Norma Desmond

Is this Wine Corked?

A master sommelier saves the day

Andrea Immer Robinson bursts into the room like Norma Desmond ready for her close-up. No one notices. Or recognizes her. Or cares.

A member of the tasting panel comments that the fruit flavors from this particular vineyard consistently has a “blueish quality” — yes “blueish” — for him and the other guests nod in agreement.

“This wine is more about the frame than the picture,” says Karen MacNeil. Glasses are swirled; nostrils flare; everyone lifts their paper cups in unison and spits out the once-most-expensive fruit in Napa Valley into them, leaving dribbles of red wine down the side. Andrea, dressed like Molly Ringwald in what what appears to be a bodysuit under an oversized knit sweater, finds a seat in the back of the room.

Those present — on a 55-year tasting journey from what was obviously the greatest wines the Valley might ever make; wines from the 70s that were made by instinct, intuition and art to the unctuous, nay, obnoxious, modern-day “NapaCab” (in quotes here because it is merely a loose interpretation of that variety — masked by alcohol and oak barrels) could not be distracted. Theirs was a journey of discovery, of disappointment. Why, with all of this knowledge, this science, this understanding of trellis systems and irrigation and malolactic fermentation; why, when Nasa is planting vineyards are all the wines shit? Or if not shit, an imitation of something else. An insecure attempt at greatness. A would-be prom queen regretting such an ostentatious gown.

“This was the first 100-point wine in Napa Valley,” a panelist says.

The room sniffs and sniffs like a pack of bloody bloodhounds.

What are we looking for? Nuance. Sensitivity. Terroir. It isn’t there.

“We’re moving from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe,” says MacNeil. Leave it to a woman of MacNeil’s refinement and poise to find a positive spin.

Heidi Peterson Barrett, who was evidently on the same bus straight from the ’80s that dropped off Robinson but, with a black-and-white striped shirt, frizzy bangs and blue eyeshadow, seems to make it work, takes the podium.

The 1989 Dalla Valle is a wine that makes no sense: Imagine taking fresh cherries and then roasting them for half-a-day and serving them with rosemary. It’s fresh but it is also anything but fresh. It’s red chili flakes and dried cranberries. It’s scorched; it’s mouthwatering; it’s delicious. “It’s a completely different manifestation of Cabernet Sauvignon,” says MacNeil.

Heidi shrugs, “It’s the vineyard. It faces west.”

Heidi introduces her second wine. It’s legendary. It’s important. It’s coveted… “It’s corked,” announces the panelist, stating what most tasters in the room have already realized, albeit shyly; uncertainly. It is shocking and unprecedented. No one knows what to do.

“Are there any sommeliers in the room?” asks the panelist.

And this is it. Her moment.

As if we are on an airplane and someone has collapsed in a seizure and the stewardess cries out, “Is there a doctor onboard?!” Andrea Immer Robinson ascends to the front of the room like a sommeliering superhero, gesturing to the right, to the left, prepared and desperate to save the situation.

But there is no redemption. The wine is corked and there is no other bottle in sight.

“Perhaps someone has a glass that isn’t corked?” she suggests.

The bloodhounds go at it again. Swirling. Sniffing. Cocking their heads and sniffing again. “Mine isn’t corked” a fellow boasts from the back of the room. “My glass is fine!” He is confident, unreasonable. It passes from lip to lip and Andrea Immer Robinson finds her seat. She is truly a master.

Heidi raises her eyebrows and looks from side to side. “Well, we can still talk about the wine, at least?”