It’s not often that you come across a wine that bridges two disparate eras of your own life. I did just a few weeks ago at Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s charcuterie-centric outpost on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The wine was a chardonnay from Stony Hill. The year on the label was 1979. Even for a collection of restaurants that range from casual to very, very white tablecloth, all of which that take wine very, very seriously, this was an odd find.
Michael Madrigale, chief wine guy at Bar Boulud, set the stage for my back-to-the-future moment (really a few hours) by picking up a case of a wine that has to be considered way beyond rarity status. After all, there’s not that much Stony Hill made to begin with (as an aside, if you see the riesling on a list, buy it now; it’s Alsace-like in its balance and nuance).
I’m a child of the Age of Aquarius, so I grew up during the ‘70s and reached the age of consent in the early ‘80s, two decades that must be among the most dissimilar in the 20th century.
Once past the anguish of Watergate, we seemed to just do a collective shrug and say, well, “Have a nice day,” and be done with it. Shag carpet, fondue (the first go around, that is), earth tones, the birth and death of disco, big hair – or should I say, lots of hair, so as to distinguish the ‘80s version of follicle prowess? The Jackson 5, breaker 1-9, The Brady Bunch, “Philadelphia Freedom,” “The Godfather[s],” “The French Connection[s],” “Car Wash.” I could, but won’t, go on forever.
The ‘80s? Greed wasn’t really good. Reagan stared down the Evil Empire, whether he knew what he was doing or not. “Beat It,” AIDS, Ollie North. My first marriage. See where I’m going with this?
When I ordered the wine, there was an immediate buzz behind the very long bar. I saw whispering, though couldn’t hear whether they were suggesting that I was insane for ordering a $150 bottle to pair with my charcuterie. By myself.
It didn’t take long for Madrigale to come by. In addition to being perplexed as to why such a bottle would be on the list, I asked him about the magnum of Bichot Corton-Charlemagne (the year escapes me, but it was very far from being current) he was in the process of opening and offering up pours of for $25. He said that he picks up odd lots at auction from time to time, and likes to augment what is already a formidable list with things that will get a raised eyebrow. He got both of mine.
Madrigal said that of the half or so of the case he’d gone through, only one bottle was off. Mine wasn’t. Stony Hill is renowned for a few things. No malo. Ever. Fiery acidity. Always. Because of those two factoids, I figured I was making a pretty good bet.
The juxtaposition of the Corton-Charlemagne was actually pretty apt. Stony Hill, to me anyway, is maybe the most C-C-like of the steely-side California chardonnay producers (they do exist, by the way). When young, like I was in 1979, I bet this thing was barely drinkable. That is, unless acidity and minerality are your things. Back then, they wouldn’t have been for me, the 16-year-old Pepsi drinker. Like a young C-C, you’re going to get lime peel, not buttery oak. More cold slate than warm stone fruit.
But unlike the ‘80s, that haven’t, so far anyway, aged very well in retrospect, the Stony Hill, 31 years out, was all grace and generosity, with a hint of its diminishing acidic prowess. Clearly its best days are long past, but it still offers a window into another era.
Imagine. Pre-Parker. Pre-Screaming Eagle. Pre-American Idol. Pre-blogs, for that matter. Not a simpler time, but certainly a less crowded one.
Thanks for the memories, Michael. Most of them, anyway.