Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve lived relatively frugally. I don’t indulge very often in expensive habits…Skiing is one. So it is pure decadent indulgence to fly down to Las Vegas for the Wine Spectator magazine’s annual gourmet wine tasting. Indeed, this was a new life experience for me. I have my good friend Jeff to thank for the invitation and encouraging me to accompany him.
More about the wine in a minute…Let me first describe the context for the event. We stayed at the Mirage Hotel-Casino. A mirage is defined as an illusion, delusion, hallucination, or fantasy. Las Vegas is all of these things. There shouldn’t even be a city in the middle of such a bleak desert landscape. The city’s prodigious water demands have been met up until the present by the Colorado River flowing into Lake Mead reservoir created by Hoover Dam. Due to (climate change?) drought years, even Lake Mead is dangerously low. If the reservoir were to fall below a certain level, Hoover Dam would no longer be able to generate electricity for the region. But never mind such depressing problems…no one was thinking anything about that last night at the Mirage.
Jeff and I were shocked at the large boisterous crowds. Yesterday was the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. Additionally, there was a large championship boxing match live and on closed-circuit broadcasts around many of the large casinos. The Mirage is home to the Cirque de Soleil show, Love, the show based on re-mixed Beatles songs. We walked around the pool area, feeling like older astronauts visiting a strangely exotic planet. There were numerous tattooed young people of many nationalities, seeing and being seen. We happened upon one clothing-optional area, where we were told that if we were in the company of two or more young women, we could come in. Otherwise, the guards don’t allow people like us to enter this area. Very interesting…
Our wine tasting was a relatively sedate event compared to everything else going on around the large Mirage complex. Attended by around 1500 people, the $200 per person admission fees grossed approximately $300k for the Wine Spectator. Again, there were many international attendees, including wineries from Italy, France, Hungary, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Chile, Argentina, etc.
The magazine evaluates and grades all wines submitted from wineries around the world. Of the many wines receiving grades of above 90 points, two hundred wineries are invited to exhibit their products. I’m a complete novice at expensive wine tasting. But if any of my readers are experts, I was told to inform you that I sampled a 1999 Margeaux. Are any of you appropriately impressed?
This was my first time use the taste and spit technique. It is physically impossible to sample very many of the wines, even in small doses, unless one only plans to spend the first half hour of the three-hour scheduled event. Wines being served included champagnes, whites, reds, and ports, including some wines made with grape varieties I had never previously heard of. Jeff and I stood in line for an hour before the doors opened in order to enter the hall ahead of the full crowd. We struck up a conversation with a professional wine consultant who was waiting with us in line. She circled her highest recommended wineries on our map, which we were happy to follow.
Jeff is my wine mentor. He coached me in proper tasting techniques, pointing out different characteristics of the different types of wine. Starting with smelling the “bouquet” before tasting, then aerating the wine in one’s mouth, and then assessing the aftertaste, the “finish” of the wine. I became sensitive to tannin levels, giving deeper meaning to the word astringent.
[For you trivia buffs, Western scientists identify four basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, each taste perceived by distinct taste buds on different areas of the tongue. Indians also recognize astringent as a distinct catagory, resulting in five basic tastes. Astringent is that puckering sensation on the tongue caused by grapes, vinegar, and many wines. The Chinese recognize five tastes, corresponding to the five elements: water, fire wood, metal, and earth, embodied in Five Spice Powder, which is supposed to be a blend of these five basic tastes.]
There were no inexpensive wines being served by the prize-winning wineries. I didn’t ask the prices of all the wines I tasted. But when I did, the answers were typically $90-$135-$185/bottle. One of the 20year-old Port wines was $325/bottle. One of my favorite dessert wines was German-style Eiswein (Ice Wine), though this one was from Ontario, Canada, instead of Germany. Ice Wine is produced by letting the grapes stay on the vines well into mid-winter. When the temperature falls to minus ten degrees Celsius, even if it’s in the middle of the night, the machines are brought into the vineyards to harvest the grapes. The icy water content is separated from the intense grape juice, which is then fermented to make Ice Wine. It’s not allowed to simply freeze a supply of grapes in order to produce the Ice Wine. And so, because the production size is so dependant on the weather, the overall supply of Ice Wine can vary widely from year to year.
There was a modest dinner buffet served to accompany the wines. Since Susan has been a vegan for several years, it’s been at least a couple of years since I had eaten prime rib. With a fantastic cabernet, the beef was a delicious treat. I managed to sample as many wines as I could during the three hour even. After two and a half hours of barely swallowing, the last half hour I revisited my favorite wineries, mostly dessert wines and imbibed the full samples. By the end of the event, I was pleasantly “glowing/tipsy/high” but not drunk.
The Wine Spectator also sponsors hard liquor and cigar expositions. We questioned some of the Wine Spectator’s security personnel as to whether any fights had ever broken out at these events. “Just at the cigar shows”…Why? “Just a different type of people attending the cigar events.” These are the people that I would imagine might be drawn to stay at the hotel pictured at right, an ego expression often associated with big cigars.