Wine critic Mike Steinberger tries a '47 Petrus in awkward company.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 26 2011 7:09 AM

Drinking With the Enemy

 Slate's wine critic attends an awkward tasting.

(Continued from Page 1)

The '47 Pétrus and the '50 Latour à Pomerol were served at the same time. Like the Lafleur, the Latour à Pomerol was very good but clearly on the downslope, and it became an afterthought once everyone tasted the Pétrus. It had a textbook Pomerol nose of plums, cherry liqueur, truffles, and espresso. Although not quite as over-the-top as some of the literature had suggested it would be—the '47 Cheval Blanc that I tasted in Switzerland was a richer, more flamboyant wine—it was bursting with sweet, voluptuous fruit and seemed to gain complexity with each sip. The finish was a little raspy, but that was the only flaw I could find. "This is a sexy wine," Sokolin announced, using a phrase I had hoped to hear (in their sales offers, Sokolin and Oliveros often describe wines as "sexy" and are known in the trade as "the sexy boys.") Salzman gave it six stars on his five-star scale, and Wilf said simply, "That's as good as Bordeaux gets."

We had just about emptied both decanters when Wilf announced that it was time for some "real wine." It took me a moment to realize he wasn't commenting on the authenticity of the wines we'd just had; he meant it was time to ditch Bordeaux for red Burgundy, and he ordered a bottle of the 2003 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands Échézeaux off the wine list. Although it was the equivalent of our ninth bottle of the evening, it disappeared in a hurry, and Wilf headed off shortly thereafter, as did Sokolin. I thanked him for coming to the dinner and gave him my card. I told him that I'd probably be writing an account of our evening and said that I would be eager to hear his take on the counterfeiting issue. Sokolin laughed, and said, "Come down to the store; we'll talk." I haven't taken him up on the invitation, and he hasn't gotten in touch with me. I am, however, now on Royal's mailing list and am receiving wine offers from them every week.

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As I was leaving the restaurant, I helped myself to the Pétrus and Lafleur bottles (with two empty magnums under my arms, I got some curious looks walking to the train). When I examined them the next morning, I was struck by how spotless the labels were —no dirt, no mold, no stains, nothing. The Lafleur one looked almost brand new. I had never seen old wines with such clean labels, and it struck me as suspicious. When I shared my concern with Wilf, he said that many perfectly legitimate rarities have pristine labels. He pointed out that a lot of them have been reconditioned at some point, a process that typically includes not only replacing the corks and capsules, but also the labels.

So what to make of all this? Based on everything I learned from my reporting last spring, I am convinced that a lot of fake wines have been dumped on the market and that Rodenstock has been a major source of them, if not the major source. I believe that Royal has sold counterfeits, though it is unclear whether it did so knowingly. Were the wines we drank at dinner genuine? I'm not sure. What I can say is this: The Pétrus was delicious, and the Lafleur and the Latour à Pomerol, while not as compelling, were both enjoyable, too. If they were knock-offs, they were pretty convincing ones, and I would love to know what was really in the bottles.

That said, I wasn't as enthralled by the Pétrus as Wilf and the others were. My tasting note does not include any expletives, which is the usual indication that a wine has floored me (it is a sign of impending speechlessness). But was the problem the Pétrus or me? Here was a rare instance in which "label bias" may have worked to the disadvantage of a celebrated wine: It could be that I didn't fully give in to the pleasure because I knew it was the widely counterfeited '47 and that the bottle had come from Royal. Or perhaps our bottle, for one reason or another, just didn't completely live up to the wine's reputation. I honestly don't know.

Daniel Johnnes and I talked for a bit after everyone else had left, and he said he had experienced something similar: He thought the wines were excellent but had been unable to shake that scintilla of doubt. "It is always in the back of your mind, wondering if they're real or fake," as he put it. But he suggested that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He said that with the prices these wines now command—the three magnums we drank have a combined current value of $40,000-$50,000, although much of the demand has evaporated because of concerns over fraud—maybe it was somehow just that they could no longer be consumed with uninhibited gratification. With this thought-provoking, vaguely subversive comment, he brought an end to an evening that left me with more questions than answers, plus a lot of alcohol to absorb.

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