The Bordeaux Birthday Bash

By staff April 1, 2007

Spring 1982. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in the historic vineyards of the Mouton-Rothschild chateau in the Medoc peninsula of Bordeaux, that precious stretch of France between the ocean and the Girdone River, a momentous convergence of conditions is preparing to produce what will become the vintage of the century.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, braving the freezing March winds of Chicago, I am preparing to produce something momentous of my own—my daughter, Lindsey. She is born just four days after my birthday, and everyone agrees she bears a remarkable resemblance to her mother…but little do I know she will come to be my wine clone as well.

I soon discover that it isn’t easy to be a career woman and a super mom. Leaving an infant at 6 a.m. to take the train and the "L" to my very corporate job does not strike the proper balance. Then I hear that the Chicago Tribune—THE Chicago Tribune—is looking for a new wine columnist. My husband, always the ultimate risk-taker, suggests I let them know I am available. Ha! I am an OK cook and certainly know how to pull a cork, but critique wines?

"Well, why not?" I think.

1983. I begin my new career, one where I can stay at home with my child, drink all day and get paid for it.

Thoroughly immersed in my new calling, I begin to accumulate the accouterments of a real wine critic, including a more sophisticated wine collection. I learn that the Mouton-Rothschild "wine of the century" that had been born the same year as Lindsay is now being sold as futures, an arrangement under which you pay now and get the wine—which may still take many more years to develop—in three years.

Why would anyone consent to do that? Since the Middle Ages, Bordeaux has been recognized as the most important wine-producing region in the world. Wines in this region are classified as "first growths," "second growths" and so on, all based on a 17th-century system that rated each chateau according to how much its wines fetched in a certain year. Today, although some second growths and a few third growths command top prices, first growths remain top dogs. Tradition still rules in many areas of the wine world.

But whatever their classification, wine lovers will pay a premium to bid on promising Bordeaux wines soon after they are produced, then cellar them for years until they reach their peak of perfection.

I begin fantasizing about putting together dream cases of Bordeaux, visualizing the fabulous dinner parties I will be having in 20 years. My wine merchant suggests I should purchase several oversized bottles to ceremoniously uncork at those dinners. I lie awake, playing the idea over and over in my head. Bottles to commemorate Lindsey’s birth year . . . perhaps enough to serve at her wedding . . . a favorite chateau. The idea jells. I love a second-growth wine, Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, one of the Pauillac wines that are produced in the Medoc Peninsula. For me, Pauillac wines epitomize what red Bordeaux should be—they’re masculine with an incredible finesse. In addition, the owners of Chateau Pichon Lalande had consented to one of the very first interviews I had conducted as a wine critic, and they were lovely people who graciously ignored the painfully obvious fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. And the Pichon Lalande is gorgeous—rich and sinuous with deep flavors of berries and hints of tobacco.

The bottle size should make a statement, I decide, but still be something I can afford, with a little stretching. I settle on the imperial, a vessel that holds the equivalent of nine bottles. Holding wine in such a large vessel will slow its aging, making it possible to serve in 25 years, when Lindsey will surely be ready to marry. Summoning up my courage, I place my order, at a price of $750 per imperial. It is a wildly extravagant gesture—but it is for one of the most important occasions I can envision. And after all, it is the go-go ‘80s.

1985. Three-year-old Lindsey already has developed a taste for wine. She especially likes reds, sticking her little finger into the glass and putting a drop on her tongue. On a wine trip to Napa, she stuns the winemaker at Sterling by differentiating between merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Just a parlor game, I tell everyone; secretly, I’m delighted.

1989. Divorce strikes. Devastated, I sell my wine cellar, including all my cases of ’82 first growths. I save the imperials, however, and move them to Florida with us. Who could sell their child’s Bordeaux legacy bottles?

1996. Lindsey turns 14 and begins a culinary career. Her first job is bus girl at Gastronomia, a small Italian restaurant on the South Trail. The car smells permanently of garlic from picking her up from work. She loves the restaurant world and moves on to Cosimo’s, Michael’s Seafood Grill, and ultimately to hauling banquet trays around on her shoulder.

Spring 2003. College girl celebrates turning 21 in Australia by touring the wineries of the Barossa Valley and sending Mom copious tasting notes.

Summer 2004. Lindsey graduates from college and settles in St. Petersburg, working at a not-for-profit. To maintain the lifestyle Mom no longer pays for, she secures a second job at—you guessed it—a wine shop. When she visits on weekends, we begin staging blind tastings to further sharpen our palates.

While the 2000 Bordeaux vintage is the new darling, people are now drinking the 1982s and raving about how great they are. Chateau Pichon Lalande is creating some of the most buzz, with Pichon Lalande topping everyone’s list. Frank Prial, then-wine columnist for the New York Times, declares that it is a perfect wine. Robert Parker scores it a perfect 100. We watch the wine auctions. It sells at dizzying prices. In one auction, the wine fetches $1,000 per bottle, and the imperial is the equivalent of nine! Lindsey and I speculate about new cars, down payments on condos, all the things she could do if she sells the wine. "But I want to drink some of it," she says. "At least one bottle." We talk about it some more.

Fall 2005. Lindsey announces she doesn’t have a marriage prospect in sight, but the time has come to open and drink one of the bottles. "It’s not that simple," I point out. "One bottle is enough for 25 people."

"OK, let’s have 25 people," she says. We set the date for March 2006, to coincide with our birthdays.

Spring 2006. My inner űber hostess takes over. My now-husband, Jack, accuses me of being Martha Stewart on steroids. Caterer? Cook myself? Who to invite? How to seat? What kind of menu? Simple or elaborate sauce? And most daunting of all, how will I ever open that huge bottle of wine? What if it’s not totally wonderful? I enter a period of 4 a.m. angst.

I recruit Michael Klauber, owner of Michael’s On East and wine expert extraordinaire, and he and I have a lengthy session one evening in his office figuring out exactly how we’ll handle the wine opening. As we talk, he turns to his computer and finds a Web site that lists recent auction prices. He turns back to me, shaking his head.

"Are you sure you want to drink an $8,000 bottle of wine?" he asks.

I fret some more.

We finally settle on a plan. My good friend Marianna, former restaurateur and current rent-a-chef, will handle the kitchen. I devise countless menus, but finally realize that less is more when showcasing a spectacular wine. We’ll be creative with the appetizers, which we’ll serve with a sauvignon blanc, and focus on classics to eat with the Pichon—beef tenderloin with pan juices, baby red potatoes and haricot verts. Then we’ll follow the meal in fine French fashion with a fabulous cheese course.

Capitalizing on our fine spring weather, I decide to serve the dinner on our side porch. My interior designer drags her drapery guy over and they craft billowing awnings that create a literal outdoor dining room. Jack’s brother and wife fly in from Detroit for the festivities. The morning of the party, I put Jack and Bob to work with the glue gun, fashioning place cards out of wine corks. We are a beehive of activity.

The evening arrives. The Pichon sits within its wooden crate on the dining room table. I pry the nails from the crate and lift the magnificent bottle out of the tissue. Great news! The shoulder fill is high. That indicates the wine has been cellared well; the cork did not dry out, which would have caused some of the wine to evaporate. Michael Klauber arrives early to open the wine. He and Lindsey go to work. We’ve assembled quite a collection of corkscrews, but none seems long enough to extend through the entire six-inch-long cork. I bite my nails, crying out that the cork is going to break.

"Of course the cork is going to break! It’s 20 years old," Michael retorts. It does! Unperturbed, they start on the second half, and it emerges clean and whole.

Michael grabs a glass, Lindsey holds it, and he pours a small amount. They repeat the process until we each have a glass. The most amazing aroma fills the room. It’s leather and pipe smoke, a head-clearing richness that we just can’t breathe in enough. I’m so enamored with the nose that I don’t want to break the spell by tasting any wine.

"You go first," I urge Lindsey. She tentatively takes a sip. A huge smile spreads across her lovely face. Michael drinks, and I swear he has a tear in his eye. I know I do.

"What do you think?" I ask. He just shakes his head, grinning widely. I hadn’t even noticed that guests were arriving during our little production. Now they crowd around us and all begin to clap. We pass the glasses around. There’s a lot of swirling and sniffing and laughing and hugging. It is a joyous moment.

Midnight. The guests are gone. The food was wonderful, but it paled in comparison to the wine. After the Pichon was decanted, it took on a new persona. The tobacco and cedar in the nose remained, but a range of other flavors emerged, a lush, full-bodied combination of mature berries, with just the right amounts of tannin and acidity to knit the wine together. It was layer upon layer of nuance. At one point, I turned to a friend and said, "I am drinking silk!" Lindsey’s friends, Katherine and Erin and Susan, looked so grown-up and sophisticated, swirling their wine. I wanted to urge them to imprint this wine in their tastebuds, creating a memory with which they could compare all future wines. But I restrained myself; fun and celebration, not education, I realized, were the priorities of the moment.

Lindsey and I kick off our heels and view the empty bottle. It’s magnificent, so big and yet so efficient in enabling a wine to mature so splendidly. As we do after every party or family gathering, we analyze the evening and guests.

"Didn’t Grandma and Grandpa look great?" I say. She nods; my father is going through chemotherapy, but his spirits and energy were high tonight. She complains about her boyfriend’s excuse for arriving late, and I marvel that my husband, who overwhelmingly prefers white wine, drank the red with so much appreciation. Soon we are reminiscing about other highlights in our life with wine: the time I backed out of a stellar wine press trip to Australia because she had the chicken pox; how she spent her 21st birthday at an Australian winery and pretended I was there.

"Let’s go to Bordeaux, Mom," she urges. "I want to see this chateau. And, you know, I think we should just keep the other bottles and drink them. I can’t bear to think of not drinking the rest of this wine."

I raise a tired eyebrow toward my still spunky daughter. She gets the message. "Next time," she says, "I’ll throw the party."

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