A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek
May 01, 2012
Last weekend Cesar Perrin and I were honored to host the keynote dinner at the Bern's Winefest. Hosted by Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, the festival included dinners, seminars, and a grand tasting. So far, nothing unique about this. The dinner that we hosted was excellent, five courses and eight wines, including side-by-side flights of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, library vintages from both wineries (1996 Beaucastel and 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, and the remarkable 2000 Hommage a Jacques Perrin). Terrific, but still not unique. It was a wine dinner, masterfully prepared and expertly paired, with a selection of wines going back a decade and a half. At Bern's, that's routine.
If you're unfamiliar with Bern's, it's Mecca for wine lovers. Opened in 1956 by Bern Laxer and run today by his son David, the restaurant boasts a wine cellar of nearly a million bottles, much of which was purchased by Bern on his annual trips to France and has never been inventoried. The working cellar of over 100,000 bottles is staggering in its own right, and the wine list (183 pages in the 62nd Edition) is legendary. It includes big names from Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it's more than trophies. It encompasses the deepest collections of old wines from California, Spain, Australia and the Rhone Valley that I've ever seen. And the sommeliers there keep finding more. When Bern's shipments of wines would arrive from France, the entire Bern's staff would be called on to grab a hand-truck and help move the new arrivals the two blocks from the end of the rail line to the warehouse across the street from the restaurant. Thousands of cases would be packed into the warehouse, with the only master plan in Bern's head. To this day, the sommeliers treat a visit to the warehouse like a treasure hunt, and estimate that there are 200,000 bottles, most from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not on any inventory list. These discoveries keep the list from getting picked over, as there is a steady supply of treasures to uncover.
Even more remarkable, the restaurant does not mark wines up based on how long they've held the inventory. So browsing through the list will uncover any number of unbelievable values. I could choose between a half-dozen California wines from 1973 (my birth year) including names like Parducci, Louis Martini, Souverain, Franciscan, and Trentadue for between $45 and $70. Had I been born a year earlier, I could have chosen a magnum of 1972 Inglenook Cabernet, an icon from one of the greatest vintages in Napa Valley, for $129. A year later and I could have had a 1974 Ridge Zinfandel for $72.70. The list goes on and on.
Knowing that the winemaker dinner would have a set menu, with wines that we knew, Freddy Matson (the Vineyard Brands manager for Florida's Gulf Coast) made a reservation for Cesar and me the night before our wine dinner. When we arrived, we put ourselves in Sommelier Brad Dixon's hands, and enjoyed an amazing string of wines, beginning with a 1954 Rioja, continuing with great Burgundies from 1978 and 1961, and including not one but two different wines from 1973, both from Souverain of Alexander Valley: one a Zinfandel and one a Pinot Noir. It was one of the great epicurean experiences of my life.
On the wine list, Cesar and I noted a curiosity: half-bottles of 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape. Pierre Perrin was Cesar's great-grandfather, Jacques Perrin's father, but there are other branches of the Perrin family in Chateauneuf and -- until the Hommage a Jacques Perrin debuted in 1989 -- we weren't aware of the Perrin name appearing on a Beaucastel label. When we asked Brad about the wine, he didn't know anything about its story, but brought us a bottle:
More than the Perrin name, the Leeds Imports strip label identified it as a wine of interest. My grandfather created Leeds Imports because New York law at the time prohibited retailers (he owned M. Lehmann) from also acting as importer/distributor. In the late 1960s my dad was the buyer for the wines that Leeds imported, both to sell at M. Lehmann and to offer to distributors in other states. We decided we needed to find out more. From the restaurant, Cesar texted his father a picture of the bottle. Francois hadn't heard of the wine (of course, he was thirteen during the 1966 vintage). I emailed my father but didn't hear back. So Brad gave us each a bottle and asked us to let him know what we discovered.
The next day, I spoke to my dad and got the scoop. In the late 1960's, my dad had decided that the American market was ready for wines from some regions outside the traditional bastions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. So he was visiting appellations that he thought were making high quality wine and looking either to find new suppliers or quality wine in bulk that he could then have bottled and out of which he could create a brand. He visited Beaucastel with a broker in 1967 and found that while Jacques Perrin wouldn't sell him Beaucastel (their American importer at the time wasn't selling much wine, but had an exclusive agreement) he was able to convince Jacques to let him taste through the lots and assemble his own cuvee for bottling. This is that wine: made by Jacques Perrin, chosen by my dad in Beaucastel's cellars, bottled under a semi-anonymous label in Bordeaux, and imported into the United States. My dad thinks that there were perhaps 300 cases produced total. I'm not sure if any is left anywhere other than at Bern's, but I tend to doubt it.
There were no subsequent vintages of Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape. The American importer got wind of the wine and asked Jacques not to do it again. But my dad's interest in Beaucastel was sparked; he kept visiting and in 1970 convinced Jacques to give him the American import agency.
So, there it is: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin partnership that would become Tablas Creek. Just a great discovery, during an amazing night of food and wine, at a restaurant unlike any other in the world. If you haven't been to Bern's, you owe it to yourself to go. You never know what you'll find, but you know you'll find something you couldn't have found anywhere else.