By John Steinbreder
I’ve never been one for classroom learning, preferring instead more reality-based environs. So it was not surprising that I relished a unique bit of schooling I recently received. The venue was Keens Steakhouse, the teacher a much-respected wine and spirits maven named Paul Pacult, and the subject a selection of French, Spanish and Italian reds that roughly 70 other students and I were going to taste.
We sit at narrow tables covered with white cloth and crowded with 10 half-filled glasses at each seat. And as Pacult begins to speak about the basic senses used in the sampling of wines – sight, smell, taste and texture or feel – I hold a glass of Chateau de Pez 2003 up to the light to admire its rich coloring. Pacult speaks about the high quality of the vintage and how a harsh drought gave that year’s wines a slightly higher alcohol content, and I close my eyes as I take my first taste, picking up delightful flavors of coffee and nuts as it rolls across my tongue. I take another sip, and smile.
Geology 201 was never like this.
Pacult, who has a professorial mien, moves us onto the next wine, another 2003 Bordeaux, but this one from Château D’Issan. Pacult, slightly bald with wire-rimmed glasses, a dark turtleneck and a hounds-tooth jacket, speaks with an understandable air of authority. After all, his “F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal” is a must-read for serious connoisseurs. He also spent nearly a decade under the tutelage of recently deceased Sonoma County, Calif., winemaker Rodney Strong before founding a wine school in New York.
There is nothing haughty about his tone, only enthusiasm and helpfulness as he leads us through the batch of wines. There is a Nicholas Potel 2003 from Burgundy, France, which is made from old-vine Pinot Noir grapes, and a pair of Riojas from Spain that, frankly, did little for me. Some students take notes while others ask Pacult questions. I attach a number rating to each vintage and figure I will show the old professor what I’ve selected at the end.
We make a quick trip to Italy for a couple of Tuscan productions, a 1999 Il Molino di Grace Chianti Classico Riserva that induces several “aaahs” from the crowd, and a 2000 Golpaja Villa Petriolo that barely gets my attention. My favorites, though, are the 2003s from Bordeaux, including a superb wine from Chateau LaGrange, a formerly down-on-its-luck vineyard now owned and run by the Japanese spirits concern, Suntory.
The student body is almost as enthralled by the 2003s as I am. But there is no doubt the best of class is the 2000 Chateau Trotanoy, which comes from one of the great vintages of all time and could stand another decade or so in the cellar. It is nonetheless a treat, even at such a young age, and so is the last wine we sample, a 2003 Jaboulet from the Rhone region of France.
Pacult has to ask occasionally for quiet as we become a bit more boisterous and opinionated with each offering we sample. But he never loses his easy charm. It is clear the group has a wide range of experience in wine, and the diversity of opinions of which tasted best is apparent in the survey Pacult conducts when we are done. While the Trotanoy seemed the clear winner, all but one of the wines received some form of support.
No one is looking at his watch when Pacult announces the tasting is over. No one rushes to the door as we might have had the bell rung for, say, Physics or Calculus. Instead, we chat easily and pepper the professor with queries, the most important being: When is the next tasting?