California 'cult' lunch at Spago with Leve

Los Angeles, CA
Tasted Wednesday, February 16, 2005 by Eric with 1,272 views

Introduction

After a whirlwind tour with 4 huge tastings in the prior five days, we were at last down to the final tasting, a 'lunch' at Spago that ran from noon until 5pm at which point Nigel William wisely dragged us out the door to catch our flights. I fondly recall a meal with my parents in high school about 17 years ago when we visited Spago in LA, at its prior location. I was excited to see how it held up since Wolfgang has gone onto such fame over the past two decades. The initial few course were fantastic, so it seemed as if all was indeed well. I was even more surprised when Wolfgang walked into the room and proceeded to go around the room and say hello to everyone. Amazing!

Anyway, onto the wines. One thing I will say about the LA Crew. Self-control is not a strong suit here. A simple 'lunch' with 18 wines and 6 flights ended up adding a meat course and 12 more wines. Phew, I was lucky to get out of LA alive and with my liver intact!

Flight 1 (1 Note)

There was a little confusion when we first arrived, with a smallish round table set that would barely hold 12 people let alone the insane amount of glassware we were about to plow through. So the restaurant opened some bubbles as an apology and moved us to the bar while they reset the room with a much larger table. Meanwhile, we munched on a delicious amuse bouche of spicy tuna tartare in sesame-miso tuille cones and a couple of delicious Spago pizzas.

Flight 2 (4 Notes)

We returned to our room to finish the amuse: lobster spring rolls with Chinese mustard and tempura shrimp with wasabi cream, yum! Along with this we dipped into a flight of four whites. I think in this flight my personal preferences bucked the trend of the room, as I favored the wines of somewhat small proportions and less sheer extract.

  • 1997 Marcassin Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard 93 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast

    I was the lone person who preferred this to the 1999, as I thought it is much more drinkable at present. This hints at Meursault but is more ripe. Mmm, oily and spicy with intense minerality. This is quite tasty and restrained.

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  • 1999 Marcassin Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard 92 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast

    This was clearly an impressive wine, but I was a little put off by its youth and clear Californian roots. Banana and marshmallow on the nose. The palate is huge, almost painfully so, with intense minerality and saline flavors and oily textures. This is massive, nearly overbearing, yet clearly this has a bright future.

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  • 2001 Sine Qua Non Roussanne Rien Ne Va Plus 91 Points

    USA, California

    This has a wacky nose, very expressive, with very ripe notes of spiced pear and nutmeg. The palate shows massive glycerin with nearly a minute long finish, so it was easy to admire. That said, for me this was a bit over the top.

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  • 2002 Sine Qua Non Whisperin' E 89 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast

    I was pretty hard on this wine, but I found it over the top with overt butterscotch on the nose and a huge, unevolved, clumsy, wild and wooly element on the palate.

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Flight 3 (1 Note)

Next was a perfectly prepared Hudson valley foie gras served with seares pears and quince chutney.

  • 1989 Domaine Huet Vouvray Cuvée Constance 97 Points

    France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Vouvray

    Wow, this is a very special wine. The nose was a little wonky at first, lightly smoky with ripe botrytis, vinyl, petrol and peach pit. On the palate this had awesome, focusing acidity with rich, layered flavors of apricot jam and peach, very vibrant and deep at the same time. The finish shows amazing persistence and yet is ethereally light despite the huge weight of the wine. This was very inpressive on its own and was a fabulous foil to a seared piece of foie gras.

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Flight 4 (5 Notes)

Next up was a domed plate of wile mushroom ravioli with mascarpone and reggiano. The food was terrific, but the planned flight of Syrah was poorly received by the entire room. I think the elegance of the wines we had enjoyed over the prior few days made these 15.9% alcohol monsters not very enjoyable, and the couple of wines in the flight that were drinkable were dragged down by the others.

Flight 5 (4 Notes)

Next up was a fantastic plate of pan-roasted liberty duck breast with honey glazed turnips, medjool dates, confit bacon, rutabaga puree, and thyme natural jus. With this we had an ethereal pair of Harlan wines. This was the clear highlight of the whole event right here!

  • 1992 Harlan Estate 96 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Wow, this was fantastic, a total Bordeaux knockoff. The nose is leafy and minty with telltale Cab Franc. The palate is loaded with tobacco, black fruit and a barely perceptible hint of sweetness that perhaps gives this away as Napa. The finish is nice and grippy with silky tannins, maybe still with time to resolve, yet this is at a very good place right now. Absolutely fantastic wine.

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  • 1994 Harlan Estate 99 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    I tasted this wine once before in December, and I think that bottle was decanted a little longer and was a bit more giving. Still, this was the clear wine of the tasting. Still remarkably young and powerful, this elixir is the essence of licorice and creme de cassis, with a palate that is pure, seamless and powerful, dense, layered, yet not heavy. I think this was a barely less than perfect showing for what is clearly a perfect wine.

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  • 1994 Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    This bottle was clearly oxidized, showing stewed notes and alcohol at first and eventually settling back to show chalky, Amarone-like flavors and scents. Too bad, it must have been a bad cork, since this was purchased on release by Squires and cellared at 55 degrees.

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  • 1999 Robert Foley Claret 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    This was out of place in a flight with two older Harlans. The nose is sweet, showing blackberry and olive notes amidst lots of fresh oak that still needs to integrate. Wow, the palate is very pretty and seamless, albeit still oaky. I think this one needs about 5 years, but it is a very nice bottle of wine.

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Flight 6 (3 Notes)

Next up with a flight of Colgin wines was a fantastic dish of braised beef short ribs with fresh ricotta gnocchi, caramelized shallots and thyme. Now I am a HUGE fan of braised short rib, but this was the third time in three days so it did get a little bit tedious.

  • 1996 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Herb Lamb 84 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    I don't know if this was unrepresentative or typical, but the nose was horrid smelling with rhubarb and loads of green notes. Yech, this was one of the most distinctive and gnarliest noses I have ever smelled. If you could get past it, the palate was actually pretty interesting, spicy with green tobacco leaf and some fading oaky notes.

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  • 1997 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Herb Lamb 92 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The is very leafy with a clear Cab Franc style. The palate shows sweet, intense raspberry with a chalky edge and nice vibrancy. I don't think I would ever pay the tab for this wine, but it is a nice bottle of juice.

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  • 2001 Colgin Cariad 94 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose shows cola and black cherry. The palate is sappy and liqueur like, intense, and still quite brooding and stern. With more air the complexion gets more black. This has very nice structure and intensity to it, and there is a lot packed away in this lovely wine.

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Flight 7 (6 Notes)

As we poured a flight of massive reds, there was general uproar that we needed another course, so the kitchen magically produced some sort of plate of thinly sliced beef tenderloin with lots of black pepper. I can't recall the rest of the plate, but I remember liking it a lot.

  • 1997 Dalla Valle Maya 97 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville

    Wow, this is a beautifully structured wine. Minty, powerful, beastly and pure, two days later I can still remember the mouthfeel and 'grip' of this one. This is an absolute bruiser of a wine with a LOT of time ahead to come into focus and resolve some tannin, but I was highly impressed by the style.

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  • 1997 Abreu Cabernet Sauvignon Madrona Ranch 96 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    This was a lovely, typical bottle of Abreu, extracted and intense without showing any roughness. Mint, cola and raspberry dance on the nose. The palate is gorgeous and seamless but not as big as I expected. Served alongside the more tannic 1997 Dalla Valle Maya, this was a little overwhelmed. Still, this is a classic wine.

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  • 1999 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor Grown 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The hyper-ripe nose shows huge notes of cassis with mint, tar and a bit of horse. The palate is spicy, awash with oak, yet massively structured and loaded with glycerin. This was a nice wine that was lined up in a pretty tough flight.

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  • 1999 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select 98 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District

    Wowza, this was my #2 wine of the tasting. The nose shows raspberry with slightly vegetal elements, maybe a bit of olive. On the palate this is absolutely freakin' pure and intense, liqueur-like, seamless, endless, palate coating, very grippy yet with gorgeous texture. Wow, this has to be one of the best wines of the 1999 California vintage.

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  • 2002 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    This is a kick in the teeth with tar, black fruit, and heavy toast. There is nothing subtle about this bruising, tannic wine, and a streak of hot alcohol bugs me a little. Still, if you are looking for a big mouthful of wine, this is the style, and it is well put together.

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  • 1990 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 91 Points

    USA, Washington

    I brought this down as a ringer, because it might sneak in well with the Bordeaux. In this flight of mostly young bruisers though, it didn't stand a chance. It was a fairly typical showing for a solid but not great bottle of Quilceda. The nose is the typical one, raspberry, violet and a little leafy but also with a touch of forest floor showing some age. The palate shows the tannins to be ahead of the fruit, but this is pure, clean, still well-proportioned, and finishes out with a nice dusty mouthful of silky tannins.

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Flight 8 (3 Notes)

With the planned cheese course, out of the ether a new and unplanned flight of red wines appeared. I don't even know where people were hiding the extra bottles, but there they were!

Flight 9 (3 Notes)

Then with dessert (sorry, no notes) we finished up with three dessert wines.

Closing

Thanks to Jeff Leve for organizing and hosting three remarkable events that I will never forget!

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