The Accidental Palate

After nearly ten wonderful years of editing Northwest Palate magazine in Portland OR, I've handed over the reins and am now enjoying the leisurely (not!), ever-changing (and then some) life of a freelance bon vivant. Hope you enjoy these posts, and if you want to reach me, contact ajabine (at) yahoo (dot) com. Cheers! Angie Jabine

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Premier Cru That Wasn't

I spent all of last Saturday shopping, cleaning, and cooking in preparation for a dinner and overnight visit from our friends Mike and Joy, who live on a chestnut farm outside of Sheridan, Oregon.

I was really looking forward to our evening together, but my wine-loving pals will understand perfectly when I say that one of the things I was anticipating most eagerly was that I was finally going to pop open the first—and only—Premier Cru wine I’ve ever owned.

It was an NV Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, to be exact, from a biodynamic producer in Champagne. Real Champagne from France! Surely it would redefine my entire experience of sparkling wine, a drink I’m inordinately fond of to begin with.

Being a cheerleader for all things local (in my case, the Pacific Northwest), I mostly drink wines from Oregon and Washington. This treasured Champagne was a gift from a Portland wine merchant who sold me the case of (Oregon) Domaine Meriwether bubbly that my husband and I served at our wedding in 2004. We’d been waiting more than three years for a fine enough occasion to open up the real Champagne.

For you non-wine geeks, NV means non-vintage, which is very common among Champagnes—the makers strive to minimize vintage variations by combining wine lots from more than one year. As for “Premier Cru,” it’s usually translated as “First Growth,” and it alludes to the vineyards that France, in its almost comically fierce dedication to wine classifications, has determined are la crème de la crème--the very best.

Firm in my belief that sparking wine goes with everything, I made polenta con maiale, a dish of polenta with pork braised in wine. It’s a great, easy recipe from La Buca restaurant in Portland. By the way, the recipe calls for pork butt, which the butcher at Zupan’s told me is another term for pork shoulder—I ask you, does that make any sense?

My husband Scott had to work that morning, supposedly just until noon, and he called at noon to say they’d hit some snags and he wouldn’t be home until after 6pm. Great—we were expecting Mike and Joy at 4pm. I called Mike with Scott’s updated plan and the dinner menu, only to learn that Joy doesn’t eat meat. The horror! But no worries—I had a spinach salad and bread on the menu, so I added some roasted carrots for insurance. With macadamia nuts and walnuts and a few nice wedges of cheese, no one would go hungry.

The enticing Premier Cru, meanwhile, was up from the basement and chilling in the fridge. Mike and Joy arrived around 5pm laden with gifts—a lovely maple burl and a slab of walnut for Scott (a weekend carpenter), eighteen eggs of all shades and sizes from their specialty chickens, and a blue hubbard squash so big that it would take a saw to cut up. We talked about chickens, nibbled at the cheese, stirred the polenta, and waited for Scott. And waited. At 6pm I said, Let’s open the bubbly! No, no, no, they protested—such special wine—Scott will be here soon! And he was.

By 6:40pm we were sitting around the table with our dinner and, finally, four flutes of real, honest-to-God Premier Cru Blanc de Blanc Champagne. We toasted one another’s health. We sipped. It tasted…terrible. Just terrible, like a wet dog sitting on moldy newspapers under a dockside pier. I’ve never in my life had a bottle of bubbly that was afflicted by cork taint. That couldn’t be the problem! Maybe it’ll just blow off, I said lamely.

No such luck. Minutes after our guests had tactfully changed the subject, I was still glaring at my glass and feeling robbed of my Premier Cru experience. In my mind, the Blanc de Blanc Champagne was now the blankety-blank, no-good, %#*&@?*! Champagne.

There was nothing I could have done differently to keep the wine from being spoiled by a tainted cork. So what’s the moral of this story? There is no moral, except, perhaps, that when it comes to entertaining, you should always have a Plan B. Plan B in our case was to say “C’est la vie,” and enjoy one another’s company. Which we did.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

There so many stories like this in the annals of wine connoiseurship--I've got one straight out of O'Henry. When my husband and I were first married and so broke that he pawned his typewriter so we could buy a Christmas tree (no kidding!), we had enough leftover to buy what we thought would be a first class bottle of burgundy to go with out solitary Christmas Eve dinner. I can't remember what it was exactly, but in 1963 it cost $15--you figure out the inflation--and it was a French wine, maybe a 1957. With enormous anticipation, my husband pulled the cork so it could breathe before dinner, and then he poured a bit into his glass before we sat down a half hour later and choked. And spat it out. The damn wine was too old, it was vinegar. And we had no back-up bottle, liquor stores, even the mafia owned ones in Chicago were closed on Christmas Day and so we were reduced to water with Christmas Eve dinner.
It can indeed be a cru-el world.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To quote Riley (from the old TV show, The Life of Riley), "What a revoltin' development." My husband is not a champagne drinker, but he knows I am so for New Year's Eve several years ago he spent $80 on some famous label, I no longer remember which one, and it was...awful. He tasted it and said "You LIKE this?" and I had to admit that it wasn't as good as the cheap Freixenet I usually got... Fortunately, as with you, we just put it aside and enjoyed the food and the company! Adela Betancourt in Wash. DC

8:03 AM  
Blogger Evelyn Sharenov said...

Kind of like seeing a gorgeous man across a crowded room - and when he opens his mouth, Elmer Fudd's voice comes out.

Be all that as it may, your menu and quick save ideas to rescue your dinner party sound wonderfully creative. I am certain everything was delicious - other than your bottle of Premier Cru. Hopefully these evenings are more about friendship - sometimes a disappointing bottle of wine may provide more conversation and memories than its perfect counterpart.

Evelyn Sharenov

12:51 PM  
Blogger April said...

Hi - do you have the recipe for the polenta con maiale at La Buca? I've had it, loved it, and can't get an email reply from anyone at the restaurant . . .

1:00 PM  

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