahs. Ann, previously married to Fred Schrader, co-founded Schrader Cellars together. Her winemakers are a virtual who’s-who of California wine-making: Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, and now, Allison Tauziet. Colgin Cellars sold a 60.00% stake in the winery to LVMH in 2017, although Ann and the winemaker retained their respective roles.

I have expanded my exploration of Colgin Cellars since that time. My exploration includes Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon, Tychson Hill Vineyard, and IX Estate Syrah. Colgin Cellars’s wines have since become my “closing wine.” I always keep at least one bottle in my cellar, because I never know when I may need it.

30. PlumpJack Screwcap v. cork

My friends Eric and Lory are transplants from California, like many in Las Vegas. Eric used to work for Patland Estate Vineyards in Napa. (Patland will be part of this series. I did an article on Patland’s 2017 release party, which can be found in the archives of vegaswineaux.com.)

One of the best parts of French Laundry is that you are not rushed.

Eric and Lory have an enviable wine cellar. Equally important, they delight in entertaining at their lovely home (this was pre-quarantine). One evening in October 2018, Eric and Lory put together an interesting tasting. They wanted our wine group to blind-taste bottles of PlumpJack 1997 vintage. The key was a comparison of screwcap v. cork. PlumpJack Winery is in Oakville, in the Napa Valley. It was co-founded by Gavin Newsom, formerly Mayor of San Francisco and current California governor, and Gordon Getty, a renowned American composer. Their wine collection also includes the Cade, Odette, and Adaptation labels. PlumpJack offers two-pack collections of various vintages of its wines with both cork and screwcap, thereby encouraging comparison tastings.

PlumpJack 1997 and Whitehall Lane 1997

Mike Patland and his new bride, the lovely Natalie of Patland Estate Vineyards, surprised us with a visit. They brought along a special treat, Patland’s contribution to the Premiere Napa Valley Auction selection. The evening also included other wines, such as Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Quintessa 2002, Derenoncourt Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Palmaz Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Miner Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, and a Kobalt Cabernet Sauvignon. This was going to be an interesting evening, indeed!

Screwcaps, properly called Stelvin caps, have been around since the 1970s. They are cheaper to produce than natural corks and were used frequently by cheaper quality wines. Consequently, using a Stelvin cap became associated with cheaper quality wines.

A small percentage of natural corks have shown some degree of spoilage over time due to trichloroanisole, or TCA, a complex chemical that has a reaction with natural cork. TCA is what causes the strong mildew odor in “corked” wines.

There has been historical resistance to Stelvin caps based on the prior association with cheaper quality wines. However, there are certain advantages to the Stelvin cap. These include no TCA or cork taint, and no gas escapes from the bottle. This means the wine cannot spoil as easily as with natural corks. PlumpJack and a few other higher-end wineries using Stelvin caps have caused consumers and other wineries to take another look at them.

The PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 was a structured wine with dark fruits on the nose. It still had significant expressions of dark cherries, raspberries, and mint on the palate after 21 years. The tannins had mellowed, and any rough edges had been smoothed out. This was a remarkable vintage.

Now for the reason for the tasting. I thought it was a very close call, but I selected the Stelvin cap in the blind tasting, to my surprise. I cannot point to a specific reason, but that is what I selected. I would have thought the cork would have been the overwhelming choice in a wine that has been aged for a considerable period, but that was not the case. I probably would have given in to the bias and selected the natural cork if it had not been a blind tasting.

PlumpJack makes a remarkable wine either way, whether it is Stelvin cap or natural cork. I love the fact that they give you a choice. It gets the mind thinking and the juices flowing.

31. Ornellaia 1998 – A toast goodbye to dear friends.

I adore my friends Tex and Gidget. They met as students at Cornell in the 1960s. They are like a fine wine or a great cheese: Their love for each other has matured and any rough edges have been smoothed out.

Tex and Gidget decided to move to Pittsburg to be closer to their son and grandchildren several years ago. They decided to sell off part of their wine collection, and they offered them first to our wine group. I knew they took excellent care storing their wine, so I acquired several choice bottles. I was lucky to acquire Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyards 2002, Clos Fourtet Saint Émilion Grand Cru 2002, Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2000, and several bottles of Joseph Phelps Insignia from the mid-1990s, amongst others.

Pittsburgh! Miss you Tex & Gidget!

I stopped by their house to pick up my wine. The three of us could talk for hours, and we did. We decided to open a bottle of wine, and I just happened to have some. I selected a bottle of Ornellaia 1998.

Ornellaia is a spectacular Italian Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, from Tuscany. The varietals are separately aged in French oak barrels for one year before being blended together. The wine had notes of spiciness, cassis, tobacco, and coffee on the nose. The palate was engorged by velvety dark fruits, vanilla, and hints of minerality. The tannins had softened over the years but were still present. This lead to a remarkably long finish. There is little wonder that Wine Spectator named Ornellaia its wine of the year several years ago.

I truly miss my friends, and I will always think of them whenever I have Ornellaia.


Andras B.
Andras B.
Andras is a retired attorney, a passionate wine aficionado, and sommelier. He is an experienced and seasoned world traveler with a gourmet palate.


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