Don Schliff and Scott MacConnell of Wine Warehouse and I recently drove down to Orange County to visit with Robert Lawrence Balzer, the grand ambassador of American wine culture. Robert, the first serious wine journalist in the U.S., has been a wine writer for close to 70 years. I had not seen him since his birthday before last and he will be 98 in June. A true Renaissance man and an epicurean, Robert has been a retailer, an actor, a restaurateur, a Buddhist monk, a flight instructor during World War II, a wine instructor and the author of 11 books. While age is finally catching up with him, he is still charming, knowledgeable and articulate, especially when reminiscing about the earlier days of California wine. He stills drinks wine and Scotch regularly, which he partially attributes to his long age. An amazing man, he has known the rich and famous in politics, food and wine, Hollywood and more.
Don Schliff, noted importer, wine collector and Bordeaux authority, graciously brought three bottles of wine with us. He opened a 1912 D’Oliveiras Verdelho Reserva Madeira, Balzer’s birth year, served as an aperitif. D’Oliveiras, founded in 1820, is still owned by the same family, one of the few that survived the ravages of phylloxera.
The 1912 D’Oliveiras Verdelho Madeira, medium-dark golden-amber color, had a marvelous perfume of caramel, coffee and spice. It was surprisingly fresh, rich and balanced. Very flavorful, it hinted of caramel, flowers, coffee, spice, butterscotch and nuts, ending in a finish that seemed to go on forever –- fabulous wine. Madeira is one of the only wines that can benefit from exposure to air so the wines will drink beautifully for months and even years after being opened. Madeira is just one of the many places where Robert took the students of his wine classes.
Continuing on with lunch, it was a beautiful day so we ate outside by the pool, overlooking a large part of Orange County. Robert’s nephew, Rex Shannon and his wife, Mary Jo and his assistant, Betsy Duran, were also there. Don opened two bottles of wine, a 1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1999 Chateau Pavie. Lee Stewart harvested the first crop of grapes from his Howell Mountain property in 1944, which he named Souverain, French for sovereign or supreme. It became one of California’s great wineries. Lee, a friend of Robert’s, produced highly regarded Cabernets prized for their elegance and finesse.
The 1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (Lee’s 25th harvest), dark color, with an amber edge, was still rich, with a perfume of cedary plum and spice. The mature flavors of plum, cedar, currant, berry and spice were balanced, finishing long — at a peak but still very nice.
The 1999 Chateau Pavie St. Emilion, a rich, dark color, with a black fruit perfume, was hedonistic, lush and extracted, with flavors of plum, cassis, anise, smoke, oak and leather. It was a big wine, full-bodied, with a good mouthfeel, smooth tannins and a long finish –- lovely.
The lovely lunch and delicious wines were made even more memorable by the delightful visit with Robert Balzer.