Encountering a transcendent wine is like falling in love for the first time. By the time it happens, most of us have probably sampled a lot of skimpy, flawed sips. And plenty of layered, complex, delicious wines as well.
But there’s always the one. It may not be the most expensive bottle, or consumed in the most auspicious of circumstances. Often, the one is encountered during a moment when life seems its most ordinary and predictable—at a cozy bar with friends, in a crowded study hall, after a long night’s service—until suddenly, it isn’t.
Like Jancis Robinson, who tried many bottles before discovering the sensual satisfaction of wine at Oxford University in a glass of Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959, and thenceforth dedicated her life to wine, just about every sommelier we know has had a similar lightning-bolt transformation. SevenFifty Daily asked pros from around the country to share their most climactic wines with us.
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“There are actually two bottles that [provided] Ratatouille moments for me, when fireworks went off and I had a full-circle moment where life, wine, and art seemed to meld together. The first was a 1961 Château Latour. The second was a 1955 Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro. The 1961 I had at the beginning of my career, when I was maybe 23. The second I had seven years ago.
“In both cases, a friend of the family opened the wines during a casual moment. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be hit by a lightning bolt, because I had serious doubts how the vintages would have held up over several decades. Each wine was technically perfect, just opening up and revealing itself in intricate ways. But what has remained with me most is the realization in the first case, and the reminder in the second, that wine is more than the sum of its parts.
“It’s about the person who created the wine—the artist—who, in these cases, is no longer alive. They made these wines decades ago, and could never even reap the benefit of enjoying them in this perfectly aged state. I wasn’t even born when the winemaker put them in the bottle! It really drove home the fact that we as sommeliers are stewards of someone else’s art, and it is our privilege to convey not just the wine, but also the inspiration and passion behind it, to our guests.”
“This bottle came out of left field. I was already a sommelier, maybe 26 years old, working at BLT Steak in New York City in 2003. I opened a bottle of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1983, and I decanted it to taste it with some of the staff because we’d just bought a bunch at auction. Now, 1982, of course, was the big vintage year that Robert Parker wrote so movingly about, and that became one of the most sought-after vintages for Bordeaux on the planet. But I tasted the 1983 and I just thought, ‘What the fuck just happened to me?’ I wasn’t expecting it to knock me off my feet, but I’ve thought a lot about it, and I suspect that because the Lalande featured more Merlot than most Bordeaux—about 45 percent versus the usual 35 percent—[it] made it an outstanding example of its year.
“People talk about ‘no wine before its time,’ and for the first time, I understood precisely what that meant. I’d already been working in wine for about seven years, but it took that moment, when my palate had been refined and I had the opportunity to taste a technically perfect 20-year-old underrated wine, to understand how important that notion is. It was one of the greatest moments of my life—from a pure pleasure standpoint, but also because it made me appreciate the art of winemaking on a profound level that still reverberates in the way I talk and think about wine.”
“Twelve years ago I was lucky enough to attend a seminar and lunch with the late great owner of Chateau Musar, Serge Hochar. We drank many bottles that day, both red and white, but the Chateau Musar 1972 stood out—so complex and intoxicating that the glass seemed to expand around my head until I was in danger of falling in. A blend of Cabernet and Cinsault from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Musar [red] is unquestionably one of the world’s great wines.
“But more importantly, as we drank, Serge talked about his family’s history in an ancient place, a part of the world so riven by strife that the winery’s success seems even more improbable. I’ll never forget it.”
—Sam Ehrlich, beverage director, Blue Ribbon Restaurants, New York City
“I was at the infamous Wine 101 course at Cornell University. I was all sandwiched in with my fellow students in this giant, 600-person auditorium, balancing a cafeteria tray with notes and 4 wine glasses on [my] lap. I had Haut-Médoc Bordeaux as an example of Bordeaux. I actually don’t even remember the producer or the vintage, but it was the first wine I ever remember smelling so many complex characters in.
“To this day, I can still smell it: moss, cranberries, cloves, mushrooms, dates, oregano, the list just kept going on. I couldn’t stop smelling it and it really blew me away. Since then I have had many wines that were better and more memorable—however, that wine will always be the one that opened my mind to what wine could be.”
—Nova Cadamatre, Master of Wine and current director of winemaking at Constellation Brands
“In 2015 in New York City, my good friend, a fellow Master Sommelier candidate, and I had been out doing serious research (reading, eating, and drinking all over the city) all day and decided to make a quick stop by Eleven Madison Park for a nightcap. The Eleven Madison Park sommelier team happened to be composed of several other good friends and fellow Master Sommelier candidates. We sat at the bar, hugged our friends, and started chatting about what crazy wines they had served over the course of the evening. Meanwhile, though no visible signal had been given, wine glasses were set before us although we’d not yet touched a menu. The most delicious golden liquid filled my glass, hailing from a producer I had only read about, with a specific bottling that was completely foreign to me, which turned out to be Jacques Selosse Exquise.
“Sommeliers are supposed to love bubbles—it’s almost a rite of passage—but until then, I hadn’t truly understood the draw. Jacques Selosse Exquise was the first bottle of effervescent wonder that made me understand why bubbles are so universally adored. I was hooked, and from that moment, I have sourced as many bottles as I can get my hands on, and I choose to open them during significant life moments. I opened one to share with friends on my last Christmas in New York City, and when I moved to Dallas and purchased a home with my boyfriend, we drank a second bottle, accompanied by caviar and potato chips, as we sat on the hardwood floor of our empty home. I highly recommend that pairing.”
—Jessica Norris, director of beverage and wine education at Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, Southlake, Texas
“It was actually an amazing pairing that profoundly moved me. I was studying culinary art, and our wine teacher paired a Domaine Jean Macle Château-Chalon [from] Jura, France, vintage 1998, with an 18-month aged Comté cheese from Jura. The wine had the power of vin jaune, but also the extra finesse and elegance that Grand Cru from Jura gives. It had hazelnut and curry touches that balanced with the nutty taste of the Comté. It was an intense moment that I will never forget. The simplicity of the pairing inspired me.”
—Alexis Blondel, head sommelier, Benoit New York, New York City
“I was living and working in Napa Valley very early in my wine career, and I was asked to do the wine service for an intimate dinner of a few notable winemakers and highly acclaimed sommeliers.
“They were tasting the top Rhône wines and threw the 1990 Domaine de Trévallon in for fun. I was very new to tasting, and living in Napa, my palate was used to the profiles of California wines. The Trévallon stopped me in my tracks and the winemaker sent me home with a bottle. It inspired me to get serious about wine.”
“I acquired the bottle on my first visit to Paris. Having only begun to sample wine, and not old enough to legally enjoy it in the States, I wanted to splurge on something truly special. I had no clue what I was buying, but it was expensive and the gentleman in the shop assured me that it was very delicious. ‘You cannot drink it now,’ he warned. ‘You must wait at least another 6 to 10 years.’ It seemed excessive. But he was so sincere, I could not bring myself to disregard his advice.
“The shopkeeper mentioned keeping the bottle in a dark place, so I hid it in the back of my teenage closet for years. After graduating from university and spending a bit more time in Italy and Switzerland, I moved to London. The bottle, Château L’Angélus St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé 1990, traveled with me to the U.K. as one of my more treasured belongings. Once I finally landed a proper job in Ladbroke Grove and had formed a close circle of friends, I decided a dinner party was a celebratory enough event to open the special bottle. I hadn’t an inkling of what to expect, or if I had even kept it properly. To everyone’s amazement, what was inside I can only describe as pure velvet on our tongues.
“At a young age, I lacked the foresight to know what waiting almost a decade would do to the evolution of L’Angélus. But in that moment, I did realize that wine had the potential to be an exceptionally fine—and pleasurable—thing.”
—Anncherie Saludo, sommelier, L’Artusi, New York City
“Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, California, did it for me—it wasn’t a single bottle but the winery’s portfolio as a whole and the ideals of the team that created it. I was introduced to these wines when I began studying wine at the Culinary Institute of America in 2002. While studying, I was consuming all the information I possibly could, but it wasn’t until I learned about the biodynamic efforts of the Benziger Winery that I truly felt inspired by what I was learning about their ecologically sound and economically viable biodynamic practices.
“Mike Benziger became my first wine celebrity ‘crush,’ and when I met him for the first time when visiting the winery later that year, I was so awestruck. That property and their agricultural efforts changed my lifelong approach to learning, understanding, and tasting wine.”
Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.