Last Night's Brunello Tasting at the Hilton

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The tumultuous scene inside one of the Hilton ballrooms at Vino 2009, the Italian wine tasting

I almost never accept invitations to promotional events, but when I got a card a few weeks ago admitting me and a friend to a tasting of the newly released 2004 Brunellos, I thought a few seconds and enthusiastically replied in the affirmative. Made exclusively from a clone of the sangiovese grape in a region surrounding the town of Montalcino in Tuscany, Brunello is Italy's most revered wine, but also one of its most expensive. Under normal circumstances, I get to drink a glass maybe twice a year, so the opportunity to sample 45 on a single evening was irresistible.

I invited my friend Rachel, and we arrived around 6:30 on the second floor of the Hilton near Times Square to find a maze of ballrooms filled with milling wine enthusiasts, including pinkie-in-the-air connoisseurs, wine distributors, flacks, journalists, and owners of bars that mainly serve beer in small Jersey towns.

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"I once drank a bottle this big," the salesman says to the vintner

But we quickly discovered that the tasting was not restricted to Brunellos. There were ballrooms devoted to wines from Lombardy, Calabria, and the Veneto, in addition to other regions of Tuscany, numbering hundreds upon hundreds of wines in bewildering array. The noise level was cacaphonous, and even making progress through the rooms required effort. Eventually we determined that the Brunellos were ensconced in the most interior ballroom, the holy of holies, which we finally wandered into. Supplicants stood four or five deep in front of the most venerable producers. Though the ostensible subject of the tasting was a preview of the soon-to-be-released 2004 vintage, some producers were showboating with vertical tastings of many vintages. When you finally reached the pouring station for a certain producer, the vintner's rep would size you up, and if he thought you were a rube, he'd try to pour some of the vineyard's lesser productions or one of the lesser years of his Brunellos. Let the sipper beware!

Now, in a professional wine tasting, one uses a new glass for every taste, swirls the wine in the bottom of the glass, sniffs and sips, and then tosses the extra wine into a slop bucket, also spitting out the wine in one's mouth.This wine being Brunello, I couldn't think of either tossing or spitting, and most of my fellow amateur tasters were in the same boat. When we arrived in the room, there were already people who'd sampled a little too much Brunello, who leaned on the tables, reeled across the dance floor, or sleepily planted themselves at the raised tables that ringed the ballroom.

The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino had provided us with attractive spiral notebooks which featured one producer per page and offered a picture of the wine label, address, and contact numbers for the winery, and copious lined space in which to inscribe your notes. But what soldier can keep serious records under battle conditions? We plunged into the room, sometimes sampling wines from producers we'd heard of, but more often sampling Brunellos not even seriously distributed in the United States. I managed to write some notes pall mall on a pair of facing pages, becoming progressively more tipsy as we made our way around the great circle of tables.

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"I'm so lonely," says the winemaker's rep.

The Lisini rep was pouring the 2004 vintage of the regular Brunello, but he must have had his flagship Ugolaia under the table. Nevertheless, the regular Brunello had tannins firmly in control and reminded us of a cherry orchard, but lacked a little bit of zip. The Coldisole Brunello '04 tasted slightly corked; we wrinkled our noses and moved on. We agreed that the La Lecciaia smelled like truffles, while Rachel said of La Togata's Brunello, "This tastes like canned tuna."

Several of my favorite Brunellos were represented, but others (out of a total of 150 Brunello producers) were not. I loved the Brunello from Tenuta Silvio Nardi, which is a wine that I buy and bring home when I'm in Tuscany. I stood for a few moments talking with the rep about the location and elevation of the vineyard, and he told me the winery is now being managed by Emilia Nardi, Silvio's daughter.

Another of my favorites, Col D'Orcia, provided the highlight of the evening. Dressed in a waistcoat and sporting a salt-and-pepper moustache, the avuncular rep was very free with his pours. Moreover, he had a cavalcade of ancient vintages that he'd pull out from behind his sign if he liked you. He liked us. In quick succession, we tried the newly released '04 ("We usually like to let this age a little more," said the rep, with a twinkle in his eye.) an '03, and an '01 ("I remember that summer," I said, trying to impress him, "It was incredibly hot and there was no rain.") Finally, from under the table, he produced a 1.5 liter bottle of his regular Brunello '97, regarded by some as the best vintage of the previous century. He poured us generous tastes. The wine was magnificent, with a subdued garnet hue; a nose of licorice, tobacco, cherry, and the leather of a well-used whip wielded by a dominatrix; and a long groovy finish.

As we exited the hall of Brunello, we encountered a table of Italian cheeses thronged with hungry swillers, who managed to toss pieces of cheese on the carpet and grind them in with their heels. A largish woman displaying a Grand Canyon of cleavage drunkenly leaned against the wall, then slid to a sitting position, as her companion admonished her for drinking too much Brunello. We gratefully exited the hotel into the cool night air.

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The aftermath


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