Robert Mondavi was a great promoter, an ambitious guy who financed expensive art-food-and-wine events.
After going to a $98 prix fixe restaurant on Constellation Brands' dime Tuesday, and leaving with a test tube full of dirt, I can say that the corporation is trying to uphold Mondavi's PR legacy.
The event was billed as "A Taste of Place," and it was essentially a launch party for Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.
At least, that's what I think the wine is called; I never actually saw the bottle. In fact, I wasn't going to blog about the event at all, because I only got about 210 seconds to chat with Mondavi Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens (right). And the tasting conditions sucked and I don't know for sure what I was drinking and I really can't say anything definitive about the wines based on the very expensive event.
But I was describing the event to another PR person today who was laughing hysterically -- and wishing she had Constellation's budget -- so I figured, what the heck, I'll share it with my readers. I can't be potentially setting new first-amendment precedent every day, you know.
So here's the deal. Outdoors at Saison restaurant (normal menu price, $98; not one Mondavi wine on the list), there were three booths. We were told to do the activities in order.
At the first booth, two severe-looking older women mixed two kinds of farm dirt with water in wine glasses into a frothy mud, which we were invited to nose like wine. It smelled like mud. I know there are variations of mud, and both of these were distinctive; one was loamier. But still, mud.
We tasted a snap pea grown in one type of mud, and cheese from sheep that grazed on grass grown in the other. The women told us that we should taste the connection between the pea and the mud, and between the cheese and the mud.
I tried, really I did. I smelled the mud, then bit the pea. Then I chewed on the pea while sniffing the mud. Ditto the cheese. Some of the other writers* said, "Yes, I get it!"
(*Who were these other writers? I'll get to that.)
I announced my atheism on this issue: I tasted no relationship, and I said so. The women frowned at me and I took a slight step backward, also backpedaling verbally. I apologized that if perhaps we could do a horizontal snap pea tasting alongside the different muds, that would really teach me something.
And it might -- about mud and snap peas. I didn't add that. One woman's frown finally softened and I sheepishly backed away.
On to the next booth: we tasted recently dried To Kalon Cabernet grapes while smelling To Kalon dirt. I suppose it's an attempt at conditioning -- taste To Kalon Cab, imagine the smell of dirt. But it didn't have an immediate effect. I washed out the flavor of tannic dried grape by grabbing a spoonful of American sturgeon caviar from a passing waiter.
Then I moved on to the last booth, where the winemaker Janssens was animatedly explaining the different vineyard blocks at To Kalon. This was quite interesting to me and was why I came, but I couldn't really hear her and non-wine writers had questions I wasn't interested in, so I didn't linger.
Now about those other writers: You can't get the A-list to come to events with other wine writers. I've never rubbed elbows with Robert Parker or a Wine Advocate writer. Only occasionally do I run into a Wine Spectator writer at a wine event, and never one of their top-billed people. Steve Heimoff is about the biggest name you see at these things in San Francisco, and he was there. So were a few of my other colleagues in wine writing.
But I also ran into a local music critic, though there was no music. There were a few food bloggers I had met and some I hadn't. The way wine PR works, you have to fill out an invite list, and at a certain point it doesn't matter if the person doesn't know cabernet from cabaret; you can tell your client he works at a local publication, and that's good enough.
One could also argue that this is the kind of broad-brush PR that Robert Mondavi did. If somebody writes about architecture, but they're inclined favorably toward your brand, perhaps they'll slip in a mention.
The down side is, if you're serious about reviewing wine, these events aren't so useful. I'll be curious to see what Steve writes. I know I tasted an absolutely great Sauvignon Blanc that had a label I didn't recognize. Somebody told me it was "the I block," or maybe "the eye block"; I didn't get to hold the bottle in my hands, and I don't know the vintage. I really liked it but Robert Mondavi Winery spent thousands of dollars in part to get me, a guy who writes about wine, to an event with a wine I really liked, yet I don't know what it was.
Don't misunderstand all this snark. My life is great, and events like this are a big reason. I had a $98 meal, and it was good, particularly the Sonoma lamb roasted with vadovan spices. That was served with the new release Cab and a 1996 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which the sommelier decanted into lab beakers; very cool. Not many of the music and lifestyle writers were interested in this older wine so I had a bunch of it, so much that my yuzu ice cream melted and I had to keep shooing away waiters from whisking it away. I had so much that I don't remember how much I had. Whoever made the Reserve Cab at Robert Mondavi in 1996, that was some good winemaking.
Was it Janssens? I don't know, I wasted my 210 precious seconds asking her about dirt, not her resume. Silly me.
Here's what I did learn:
* The Mondavi portion of To Kalon vineyard has seven different types of dirt, while she said Andy Beckstoffer's portion has only one. "That's how we get diversity and complexity," Janssens said.
* To Kalon is great because it's well-drained. It's on a 5% slope toward the river. "The roots go very deep to get their nutrients," Janssens said.
* Merlot and Malbec don't do well on To Kalon because it's too dry for them. This is Cabernet Sauvignon country. Sauvignon Blanc might be even better, but Constellation has torn out some great old blocks of it because Cabernet generates more income. Sigh. (but who can blame them?)
* Janssens, who is French, believes To Kalon is the equivalent of a first-growth Bordeaux vineyard because "every year, no matter how the weather is, you have great wine. To me, that's a first growth."
We left with a tubeful of dirt from To Kalon vineyard. I'm just about to dig into, believe it or not, some snap peas from my local Chinese delivery place. Perhaps I'll open it and see if I can smell a connection.