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Last Roundup

I like wine for the most part; I love Cal Cabs entirely. And the '91s -- well, I loved them so much, I built a cellar to hold them.

Now they're mostly memories, but I held onto enough of them to furnish the core for a 20th anniversary do at Philadelphia's studly new Union Trust Steakhouse.

The surroundings here are socko and the chef served up a nine-course feast. One dazzling dish followed another -- no question, it's foodie heaven. But you know what? I personally would have preferred a Caesar and a slab of cow, the better to focus on our treasured reds.

For all my adoration of Cal Cabs, I never expected so many of them to be alive and singing their little hearts out. Not one was a goner, although one faded and one heartbreaker was corked. The rest kept the music up all meal long, and as we reluctantly phoned our driver, I could swear I heard them calling, "Come Back!"

Here's the lineup:

***+Von Strasser (magnum)
***Phelps Eisele
***-Peter Michael Les Pavots
**+Mondavi Reserve
*Forman (decanted because of a crumbly cork)
Shafer Hillside (corked, alas!)

And here's the lowdown:

I found the von Strasser and Dominus to be the clear stars of the evening. The Dominus showed exactly as I remember it from my last tasting -- still very rich and powerful, but with more earthy character than when it was young. Some disliked it and I actually sold off my stash a couple of years ago, but still find it very appealing. Biggest wine of the evening, but maybe not the best.

I was holding my breath about the von Strasser, because the once-yummy '94 and '96 have gone dog-breath bretty, but wow! This bottle was brilliant -- fruit galore, a hint of crushed rocks and just enough brett to bring out a bouquet of violets. Saved some for dessert and it was still gathering strength. Rudy's ears must have been burning as we marveled.

The Phelps Eisele was voted wine of the evening and I have no problem with that. Didn't find it quite as lengthy as the Dominus and von Strasser. My next to last bottle -- I have no '91 Araujo left, but would love to do the two Eiseles head to head some evening.

Some tasters found the Peter Michael too influenced by oak, and I think they're wrong. The sweetness and cherry flavors are just the way this wine tastes year after year. People who say Les Pavots is too low in acid to age should have been here tonight. Is this the first wine from this vineyard? How old were the vines?

Mondavi Reserve showed true to form -- utterly classic Cal Cab with blackcurrant, black cherry, a hint of pipe smoke, sweet peppers. No faults to find here, but didn't quite have the oomph of some others this evening.

Montelena was pretty much exactly as expected. Deep, dark and quite generous, it could be my favorite of all Montelenas. This particular bottle out-powered all but the Dominus and von Strasser, but lacked complexity compared to its peers.

I've had better bottles of '91 Forman, which had to be decanted because the cork was too crumbly to be extracted. An hour passed before we got around to drinking it, and by then it had lost fruit. Too bad. I've got a few more and must retaste sit oon.

OVERALL TAKE: I was chuffed to find them all doing so well, haunted that the Hillside was corked (you could taste tons of fruit below the TCA) and the Forman imperfect. Except for the Forman, Phelps and Montelena, these were my last bottles, and I was happy to see the bins go out with a bang.

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