VINE CUTTINGS

News and Notes from the World of Wine




WINING AND DINING AT THE DOME

London's Millennium Dome, so prominently featured in the worldwide New Year's Eve telecasts, is a one-year wonder that will close as a tourist attraction on the last day of this year; would-be new tenants (including a sports team, a Chinese cultural center, a convention center, and others) are juggling for occupancy rights, with the winning bid to be announced in July.

Sort of a cross between EuroDisney, an educational fair, and the Cirque du Soleil, and set on the south bank of the Thames near Greenwich, its limited-run cachet edges it into the must-see category for those passing through London this year. Since tickets can cost as much as £20 (about $34) per person—there are discounts for students, children and larger families available—it would be a shame to waste paid-for time scouting around nearby Greenwich for decent wining and dining.

The majority of the food venues in the Dome, à la Disney, are alcohol-free, plus a few pubs with beer and spirits, but we checked out the Dome's restaurants in March and found, after a bit of searching, some acceptable fare and worthwhile wines. Our expectations were raised by a supposed "Champagne Bar," the Orange Terrace, which is set just above the central show arena seating area; tables and chairs have a good view of the performance going on below and passers-by. There are 14 wines on the list, eight of which are available by the glass. Sadly, most are nondescript, including the only per-glass Champagne. But they do have the very nice 1999 Seppelt Molyton Chardonnay from South Eastern Australia, at a reasonable $5/glass or $17/bottle; or, if you have money to burn, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque is available by the bottle (about $135). The light menu is moderately priced: blinis with smoked salmon, smoked salmon sandwiches, crab cakes, meats, bread and olive plates, all in the $6.75-$8.50 range.

Seabar, on the ground level of the Dome's outermost ring, has a trendy see-and-be-seen café plus a serious raw-bar area. There's a good selection of fresh local seafood, plus soups and salads. Per-person prices range from about $6.50 to $30. Arguably the best wine on the 10-bottle list is the Cape Mentelle Cabernet-Merlot from Western Australia ($6.50/glass, $38/bottle); while none of the white wines are scintillating, a flight of four four-ounce glasses of international whites (an English wine is included) costs about $29.

The top restaurant at the Dome (and one flight up from Seabar) is Acclaim, which seats 200 in several sections overlooking the exhibits. Like Seabar, it brings in guest chefs periodically. Here the menu specializes in English fare, albeit not of the traditional bangers-and-mash sort; you can choose from grilled Cornish fillet of mackerel with leek risotto, crispy belly of Gloucester old spot (a kind of pig) with sage-mashed potatoes, herb-roasted chicken, truffled parsnip and potato soup, and more. Prices are $20 for entrée only, $30 with either starter or dessert, and $37 for three courses. An assortment of British cheeses are rotated through the five-
variety cheese plate, which can be purchased on its own for about $14. While the British patrons favor Port with the cheese course, a few of the milder cheeses were interesting with a 1998 Brouilly from Louis Latour.

—Mary Hunt

 

BOOK REVIEW

But Always Fine Bourbon

Pappy Van Winkle was perhaps the most colorful man in the history of American whiskey, and there's probably no one better suited to recount his exploits than his granddaughter, Sally Van Winkle Campbell. Her new book, But Always Fine Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle and the Story
of Old Fitzgerald, is studded with photographs from the family album. After just a few pages you imagine yourself sitting by the fireside
in an old Kentucky home listening to the story from someone very proud of her heritage.
The book begins by describing a 1949 banquet held in honor of Pappy, and quoting from a speech he made on that occasion. Anecdotes like this give the reader insight into a man whose business dealings were obviously honorable. Then we learn about his humble beginnings as a whiskey salesman for W. L. Weller; it was 1893, so Pappy would travel by horse and buggy to service his accounts. (It's rumored that Pappy even sold his whiskey to moonshiners who would add it to their white lightning to give a little color and flavor.)
Step by step, the book tells the tale of Pappy's career, all the time including a variety of events, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sorrowful. Through it all, Campbell takes time to describe various salespeople and partners who worked with Pappy along the way. She provides a peek into the personal lives of this venerable whiskey family that is entrancing, and by the time you put this book down, you'll feel as though the Van Winkles were your neighbors.
But Always Fine Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, by Sally Van Winkle Campbell, is published by Limestone Lane Press, Kentucky. ©1999, 211 pages, $34.95. At bookstores or call 888/
783-1700.

—Gary Regan

 

UNIQUE BUYS AT NAPA AUCTION

Gray skies and drizzle didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm at the 4th annual Premiere Napa Valley Midwinter Barrel Auction for the Trade, held in the old Christian Brothers stone building in St. Helena, now the home of the Culinary Institute of America.

About 100 Napa wineries created unique wine lots that were auctioned off to retailers, distributors, restaurateurs, and other wine-industry professionals; alas, the public wasn't invited. The event raised $726,000 for local charities, but another reason the Napa Valley Vintners Association created Premiere Napa Valley in 1997, says Cain Vineyard & Winery's winemaker Chris Howell, was because trade people were getting shut out of the millionaires-only bidding at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. The vintners association, Howell says, "wanted to do something more reasonable for the trade, instead of one fancy bottle that goes for an absurd amount of money." Not that the lots at Premiere, most of which were from the 1998 vintage and came in five-case quantities, were cheap.

The most expensive lot, Dalla Valle's 1998 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, went for $31,000, which is equal to $6,200 a case, or about $517 a bottle. The average price per case at the auction was less, $1,223, but still not exactly fit for a bargain hunter. The second priciest lot, a Cabernet from Shafer Vineyards' Sunspot Vineyard, which ordinarily is blended into the winery's Hillside Select, went for $4,700 a case. A Robert Mondavi blend of all five red Bordeaux varietals from its famous To-Kalon Vineyard went for $1,900 a case.

What makes Premiere really different from most auc- tions is that successful bidders get rare wines that will not be released commercially and that most people will never taste. Dalla Valle, for example, does not normally make an unblended Cabernet. Vintners seem to truly enjoy creating these special bottlings, which give them a chance to experiment with new styles or blends, or set aside an extra-special barrel that otherwise would get lost in a commercial release. More important, from the consumer's point of view, is the fact that a non-commercial lot a winery produces today may be something it releases to the general public down the road.

And what do buyers do with these unique wines? "Sell it, drink it, give it away as presents," says David Breitstein, founder of the Duke of Bourbon wine shop in Canoga Park, California. Breitstein bought three lots, including Cain's 1998 Petit Verdot that normally goes into the Cain Five blend, for $1,100 a case, but he doesn't think Premiere represents a bargain these days, if it ever did. "You don't go there for a deal, you go there to support Napa vintners and hopefully to find something interesting."

—S.H.

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