I wrote earlier about opening the finest bottle of wine I’ve ever personally owned: a 1996 Nuits-St-Georges, Domaine Jean Grivot, Premier Cru. The upshot was that it made a poor pairing for a lamb dish I’d cooked, and that the fault was clearly mine: I’d operated on the simple notion that lamb + Pinot Noir = joy, and failed to factor in the precise preparation of the lamb and the unique, individual character of the wine (not exactly a sommelier yet, I guess).
Anyway, I ended up gassing and corking the Burgundy after a couple of glasses, putting it in the fridge to save, and drinking a Chalone Pinot Noir instead, because it went beautifully with the meal. Then, a few nights later, after an especially harried and frenetic day that included a run to the city dump and an hour in a line of vehicles trapped inside the dump’s enormous garbage-transfer building, I’d had to whip up the family dinner at the last minute. A neighbor had given me two pounds of fresh morels (the best kind of neighbor), so I followed a recipe from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. I sautéed shallots, splashed in some Cognac and let it reduce a moment, then stirred in a little cream and took it off the heat. Then I mixed the morels with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and savory; baked them for 20 minutes; tossed them with the shallot-cream-Cognac stuff; and put them out on the table in a big bowl. Nothing else to the meal except some asparagus and bread.
By this point, I’d almost forgotten about the Nuits-St-Georges. Opening such a fancy bottle and having it completely miss the food mark had been depressing, so I’d gone into denial. Now I poured a glass in a new spirit: “Well, here’s an open bottle of red, I guess I’ll have a glass.” The expectations, in other words, were very different. Far less pressure. And from the first sip, I knew I’d begun stumbling in the right direction: Every earthy nuance of the mushrooms seemed to find a corresponding nuance in the Burgundy, and the Burgundy seemed to come out of its shell. My wife, L, doesn’t even like old-world reds—“Too chalky,” she always says—so I was on my own. But as I poured a second glass and took another heap of morels (how often can you say that about morels?), I got this tingling feeling that I was going to see what this wine was all about after all. It was in the way those northwestern mushrooms—out of the Oregon forests, the burnt-over stumps of dead trees, way out on logging roads where hippie foragers mingle with hard-hat loggers—brought the wine out to play. So I drank more, and ate more, and drank more, and I was so relieved not to have wasted that bottle—to be discovering, at last, all the earth and leather and distant forest-berry character—that I grabbed a cheese as a kind of afterthought. L had put the girls in the bathtub, by this point, and I knew I should join and help her and play and splash with the kids, so I cut a quick slice of Red Hawk—a powerful, pungent cheese from Cowgirl Creamery—and half expected it to overpower the wine and bring my night to a close.
But instead, the fermented cheese flavors positively exploded with the fermented pungency of that great wine, and the wine blossomed fully at last, so that while my wife bathed my daughters and I sat alone at the cluttered, messy table I was supposed to be clearing and cleaning in preparation for the bedtime milk-warming, I ate about a half pound of triple-cream cheese and drank every last drop of that Burgundy and floated through the ceiling in a state of wine-food rapture, all the more sweet for having been such a surprise and, in its way, so hard won.