A short time ago my good friend Ken Ottoboni and I enjoyed some golf at the California Golf Club where I have been a member since 1995. The Cal Club, as it is affectionately known by its members and wannabes, is just a few chip shots south of the more famous Olympic Club of San Francisco.
After its restoration and rebirth, northern
formerly “best kept secret” has moved swiftly into Golf Digest’s list of top
100 courses. With a breathtaking links
style design, 144 tactically placed bunkers, slick contoured greens, and a spectacular
location, the Cal Club is fast becoming the place to join or visit as a
guest. It is in a word, a golfer’s golf
Ken is a retired restaurateur who brought world class dining to
’s peninsula back in the mid
1980s. 231 Ellsworth in San Francisco was the place my wife and I went
to when we wanted Michelin quality food and wine, with attendant service and
ambience. After he retired we continued
to share some great times together, but some of the more memorable were
foraging for chanterelle and porcini mushrooms.
(He even discovered some edible ones in the rough alongside the old 18th fairway!) San Mateo,
After finishing our round of golf--during which I admired his long drives, his laser-like iron shots, and his flawless putting—we ambled into the Men’s bar for a relaxing glass of wine. We ordered a Pinot Noir from one of
California’s better known wineries
After our few minutes of random and varying observations Ken looked at me
and said, “Tom, I’ve been waiting for you to say something about this
wine. What do you think of it?” Santa Barbara County
He caught me off guard, for I hadn’t really focused on it. So I sniffed it more deeply and took a more pensive sip and offered, “It’s really nothing special. No real varietal character. Weak aromatics and not a particularly good flavor.”
“Tom, the wine is corked. I’ve been waiting for you to nail this wine.”
A corked wine? A wine with no varietal character?
Sounds like a crappy wine, doesn’t it?
A corked wine is not one with unsightly bits of cork floating in it. It is one with an aroma and flavor has been contaminated by an unpronounceable chemical that is more widely known as TCA. Musty aromas are typical. Some describe a cork-tainted wine as smelling like a wet dog, or moldy newspapers. Not very attractive, right?
In and of itself, TCA is not discernible, but it brings tears to winemakers’ eyes when their carefully crafted wines are irretrievably tainted by it. Though the percentage of cork tainted wines is quite small, that problem has nevertheless triggered the increasing shift to screw caps, plastic corks and other alternative closures.
A wine with little or no varietal character, however, is a semi-wet dog of another color. While not fatally flawed, such a wine is something of an impostor. That is, the wine does not reflect the traits or attributes of the underlying grapes from which it is made—whether by design or by defect of outcome.
Sounds elementary, but a Pinot Noir wine looks, smells and tastes the way it does because it’s made from its namesake grape. Ditto for Cabernet, Chardonnay and all the other varietally labeled wines. Each is different, and being informed about that is one of the distinct pleasures of wine appreciation. Of course, if one is uninformed about how specific wines should look, smell and taste, then anything in the stemware will suffice as long as it doesn’t offend.
There are other wine faults and flaws—and some wordsmiths even debate the distinction between those two terms—that affect a wine’s quality, but I’m going to spare you those today. There is, however, one nugget of wine tasting wisdom that I feel might be topic-worthy at your next gathering of food and wine enthusiasts.
Anthony Hanson is “a British Master of Wine and Senior Consultant to Christie’s International Wine Department.” Mr. Hanson, with obvious time-tested credentials, has apparently stated that “Great Burgundy smells like shit.” (Yes, you read that correctly.) I’m not sure what he was sitting on when he made that olfactory discovery; or what in particular he was swirling in his stemware at the time; or even if that wine descriptor qualifies as a fault or a flaw or just plain feces. However, “Great Burgundy” or not, I think it still sounds like crappy wine.