wine guy wednesday
Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he shares the wines he drank while celebrating his 50th birthday. Take it away, Chris.
There are certain times in life when the stars align, your friends are there, and it’s time to celebrate major milestones. For me, this was my 50th birthday in a lake house in Wisconsin. I’ll preface this by saying these wines are special — I don’t drink like this every day. Wines like these are what people call unicorns, and we had a whole herd of unicorns on this trip.
Most of the people on this trip work in the world of food and wine. We had three James Beard Award winners cooking — I’ll definitely be talking about some of our pairings — and the wine folks pulled serious wines out of their personal cellars.
When we arrived in Wisconsin, the fridge was fully stocked with Monteverde meatballs and housemade pasta. If you’ve never been to Monteverde in Chicago, it’s a game changer. Fun fact: I hired Monteverde’s chef-owner Sarah Grueneberg at Brennan’s when she was 19. It was her first kitchen job, and she quickly became the youngest sous chef in Brennan’s history. She’s got such raw talent, and her first cookbook, Listen To Your Vegetables, comes out in October right after she cooks at the Southern Smoke Festival (she’s cooking on Sunday, October 23, so get your tickets!).
But, most importantly, what did we drink? We started with Fontodi Chianti Classico Vigna del Sorbo Reserva 1997.
The next afternoon was a Champagne- and white wine-heavy seafood extravaganza. We started with a 3-liter bottle of Pierre Moncuit Champagne (Editor's note: Chris will extol the virtues of magnums and other big bottles in a future column). We moved on to Champagne Vilmart & Co Premier Cru. It’s a grower Champagne, which are wines from Champagne that are made and bottled by the same person who grew the grapes. Some restaurant wine lists and wine shops will have separate categories for grower Champagnes, but if not, just ask.
These guys are growing their own grapes and farming their own land, which results in a more unique style of Champagne. You taste the expression of that winery and their land.
The next day was filled with raw oysters on the half shell, pizzas, and anything else we could throw in the wood-burning oven. We brought out the big guns: 2004 Krug Champagne, 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal, and 2012 Cristal.
Let’s talk vintage Champange. Wineries don’t make a vintage Champagne every single year. They make it in quality years when the weather is right, the grapes come in right, and the vinification is right. This provides an expression of that estate on that year, and it’s super unique and fun to drink them. Champagne vintages that I like personally: 2002, 2004, 2010. But, let’s be honest. It’s all delicious.
We then did a beautiful side-by-side tasting of Domaine Michel Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Vergers—2007 vintage next to the 2019. It’s simply amazing to taste the difference of 12 years in the same wine. You really get a sense of tasting the vineyard and how Chardonnay ages.
Dinner was a seafood extravaganza from Ryan Prewitt, chef-owner of Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. Anyone who knows me knows that Peche is my happy place. Another fun fact: Ryan married my wife and me in New Orleans back in 2020.
We started with a vertical of 2016, 2018 and 2019 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir. Pisoni has been one of my favorite vineyards since I was the Wine Guy at Brennan’s. When I was at Catalan, we did a wine dinner with winemaker Gary Pisoni, and it set me off to fall in love with this guy and the wines that they make. The legend goes that Gary took vine clippings from a prominent Burgundy estate, shoved them in his pants, flew back to California and grated those vines in a place where his family—and everyone else—said they didn’t have enough water to grow grapes. He secretly during the night drilled for water, and lo and behold, he found water.
Drinking a vertical of wine will tell you about the vintage and show you what the winemakers had to do to produce the wine. Some vintages are higher in acid, tannin, or fruit based on the weather that year. Each vintage tells a story. It doesn’t have to be a fancy bottle — just hold some bottles back of wines you like, and taste through different vintages. It’s really fun.
That night, we opened 1972 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, a wine from the year I was born. Historically, 1972 wasn’t a great vintage. But I wanted to try it. Drinking old wines is always a crapshoot In most cases, you haven’t been the one storing it, so the conditions of most old bottles are unknown. But I still think it’s cool to taste wines from a different time and a place.
If you want to shop for a birth-year wine, there are a lot of auction sites out there, but the website I use to find old bottles is WineBid.com. They run weekly auctions, and they’ll store the wine for you until it’s time to ship. They don’t ship directly to Texas. Instead, they ship to a third-party vendor that will then ship to you, so it’s definitely not a last-minute gift. I like to buy on auction throughout the summer and then have everything delivered once the weather cools down. Then, I do it all again throughout the winter and have it delivered before it gets too warm.
For my actual birthday, we all headed to Chicago for dinner at Monteverde — this is when the real heavy hitters came out. First up, 1978 Gaja Barbaresco. I had the honor of meeting Angelo Gaja back in 2017 when we were visiting Italy. He looks like the Italian version of Ralph Lauren and makes the most delicious wines. At the time, he was lobbying the Italian Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin to change the laws about growing Nebbiolo grapes in the area of Barbaresco and Barolo. The grapes were ripening too fast on the lower part of the mountain, and he was pushing for the ability to grow the grapes higher on the mountain. He practiced his presentation on us! I never heard if his lobbying efforts were successful, but he continues to make outstanding wine.
We stayed in Italy for a few more bottles with 1982 Luciano Sandrone Barolo, 2000 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo (magnum), 2005 Giuseppe Rinaldo Barolo, and 2001 Monsanto Il Poggio Chianti Classico Reserva.
We finished with 1990 Chateau Lafite Rothsschild. a timeless and absolutely delicious wine. It still had massive tannins and fruits. This wine could age another 20 years easily.
Was it perfect that night? Yes. Will I ever have another weekend like this? Probably not. Although I always recommend opening cool bottles for no reason, sometimes it’s really worth it to save great bottles for special occasions.
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Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. He recently parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed almost $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.