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BOTTLED FREAKING HEAVEN

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

1978 La Tâche is expected to fetch $5k per bottle at an upcoming auction. Several decades ago I casually split a bottle with my roommate.

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Darn those pesky AI algorithms! Just the other day I got a pop-up notification for a Sotheby’s (London) wine auction that featured a case of 1978 Tâche… a wine I had the rare honor of tasting with lifelong BFF AndyS. way back in 1986. Is artificial intelligence really that all-knowing?


Scary. Anyway, here's the story about the wine. This tale is a little… complicated, so I deem it best told in three distinct sections:


PART 1: THE WINE

PART 2: THE MAN WHO GIFTED IT TO ME

PART 3: THE TASTING


1. THE WINE (Wine geek stuff, but important to know)


Spoiler Alert– year in and year out, La Tâche is considered one of the very finest Pinot Noirs– and therefore one of the greatest WINES, period– on God’s Green Earth… always a unanimous worldwide Top Five among credible wine critics.


La Tâche is the name of a particular wine and also, simultaneously and by French tradition, the name of its geographical source– a fifteen acre Pinot Noir vineyard in the village of Vosne-Romanée, which itself is part of the Côtes de Nuits section of the larger Bourgogne (Burgundy) region of France. As a grand cru (i.e. top-rated) vineyard, La Tâche is an official appellation unto itself, kind of like the way soccer superstars get to go by their first name only. It is also a monopole, i.e., a vineyard with only one owner… a rare thing in Burgundy, where many vineyards both great and humble were divvied up row-by-row among the peasantry during the French Revolution.

Terroir, terroir, et terroir!


And what, exactly, makes La Tâche– the monopole grand cru vineyard as well as the wine itself– so freaking great? To paraphrase your local realtor– Terroir, terroir, et terroir! The word “terroir” has no direct translation from French into a single English word; “location” is close, but not completely accurate. Terroir indicates the unique conjunction of climate, soil, altitude, and latitude that bless a vineyard site with the qualities responsible for the wines it yields.


Now, we in the wine business long ago came to accept that grape variety (like the Pinot Noir that is the sole component of La Tâche) is the primary determinant of a wine’s final character. And yet the French– perhaps making a virtue of necessity, but still– insist that terroir is supreme, hence their tradition of labeling by geographical origin. (That way there can be only one true “Champagne,” for example.) But oh, Dear Readers, the fantastic terroir of the La Tâche vineyard! Whatever magic it imparts on its annual Pinot Noir crop makes it very different from– and so much better than– all the Pinot Noirs we find floor-stacked at our local store.


So it would seem that a conflict of sorts exists between grape variety and vineyard location, right? A battle for primacy that, at least in France, kind of automatically resolves itself– the La Tâche label bears no indication that it is comprised of Pinot Noir because it doesn’t need to– ALL great red Burgundies are made of Pinot Noir, the grape that centuries of trial-and-error has proved optimal for Burgundian terroir. (Likewise, great White Burgundy is synonymous with Chardonnay, Hermitage Rouge is largely fashioned from the Syrah grape, and Pomerol is usually around 90% Merlot… all French beauties that are labeled by geographical origin rather than the grape.)


So– in the final analysis, it seems that La Tâche is an especially great grand cru Red Burgundy, which plays directly to the cultural chauvinism of the French... AND it is also an especially great 100% Pinot Noir wine, thereby inspiring California and Oregon winemakers to aim for equal excellence on American soil.


But however one describes its origins and composition, the 1978 La Tâche is an utterly fantastic bottle of wine.


2. THE MAN WHO GIFTED IT TO ME ("Big Danny")


To properly understand how I came into possession of this bottle of 1978 La Tâche, you need to meet a man nicknamed “Big Danny”– born in 1938, lived a colorful life of Dom Perignon, big-haired floozies, and 50-foot yachts, and died in 2006. He was also, in many ways, the father figure I always needed.


Had he been born into different circumstances, Big Danny might have become a more legitimate sort of business magnate, or a big-shot lawyer or even a U.S. senator. But without a formal education to match his lightning intellect and innate animal smarts, he was instead drawn into the service of those who valued his natural facility with probabilities and point spreads in sporting events, talents for which he was handsomely compensated. Individuals with a steady flow of unaccounted cash often find the restaurant business appealing, especially if they’ve developed a fondness for Parisian haute-cuisine and first-growth Bordeaux during their rise through the ranks. And restaurants with hands-off owners need hard-working young managers of unquestionable trustworthiness to run them in their absence, which is exactly why Big Danny hired me at the tender age of 25… and no one ever called me “Daniel” again, for I was immediately re-christened “Little Danny.”


Big Danny owned it, Little Danny ran it– Your favorite restaurant

might be cool, but it isn’t we-sell-$50-posters-of-ourselves cool.

(Painting by Kay Moser-Cronin)


I had already known that Big Danny was an imposing and contradictory figure, equally famous for his volcanic temper as for his huge heart. He couldn’t help but command a roomful of attention wherever he went, so energetic and forceful was his larger-than-life presence. Many were naturally drawn to his obvious power, as if by some sort of magnetism, while others were repelled in fear of him.


As his restaurant protégé I was intimately privy to both of these aspects of Big Danny– the stress of working directly under him at that young age sometimes felt like being in a fire, a crucible in which, as it turned out, I was annealed against future adversity. And I learned much under Big Danny’s alternately stern tutelage and genuinely warm encouragement. He afforded me the opportunity to absorb via total immersion a wide array of restaurant skills, from menu design to hiring and managing the staff. (They’re gonna call you an asshole behind your back no matter what you do,” counseled Big Danny. “So you might as well do what’s best for the business… at least they might actually respect you down the road.”)


Ours was considered among the greatest restaurants in western Massachusetts, with a superbly talented kitchen, an attentive cadre of servers, and the finest cellar within our area code. Accordingly, I had the chance to taste many wines that most of my fellow young wine enthusiasts could only read and dream about. There was always some hundred-dollar liquid gold on Big Danny’s table late at night, rare and famous wines that he always insisted I taste with him and his well-dressed, important-looking guests.


That Big Danny was a serious criminal of some sort was never in dispute. Those seemingly distinguished dinner guests of his were usually intense, rivet-eyed men whose names no one dared utter in public but were well known to the FBI. Gambling was a year-round business, but autumn Sunday afternoons seemed to be the most stressful times for Big Danny, especially at 4:00PM (when the early NFL games ended) and then again at 7:00PM. I once naively asked him which team he rooted for, who his favorite was. “I don’t give a f*** who WINS!” he snorted, amused at my ignorance of his trade. “It’s all about the point spread… who covers the spread, and who DON’T!” And then every autumn Monday a pair of leather-jacketed, husky young fellows would sit and have lunch with him, thick briefcases at their sides, and the three of them would somehow communicate with clipped words and in hushed tones between mouthfuls of sautéed chicken breast sandwiches. Through all of this, Big Danny strived to maintain an impenetrable firewall between me and his non-restaurant activities… not only to protect me, I retroactively surmise, but also to conceal them from another potential federal witness.


Whether or not his gains were mostly ill-gotten, Big Danny was unfailingly generous with them. After one non-stop springtime fortnight of lucrative yet exhausting college graduation dinners, Big Danny pulled me aside at the conclusion of the season-ending Sunday dinner shift, his coal-black, Irish-Italian eyes a-twinkle with childlike mischief. “I hear you’ve been looking to buy a new suit at Yale-Genton,” he said. (His spies were everywhere, even in a high-end West Springfield clothing store.) “Go down and get it fitted tomorrow,” he chuckled with satisfaction. “It’s all paid for!” Much more importantly, I think, he was equally generous to those considerably less fortunate than I. The homeless man who essentially lived in our storefront shrubbery one summer ate like a king, regularly served midnight meals by Big Danny himself. And our pot scrubber was always delighted to get a ten-dollar bill for starting Big Danny’s car on cold winter nights… although, truth be told, we suspected that this was because one of his previous vehicles– a white Rolls-Royce– had exploded right in front of the restaurant a few years before.


Fast-forward a decade. I ran into Big Danny in a cyber-café on the main thoroughfare not far from where his legendary restaurant once stood. I had long since moved on, gotten married and divorced, and was working as a wine salesman while raising my two young children by myself. Big Danny was recently out of prison, and he delighted in sharing with me how he had finagled a work-release job as the manager of an officer’s club on a Florida air force base while serving his federal sentence. “There I was, supposedly in f----in’ prison,” he chuckled, “and I could throw a sirloin on the grill for myself at midnight if I wanted… and then take a ten-mile Jeep ride on the beach!


But it was obvious that his confinement had broken both his spirit and his bankroll, and that he didn’t really like me seeing him that way. It was awkward for both of us. Although I never saw him again after that chance encounter, I didn’t leave without taking a moment to sincerely thank him for everything he had done for me, for being like a father to me in so many ways and giving me a career path. That I had been blessed with the opportunity to do this when he was still alive leavened, only slightly, my profound grief upon learning of his death just a few years later– broke, alone, and utterly dispirited. I for one shall remember him fondly and proudly for all of my years, because despite the inherent shadiness of his chosen profession, Big Danny was extremely kind and generous to me, as he also was to many, many others from society’s deeper and sadder recesses.


I’ve come to understand that we humans are each and every one of us a mix of light and darkness, of good and bad… and that what matters most in our life’s indelible ledger when we finally depart this world is, therefore, the balance of goodness in ourselves that we have extended to others, particularly to those in need… and more importantly, to those incapable of ever returning the favor in this lifetime.


By that measure, I’d say that Big Danny went to his eternal slumber having covered the most important spread of them all.


And yeah, it was Big Danny who gave me that bottle of 1978 La Tâche.


* * * * * * *


The year was 1986, and we were enjoying a welcome little lull after a very busy and profitable stretch of several weeks… just like the year before, when he bought me that silk suit. While he and I were re-stocking his personal wine cellar at a local emporium (one that happened to be one of the finest retail wine stores in the world) an impish grin overtook Big Danny’s swarthy features as we passed the locked rack of rare and collectable gems.


You’ve got thirty seconds,” he suddenly growled. “Pick one bottle, ANY bottle. It’s on ME!


Having previously scouted that rack so often that I knew every bottle, it only took me five seconds to locate the 1978 La Tâche, then priced at $175 a bottle. (BTW, that was nowhere near the most expensive wine in that section.) I carefully cradled it back to my apartment that night… the top floor of a run-down shack of a house so close to the railroad tracks that the nightly Amtrak to Montreal felt like it was going over my legs… a dump that cost my roommate AndyS. and me less each month than that bottle of La Tâche cost in 1986.


AndyS. & I lived on the second floor of this trackside anti-mansion.



3. THE TASTING (A multi-act play)


By 1986 I had already developed a pretty good sense of how to run a restaurant; indeed, much of the task simply required the youthful energy to work on one’s feet for 15 hours per day. However, I was still very much a novice cook. And so when it was time to pair this wine with an entree, I considered the constraints of our microscopic kitchen and turned to the object of my most recent culinary explorations– the lowly chicken liver. (AndyS. Still good-naturedly ribs me about this 37 years later, even as I’m accommodating his ever-pickier tastes with pricy fresh seafood.)


Those livers turned out perfectly well, at least by MY reckoning. But way more importantly, here’s how the 1978 La Tâche performed–


As soon as I got the cork out of the bottle, a sharply foul stench assaulted our nostrils, suggesting that something had gone very wrong in the bottle… something approaching a ridiculously expensive biological disaster. “I don’t see how I can return it,” I apologetically lamented to Andy after ruefully spitting out my initial sip. “It was a gift, after all.” We agreed that all we could really do was let it sit and then wait for an œnological miracle of some sort. We tasted it ten minutes later, and said miracle had in fact transpired– the wine had seemingly snapped to attention and was absolutely electric with all manner of wonderful flavors, astonishingly unlike anything either of us had ever tasted. Moreover, the delicious flavors frenetically flashed around our mouths with acid-driven urgency, as if the wine had a story it had been desperately waiting to tell.


With our palates momentarily overloaded with otherworldly pleasure, we chose to take a bit of a rest. Ten minutes later we re-tasted the wine, and it had magically transformed into something equally wonderful but completely different. “I’ve NEVER seen a wine change this much,” I observed. Andy and I lovingly savored that bottle, re-tasting every ten minutes and finding each time that the wine had transformed anew into something different and wonderful. This near-psychedelic experience went on for a full hour until the bottle was empty.

x

In retrospect, this wine performed like what I’ve come to consider a “Layer-Cake Song,” that is, a great pop/rock masterpiece constructed as a sequence of several seeminglt unrelated sections that, taken together, form an especially wonderful whole. (MacArthur Park, Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody are three examples from my era.) But as for all the flowery tasting details (see my parody thereof in this earlier essay) I’ll demur on sharing my own adjectives and leave that to the top-level wine pros. I’ll just say that neither before nor since have I tasted a wine so dynamic, so ALIVE with such wonderful flavors. It was enough to permanently reinforce my belief in a Higher Power– the belief that, while the hand of man is responsible for some highly evolved winemaking, God Almighty occasionally reminds us how far we have to go by blessing us with wines like 1978 La Tâche. (Clicking HERE and then HERE will initiate your journey down the rabbit hole of high-end tasting blather from the world’s top experts. Their consensus holds that this wine is aging quite gracefully and is still, at the age of 45, at or near its peak of excellence.)


* * * * * * *


For me, the most important takeaway from my experience with 1978 La Tâche is this– having tasted Bottled Freaking Heaven, was my palate permanently spoiled? Was I doomed for the rest of my life to a fruitless search for a repetition of this experience? Fortunately, Dear Readers, the answer is emphatically no.


Tasting a great wine like ‘78 La Tâche serves to calibrate one’s palate; that is, it provides a context for future tasting of lesser wines from the same grape. When we experience the highest manifestation of a particular variety and how absolutely wonderful it can be when produced in the best possible location under the best possible circumstances, we can then use that memory as a template when tasting humbler, less expensive versions thereof. When doing so, we look for qualities in the lesser wine that remind us, if only just a little, of the ultra-fabulous, heaven-sent example.


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So, ready to go wine shopping?


Red Burgundy is a notorious minefield for the wine buyer in that it is all too easy to spend $100 on a bottle that turns out to be barely drinkable and never comes around like the La Tâche did. Fortunately, however, California and Oregon winemakers have figured out how to make reliably excellent (if not religion-grade) wine from the vexingly finicky Pinot Noir grape… insofar as this variety can actually be tamed. (See THE ROYAL BROTHERS: CABERNET SAUVIGNON & PINOT NOIR for more about Pinot Noir.)


Off the top of my head, here are five American Pinot Noirs that have struck me as fairly “Burgundian” in the best sense of the word and thereby reminded me, if only just a little, of that ‘78 La Tâche–


Cambria “Julia’s Vineyard” ($20-25); www.cambriawines.com)


Fess Parker “American Tradition Reserve” ($20-25); www.fessparker.com)


Merry Edwards “Sonoma Coast” ($50); www.merryedwards.com)


De Négoce Bin 301 "Sonoma Coast" ($48 => $11); www.denegoce.com)


La Crema "Sonoma Coast" ($20-25); (https://www.lacrema.com/)


Domaine Drouhin Oregon “Dundee Hills” ($45); www.domainedrouhin.com)


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NOTES:


La Tâche is not even the finest wine produced in the village of Vosne-Romanée– the neighboring vineyard Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (“DRC” in the trade hip-speak) is owned by the same folks as La Tâche and yields wine that typically commands about four times the price as La Tâche. A single 750ml bottle of DRC 2010 is currently listed for just under $20k at the Boston restaurant where I was once the wine steward.


I do not consider “Layla” and “Hey Jude” layer-cake songs; rather, they are simply long songs with prominent codas.


That image I found of that perky realtor reminds me that wine labeling works a little like a real estate listing– if the property majestically reposes on Park Avenue, you definitely say so; but if it sits north of Columbia University, you might default to simply “Manhattan.” And if you’re trying to sell a glorified walk-in closet in, say, Brownsville, terms like “NYC! Mere minutes to dining and theater!” might attract initial interest from qualified buyers. Likewise, if a wine comes from a fabulous source like the La Tâche vineyard or Napa’s Stag’s Leap District, its label darn well says so instead of simply “Burgundy” or “California.”


What about food pairing? Red Burgundy is the traditional companion to beef, just as Red Bordeaux has long been considered the proper pour with lamb. But that doesn’t mean you should drink a delicate vintage Burgundy with your flame-scorched steak. I would prefer matching such a wine with a “gentler” beef dish like roasted tenderloin or dry-aged prime rib. Meanwhile, the richer and darker California and Oregon Pinot Noirs– those less “Burgundian” and more American in style and heft– stand up nicely to the grill marks on your manly-man ribeye. Of course, however you match your food and wine is ultimately a matter of personal preference…


But if you ever do get your hands on a rare and fabulous Burgundy like this 1978 La Tâche, I suggest you serve it with just about anything other than chicken livers.

Which brings me back to AndyS.– I conferred with him to fact-check my memory and the various details for this essay. 37 years later, he still marvels just as I do at the “amazingness” of our shared tasting experience, the greatest of his lifetime as well as mine.


Andy also reminded me that we went for an after-dinner walk during which we took a very expensive leak on the grounds of the prestigious private women’s college that stood nearby. Upon searching my heart and memory, I can honestly attest that I intended no anti-elitist symbolism or the like by such a gesture. However, Andy also reminded me that I had been saving that precious bottle to share “with my next girlfriend,” and that I had grown tired of waiting to meet whoever that might be. Hmmm… the possible connection there DOES coincide with my memories of my younger, snarkier self...


Hopefully I’ve matured as gracefully as a fine Burgundy.


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