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Three feel-good wine stories

In the past six months we’ve had three unusually pleasant wine experiences at restaurants, thanks to a chef, a waiter and a sommelier. Here are the stories.

The Chef -- we’re in Bilbao, Spain having lunch at a nice restaurant (Michelin 1*) on our first day in Basque country. We are the only English-speakers in the almost-full dining room.

The chef stops by and we talk for a bit about the restaurants we are visiting in Spain and compliment him on two of the excellent dishes served thus far. We are drinking house cava, about to switch to a house white. A bit later he brings out three wine glasses and an extra dish, crab legs so fresh they smell and taste of the nearby sea, and opens a bottle of oaked white Rioja labeled ‘Finca La Reñana’. He tells us that Robert Parker rated this ‘the best oaked white wine in the world’ last year as he pours glasses for us and for himself and asks us to try it and tell him if he should add it to his wine list.

We drink it with the crab and yes, it is a very nice white indeed, surely the best Spanish white wine I’ve tasted (I haven’t tasted many but this one was excellent). Later I look it up and find Parker quotes to back up the story, with a Wine Advocate rating of 92.

When we leave we notice there is zero charge for the white Rioja, for another wine he poured for us and for our dessert wine pours. There is little or no tipping in Spain but we leave a nice tip anyway for the waiter.

Chef Fernando Canales of restaurant Etxanobe in Bilbao ... long may he prosper.

The Waiter – still in Bilbao the next day, this time a few miles outside town at Azurmendi, a fast-rising restaurant that just received its third Michelin star, and which rose to # 7 in the world in 2014 on the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants list.

We are nearing the end of a ten course tasting menu with matching wines. Before the desserts I mention to the waiter that I hoped to try a good Pedro Ximenez sherry while in Spain. He says it’s not part of the pairing but that he’ll check what’s in the cellar ... and when it’s time to pour the dessert wine he produces an unopened bottle of Fernando de Castilla Antique Pedro Ximenez, which he proceeds to open for us. This was a very sweet, almost syrupy dessert wine, just as I imagined PX, and it went very well with the last two desserts and final sweets. I’m impressed they would open a bottle just for two customers.

Jon William Herrera of restaurant Azurmendi ... long may he prosper. (I just learned Jon William is also the Head Sommelier.)

The Sommelier – we are at the Fat Duck outside London in April and I’m having the cheapest seven pour wine pairing with my meal. We get to know the Somm a bit as he comes to the table to pour the wines and we chat. He’s from near Paris and gives us some suggestions for restaurants next time we’re in France.

Fat Duck offers two enhanced pairings with very expensive classic wines but the pairings are, IIRC, 250 £ and 480 £ (roughly $425 and $810, too rich for me). The dessert wines for both pairings are Château d'Yquem (different vintages), an exceptional Sauternes from Bordeaux which is so superior it has its own classification, First Great Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur).

The dessert wine for my economy class flight is a 2008 Tokaji from Hungary and it goes well with the dessert. I mention the d'Yquem to the Sommelier, saying I had only tasted one First Growth and a couple of Second Growth Sauternes and that one day, if I became rich, I’d like to try d'Yquem.

He told me he had tasted d'Yquem at age 17 and that wine is what convinced him to become a Sommelier. I thought that was a great story.

A bit later someone brings a tray of mignardises and the Somm appears with one more glass. I’m pretty sure we’re done with the wine pairings but he shows me a bottle of Château d'Yquem and pours me a small ration. I really wish I had noted the vintage but I was too blown away to pay attention to the details.

I bow down as best as I can while seated. “Thank you, thank you.” It went great with the final sweets. This is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me at a restaurant.

As we are leaving the restaurant he comes out with us to the parking lot to say goodbye. My wife surprises him (and me) by giving him a hug and a jealous man might say that he squeezed a bit too long and a bit too tightly when he hugged her back, but what the heck, he’s a Frenchman and he gave me my first shot of Château d'Yquem! I forgive him.

Rémi Cousin, Assistant Head Sommelier of The Fat Duck ... long may he prosper.

So, anyone else have some feel-good wine stories they want to share?

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  1. That was very enjoyable to read. Gave me some good warm feelings. Thank you for posting.

    1 Reply
    1. re: maria lorraine

      Indeed.

    2. You make the point that I try to make. You get back (sometimes) what you give out. Y'all were nice and it was returned. Sounds wonderful.

      1 Reply
      1. re: c oliver

        Indeed again.

      2. Those are great Will ! Of all the great experiences you shared, the crab and white Rioja got me from the get-go.

        What a setting and what an interesting local pairing.

        1. Great stories, thanks. One does tip in Spain as in France @ 5-10% if you have wonderful service.
          Here is one story that happened to me in Paris a few years back. Restaurant was La Truffiere, now with one star but not then.
          Went with some friends in the wine trade and the somm had asked so we told him yes we were in the business.
          We ordered our meal and said we would do the pairings with the meal and if possible please serve us stuff we did not know, we chuckled to ourselves since we knew everything there was about wine, one of us was a master sommelier.
          For the next 4 hours he opened 16 bottles of wine to pour our pairings and not one of us had ever heard of most of the producers and even those someone knew were wines or often grapes we were not familiar with before. It was awesome, not hideously expensive, and a wonderful memory.
          OK, one more short story, when in Prague 2 years ago l was urged to go to Degustation by Kukabura. l will always think kindly of him for that recommendation.
          Ordered the local chef's tasting and the local wine pairing. The somm was so knowledgeable, he poured 11 different local wines that matched the meal so perfectly it was unforgettable.
          At the end he tested me on something l had said l loved and thank God l got it right, one of best nights ever.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

            WOW :) Even though we didn't make it there, I still feel the "joy of recognition" :)

          2. There are so many . . . one hardly knows where to start!

            OK, one . . . .

            Back in 1977, I was 23 and though I started working in the retail wine trade in Southern California at 16, I'd only been writing about wine for some 2.5-3 years.

            I was traveling in France -- just my luck; a very forgettable vintage -- and after spending some time in Champagne, Burgundy, and the Rhone, I arrived in Bordeaux. I was actually a day early for the appointments I had set up, so I took it upon myself to just drive around, getting a feel for the land, and the terroir. As I was driving through Cantenac, a commune in Margaux, I happened upon Château Prieuré-Lichine and saw the sign "Dégustation et Vente" ("Tasting and Sales"), so I figured I could stop by without having the sort of appointments I had set up at various châteaux over the next few days.

            I walked in and was approached by someone who asked, "Puis-je vous aider?" ("Can I help you?") I asked if it was possible to have a tour and taste, was assured that it was, and the two of us entered the fermentation room. His French was a little too fast for me and so I asked if he could speak more slowly for me. "No problem," he said, "I'm originally from New York." OK, that took care of any language problems . . .

            We took turns, actually, asking questions of each other in fact, and as we finished the tour and headed over to the tasting/sales room, we walked up to a group of 4-5 gentlemen talking under the chestnut tree in the courtyard of the château. Then, all left but the one tallest gentleman, whose back was to me. Sam, my guide, said, "I'd like you to meet Jason Lewis. He writes for Wine World."

            The person turns around and says, "Alexis Lichine. Pleased to meet you."

            I mumble something about what an honor it is to meet him. After all, I'd read all of his books on wine. He said, "What did you say your name was again?"

            Now in the amazing arrogance that only a young kid can have, my first thought was, 'Great, this is my idol, and he can't remember my name for 10 seconds.' When I'd repeated my name to him, he said, "Ah, yes. You wrote that article on Freemark Abbey, didn't you? And on Chateau St. Jean? Burgess Cellars?" And I am well and truly blown away, humbled, and mad at myself for my previous moment of doubt . . .

            He invited me into his home, into his study, where we talked about wine (and drank some), how California was changing, and other topics. He told me a story about my uncle back in Southern California, whom he met 15 years ago when the 1961 Bordeaux were first for sale, and no one wanted them because 1959 was "the vintage of the century," and then invited me to join him for lunch out on the patio . . . .

            THAT was a pretty wonderful day. ;^)

            2 Replies
            1. re: zin1953

              I guess so :)

              1. re: zin1953

                Great story. Thanks for sharing.