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I remember the first time I paid for a professional tasting of any kind.  It was the summer of 1987 and I was in North Beach at Singer & Foy, a now defunct retailer then located just off Washington Square. The tasting listed in their mailer that day was, if you can believe it, several recent vintages of Raveneau Premier and Grand Cru Chablis.  I walked into the shop, the only potential customer at the time, and was greeted by owner Steven Singer.  After sitting down Steven set out ten glasses in front of me and began to pour wines from almost identical bottles replete with hard yellow wax capsules, the same yellow wax capsules knowingly loved and yet hated by sommeliers the world over (they’re almost impossible to remove and very messy).  After that he left me in silence with the wines and my note pad. 

At this point my experience of Chardonnay was limited to the new world. I had never really tasted good much less great Chablis.  But I vividly remember picking up the first glass of Raveneau, raising it to my nose and frowning in that serious “I know what I’m doing” kind of way that all wine geeks love to sport.  The first sniff of the wine revealed a series of aromas that were more than a bit alien to me.  Not much in the way of fruit compared to the California Chardonnays I was used to.  I then took the first sip and the experience was somewhere between loud feedback on a public PA system, the very fabric of the universe being rent asunder, and eating several whole lemons in rapid succession–all at the same time.  It wasn’t painful.  No, I lied. It was physiologically uncomfortable to the point of pain but in a very enlightened way if that’s possible.  To be more precise, the first sip of what was the 1979 Butteaux was simply shocking; like someone had plugged a home electric appliance into my palate (toaster?  Waffle iron?) and flicked the juice on with the expected results (dial up lots of old cartoon images at this point). Nothing even remotely similar to this had ever come across my vinous radar.  Here was a wine that was immensely powerful, scorched earth dry, and painfully acidic all topped off by a finish that simply would not go away.  By contrast the Chardonnays from the new world were more like going to a church social as a kid.  Some of them had bigger hair, others wore more jewelry, while still others wore an alarming amount of perfume.  And all of them wore lots of makeup. 

At that point I put the glass down and looked at the other nine glasses realizing that I was really in for it.  But being of very stubborn German and Irish stock, I took a deep breath and was resolved to get through the flight of wines and even more, to somehow make sense of it.  I had, after all, paid my $15.  Somewhere around the sixth or seventh glass I had two of my first epiphanies about wine in short order; first, that it was possible to come across a wine that was perfectly well made but that you strongly disliked.  Second, and more important, some wines simply didn’t care if you like them or not.  It was precisely at this moment that I dubbed the flight of Raveneau Chablis, “Dominatrix Wines.” They really didn’t care if I liked them or not.  Further, they were completely unapologetic for their character and behavior in public.  And they definitely would not be calling me in the morning.  As for the phrase “Dominatrix Wines,” I will leave any details to be filled in by your own personal internal fantasy movie theater.  You may want to keep the details to yourself lest you offend and alarm the general populous. 

Fast forward twenty years: I’m teaching a Master Sommelier Introductory Course in New Orleans for a group from the CMAA, the Club Manager’s Association of America. These were mostly middle aged guys who managed highly successful golf clubs around the country.  I was leading the group through a blind tasting of four wines.  The second white wine was a vintage of Domaine des Baumard Savennières, a very dry, mineral-driven Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.  We worked through the wine using the MS deductive tasting grid as our guide.  Going through the nose the group had problems finding much of anything.  Some remarked that the wine was corked (it was not) others said that it smelled musty or like a pile of rocks and dirt.  Not a bad description, if you think about it.  And then they tasted it.  Wait for it … I stood in front of a room of over 80 adults all experiencing gustatory meltdown.  Practically everyone spit the wine out immediately and, to the person, looked at me with an expression somewhere between wince and grimace (two of the evil dwarves?).  It was exactly the same expression your kid gives you when you take them to the pediatrician and the nurses sneak up from behind and give them a shot in each arm–at the same time.  I think the expression is called “betrayal.” 

It goes without saying the group positively hated the wine and strongly voiced their objection.  I shrugged and said something along the lines of, “you know, believe it or not this is the most expensive and probably the most complex white wine you will taste over the two days of class.” They were anything but convinced and definitely not amused.  Fortunately, I was allowed to leave the building unharmed. 

Chablis and Savennières are not the only two dominatrix wines.  Yes dear reader, there’s an entire alternate universe of wine waiting for you to experience.  Here are a few more of my favorites:

a.     Barolo and Barbaresco:  or anything remotely connected to the Nebbiolo grape.  So pale and delicate in color but one sip and it becomes Rottweiler in a glass as in shockingly tannic and acidic.  So you’re hanging out at night watching Dancing with the Stars and want one more glass of red?  This is definitely not it.  But make no mistake; Barolo and Barbaresco are two of the world’s greatest red wines.  They’re also the ultimate cold weather reds to retrieve from the cellar to pair with the best braises, stews and game.  Even live game.  Just kidding.

b.     Sercial Madeira: balance searing acidity with the meagerest “may I have some more gruel” bit of residual sugar and you have Sercial.  Madeiras are the perfect restaurant wines by the glass because they’re indestructible.  After all, they’ve been cooked, oxidized and fortified.  You could probably run one down your driveway and then retrieve it in time for the cheese course. 

c.      Clare Valley Riesling:  the Obi-Wan of Riesling.  Think liquid light saber; monumentally acidic and bone dry with insane minerality.  One sip and you’ll know this is adult beverage and not Hello Kitty.

d.     Aged Palo Cortado and Amontillado Sherries: think all Sherries are sweet and the domain of the blue-haired set?  Think again.  There’s no more vinous, intense and bone dry fortified wine than a good aged Palo Cortado or Amontillado. 

Epilogue

How do I feel about Raveneau Chablis now?  I’m a huge fan.  I think it’s one of the greatest white wines made anywhere in the world.  Period.  It’s probably the ultimate glass of vino with oysters, shellfish, spring rolls or other starters.  Beyond that I think it’s important to keep in mind that over time the cells in the olfactory and taste centers of our brains constantly regenerate so our smell and taste preferences change dramatically as we get older (throw college and tequila in there somewhere).  That’s a good thing unless you like the idea of hoovering your way through a pint of Rocky Road or bag of Hershey’s Kisses on a regular basis.  But wait, maybe you still do.  Apologies offered.  Most of us have moved on from simply sweet to the delightful trio of savory, salty and sour; three more of the evil dwarves, if you will.  Add bitter to this holy triumvirate and you’ll understand my compulsion for Fernet Branca.  But that’s another story. 

So in the end I’ve come to absolutely love, even adore, the wines of Raveneau to the point of coveting them.  And if anyone reading this would like to send me a few bottles or cases I’m sure they would be blessed for several generations. 

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