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Two Nights with The Maiden

August 3, 2011 The Press 4 Comments

When I started to “get into wine,” in other words obsess over it like the rest of you, it didn’t take long to be sucked into the full allure of it. Both in things real, like the mysteries of good Pinot Noir, to the not so real, like the mystique surrounding “Cult Producers.” I was enamored by it all.

It is perhaps the “Cult Producers” (obvious ones including Screaming Eagle, Marcassin, Sine Qua Non, and others) who inspire the most wonder, loathing, admiration, groaning, rumors, and debate (well that and alcohol levels, which also seem to go hand in hand with Cult Producers). Whatever your sentiment, one has to admit there is a strange allure to the things we cannot have. The forbidden grapes if you will.

I am not a man of Screaming Eagle funds, nor even of Sine Qua Non finances (more reasonable at $200-300 a bottle compared to the boisterous raptor’s $1,000 price tag). I am happily a man of the $13 to $25 bottle, with occasional indulgences in the $30 to $50 range. I do get to drink some of the best wines in California (many in the $15 to $40 range), but much of that is the result of this scam wine blog, which has allowed me to hustle otherwise decent winemakers into pouring me many a glass of their best stuff. What a scam indeed!

Still, if these Cult wines are out there, and if there are waiting lists of people who would sell their first born to get them, is there really something more to it? Should a real lover of California wine at least try them if the opportunity arises?

Over a year ago, I had the chance to split an allocation of Harlan Estate’s second offering, The Maiden, from the 2005 vintage. While not cheap by any stretch of my wine budget, at $150 a bottle compared to $500 for the full Harlan experience, I took a chance and opened my wallet further, a lot further than I ever had before, and sent a check up to Oakville California. A few weeks later, a gloriously beautiful oak box containing three 750ml was mine.

After parting with two of the three individually wrapped bottles (I kept the oak box so that my home collection would appear more pious than it actually is. At present, it houses a bottle of Bonny Doon, total sacrilege in more than one way, I know), I set my lone mistress up in a climate controlled safe-house, where she lived and mocked me for months.

On occasion, I would dare sneak a peak at her alluring designs. The Maiden would call to me in her seductive voice. “Come, be with me, open me, DRINK me!” I would advance and then recoil. “No, not now! I must wait for her!”

They say that expectation postponed makes the heart sick and The Maiden tortured me in her beautiful grace. As an artists looks upon the blank canvas with a sense of awe for what can be, so I looked upon her, waiting to indulge, waiting to experience, until just the perfect moment arrived.

T A K E O N E

On the 22nd of January, in the Year of the 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard, I wed my wonderful wife Damaris (you should follow her @DamarisBB We are like @NoReservations and @OttaviaBourdain

except I am not talented in any way). We spent the following ten days doing what we love to do, eating great food, drinking great wine, and wandering around California. The Maiden came too.

At an undisclosed location in the Alexander Valley, in a winery suite too good for us, with a fire lit, and with a wonderful meal behind us, we decided to free her, to hear voice, to take her in.

I cut the foil away, and slowly began to remove the cork. And then (pause)…. And then it broke! Half the cork wrapped and twisted around the corkscrew, the other half lodged in the neck of her beautiful bottle. Sigh…

But a broken cork does not a broken wine make. After removing the arrant piece, we decanted our Maiden with hopes still high. The nose, although pleasant, was far more faint than we had expected. Maybe some time in the winter air would liven her up, arouse her from those long years in bottle.

Alas, the time arrived to take her in, to allow her to do that which she was created to do. The setting could not be more ideal, Sonoma, my beautiful new wife, the fire. She filled our glasses, she filled our expectations. These long months waiting, the temptation, the expectation, the longing… and so we drank! And then (longer pause)…. And then nothing! The Maiden’s rumored beautiful voice was little more than a whimper. I was dejected if not incredulous. “She needs a little more time,” I thought, but minutes could not save her. She was dead. Long sigh…

Could this really be The Maiden we had waited for, a mediocre red wine? I put the half broken cork back into a half-drunk bottle and put her away.

But The Maiden was not done with me. She had other plans.

T A K E T W O

Although my experience with The Maiden left me disappointed, even perplexed, I could not bring myself to discard her, partially on behalf of her beauty, and partially because of what she had cost. So she sat, amongst other empty bottles of beauty I have collected, for months.

Some time later, it occurred to me that I had been invited by Harlan to share my impressions of my first time with The Maiden. I still could not reconcile what we had experienced with all of the great things I had heard about her from wine enthusiasts and producers I know and respect. So I shared my story, never accusing, never pointing a finger. I could never guarantee that the bottle was corked, if it was, it was not a severe case. But something wasn’t right, this I knew.

For their part, Harlan responded with graciousness, a cute anecdote regarding the circumstances of the evening, that the wine was possibly suffering from some “performance anxiety,” and lastly, they responded in incredible graciousness with a replacement bottle, which promptly arrived a few days later. [1]

And so we had her in our procession once again, The Maiden, a second chance! This time, we would not overly rest her, we wanted to test her, to see if her motives were pure. So it was, that we found ourselves just a few weeks ago, trying to decide if we would be moving from our first home together, from our dear garden, from our beloved beach, a mere seven months after we had first moved here. It was at this time that The Maiden again began to call to us.

We decided on the move (so it’s on to a new beach and garden) and we decided to open The Maiden. Would this be a bottle of celebration or lament? We were still so divided about our choice.

This time, the cork came out in one beautiful pop. And then (nervous pause)…and then her sweet aromas filled the decanter and filled our hopes once again! Could it really have been an anomaly the first time, a rare bad cork? We hoped so!

Outside, in the late afternoon sunlight, I prepared a small wood fire in our fire pit. Once the embers glowed orange with heat, we added marinated steaks, asparagus and the zucchini we had grown in our dear garden, all seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and red peppers. As the flame scorched their flesh, The Maiden was stirring, was waking in the encroaching night air.

The time had again come for us to take her in, the aromas far more intense now, our hopes glowing bright like the fire. We inhaled…wonderful! And then we drank…brilliance! This was she whom we had waited for, whom we had pined for! This was our lost mistress and she was beautiful!

That night, at the kitchen table we picked-out together just a two months ago, over a meal we would both agree was one of our best, with our dog, with our love for one another, we had one of our most beautiful nights together.

And The Maiden was there.

[1] For what it is worth, when a bottle price soars above $40 or $50, and certainly over $75, my expectations of both wine and producer rise in-kind. This is fair. I have a long list of wines for $20 – $30 I can go to that are great, made by great people, and with a great story behind them. If you as a producer want me to invest the price of 2, 3, 4, or more bottles of theirs into your 1 bottle, you better deliver. And not just great wine, but something more. You must give some justification for this expenditure that transcends a point score and zip code, something I can’t get somewhere else for less.

In the case of Harlan, I have found them (in my limited dealings), to be amongst the most thoughtful and gracious individuals in the wine community. While this alone does not justify large expenditures, without it, it would not be possible at all. From what I have seen, they are doing things right with their winery (including the architecture) and people as well. The Harlans do a few things as an organization and family I have learned a lot from and I will carry into my own future work.

Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Quit WINEing says:

    What a tease the first maiden was…as all maidens are. I was holding my breath as I read about opening the second bottle! Whew! I had to let out a sigh of relief after the disappointment of the first. I’m glad she opened up and got comfortable the 2nd time around. And what a generous producer to give you another opportunity to get to know her. Although I don’t usually allow maidens to accompany my significant other and I…this is one I wouldn’t be able to say no too. Cheers to another fantastic read!

  2. Wayne says:

    Love it! Thank you Courtney.

    I am not a big Cab drinker in general because so much of it is egh. Plus, I am in Rhone and Burgundy country. However, when it is good, it is a revelation!

  3. Stevie says:

    It’s a very funny story: sort of a tragi-comedy with a Maiden and a Knight Errant perhaps? I like the medieval romance in it all. Plus the wine sounds like a truly memorable one, on both occasions, which as we all know, isn’t too common at all.

  4. Wayne says:

    That’s true. While $150 a bottle is very steep by my standards, a good wine will stick out in your mind for a long time. We can all probably recall 5 or 6 wines that we will never forget. That was one.

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