Monday afternoon I stopped by the Minnesota location of The Bargain Bank to check out the wine sale. The crowds had disappeared by that point and I could browse leisurely.
I asked about the provenance of the wines, as the emailed announcement stated, "ALL THE WINE HAS BEEN TASTED AND INSPECTED BY MASTER SOMMELIERS. WE ARE CONFIDENT OF THE EXCELLENT CHARACTER OF ALL OUR WINES. WE CAN NOT ACCEPT ANY OPEN BOTTLES OF WINE FOR CREDIT." I did not have a chance to speak with the owner, but his two friends who were helping manage the sale filled me in on what they knew. The wines came from flooded restaurants in Louisiana and were purchased from the Oakland warehouse of a broker.
I asked who the Master Sommeliers were who inspected and tasted the wines and also what their sampling protocol was, e.g., pulling one bottle from X number of cases on the outside of random pallets. They could not name the Master Sommeliers who tasted and inspected the wine. One of them said that he had visited the Oakland warehouse himself to visually inspect the wines. He said that the initial two lots he saw were from Emeril's and Delmonico's. He said that Delmonico's wines didn't look good and he didn't accept them. He said that a retailer in the DC area bought the Emeril's wines for $500,000 cash. I replied, "So you're saying these are from OTHER restaurants besides Emeril's and Delmonico's?" He nodded and then said that the sale had attracted many retailers and "guys who are real wine geeks and know about this stuff". I told him that was irrelevant to me. I asked if any samples had been pulled for tasting, and the two said some wines had been tasted but could not provide any details. Then they asked me if I was a lawyer! I informed them that I'm not an attorney but was trying to make a decision over what the condition of the wine might be and what kind of inspection and taste testing had been done. They could not answer any questions about how long the wines were in uncontrolled conditions in Louisiana, when the wines were transported to Oakland, the temperature conditions of transport, or the conditions at the broker's warehouse.
I related all the above because this is a buyer beware situation. From strictly a physical inspection, the bottles look very good for the most part. A few older bottles have some water marks, mud, or mold, but most are pristine with no corks pushed or leaking. While those are positives, it is still possible for the wines to be "cooked" without any external evidence.
Prices seem to be about 20-60% below regualar retail value. My approach was to stick with the things that were discounted heavily for drinking over the next couple months and not plan to cellar them. Ports and Madeiras were the exception as these wines are sturdy and can handle some abuse. Plus the prices were so low on these fortified wines, I felt it was worth the chance.
I opened three bottles tonight to do my own sampling to check for possible heat damage. I chose one young white wine, one older Bordeaux, and one younger Port as wines that would have different levels of susceptability to heat damage. I was looking for prematurely aged color, nutty oxidation, grainy textures, stewed/baked or dried-out fruit character, rubbery aromas, lack of freshness, disintegration, and/or shortening of finish. Surprisingly, all three wines passed with flying colors and were in fine shape. Here are my impressions:
2004 "J" Winery Pinot Gris Russian River Valley ($8.60, reg. $19) - Medium straw color with bronze tint, very sweet and overripe nose of mango, cantaloup and ripe apples, sweeter than off-dry with lush mouthfeel, and somewhat cloying fat finish. GOOD plus
1996 Ch. Prieure-Lichine Margaux ($24.60, reg. $45) - Very dark healthy color with slight clearing at the rime, initial funky nose cleans up with aeration to show dried herbs, black currant, leathery brett, cedar, and oolong tea, lively acidity with some hard tannins yet to resolve, opens up to reveal cigar box, spice and cassis on the palate, well-integrated and powerful, medium-long finish, somewhat bitter tannic aftertaste. EXCELLENT minus
2000 Broadbent Vintage Port ($21.70, reg. $50) - Young vibrant color of opaque purple-black, seems almost unmoved since last tasted three years ago, spirits still showing but is a bit more integrated than on release, medium-heavy body, not a powerhouse but beautifully balanced with medium sweetness, intense fruit and ripe velvety tannins, very long. EXCELLENT
For the risk-averse bargain seeker, other fortified wine prices included:
Fonseca 20-year-old Tawny Port, $15
Broadbent Terrantez Madeira, $39
Broadbent 5 y.o. Reserve Madeira, $10
1992 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Porto, $16
1994 Ferreira Vintage Porto, $31.50
1994 Smith Woodhouse Vintage Porto, $24
1997 Quinta do Noval "Silval" Vintage Porto, $25
Madeira wines actually improve with heat and are generally considered indestructable, so those are the safest bet.
Disclaimer: Bartholomew Broadbent is a friend.