Once again a current wine story has brought back memories of the heady days of the late ’90s. My fellow Sommelier @the21club is still at it plugging away flogging wines and sometimes petulant customers who need the occasionally flog. Phil Pratt was just mentioned in an article about 1982 Château Petrus, that great Merlot from Pomerol.

This reminded me of a few of wine stories I experienced while at the ’21’ Club. Hopefully I can remember them all and post them here for entertainment. But this particular story involves Merlot and Petrus. Keep in mind that the price of Petrus and others were closer to just expensive wines at the time and had not reached insane as they have since.

Back then, I was the Sommelier for the private dining rooms at the place and that included the Cellar along with ten rooms above the main a la carte dining room. During those days there were events that required a Sommelier almost every day of the week (except Sundays, when the place is closed). During the grueling holiday season, it was almost 24/7 for the staff. From the week of Thanksgiving till New Years Eve every dining room was booked for dinner and almost all for lunch and even sometimes in-between. The premium room is the Wine Cellar, which seats between 12 and 22 people. The cost of booking that room is $450 (might have been $400 when I was there) per person with a minimum of 12 guests. This came with five courses paired with five wines chosen by the Sommelier (me). During those heady days of stock market boom, there were many occasions when the host asked to confer with me on the wine selection. When that request happened, I would always assume that meant going beyond the defined wine budget that fit in to the $400 cost structure. Lunch was closer to $200 for fewer dishes and wines as I remember it.

About a week in advance of one such Wine Cellar lunch I got a message to call the host and discuss the wine choices. His main concern was that I served the best Merlot that was available, naturally he meant Californian as I am not sure he was even aware that certain Bordeaux were also Merlot. Anyhow, I believe we settled on the most expensive on the list, a Pahlmeyer. It was most likely the 1997 vintage and it was on the list for less than $150 a bottle at the time. My dusty recollection is $125 or so.

As I was preparing all the dining rooms for that days lunch service, I got a summons to the cellar to talk with the host about the selections. I walked him through the wine selections again and showed him the wines set up for service, he was thrilled. Yet he wanted to confirm that the Pahlmeyer was indeed the finest Merlot currently available at The ’21’ Club.

“Well” I replied, “yes, if you want something from California…” and I nonchalantly waved at a stack of cases in the corner of the cellar. This small gesture started a conversation about other places in which Merlot was produced at a top level. He was intrigued with the cases of 1978 Petrus and the story behind the wine, but stuck with his Pahlmeyer for the lunch. He did show enough interest that I asked my Cellar Assistant to “beep me” if you think I need to talk wine with him again. (yes the old era of beepers…well isn’t wine just another drug anyhow)

Alas when I saw the beeper number was from the cellar I called Jason and confirmed that the host wanted a bit more information about the 1978 Petrus. I sprinted down the three flights of stairs and arrived to see Jason grinning at the entrance to the cellar dining room. When I approached the host, his first question was, “would it be alright if I bought a bottle of the Petrus for the table.”

“um well, we actually have a policy that we sell the 1978 Petrus and 1978 Cheval Blanc as a pair.” was my reply.

After his surprised and disappointing sounding “really”, I relented and told him I was just kidding. For the rest of the lunch I stayed close to the cellar dining area and pretty much ignored the rest of my dining rooms. This was fun, and wasn’t hurting the restaurants or staffs revenues. After the Petrus was poured and drunk, he had to taste that Cheval Blanc, which then turned into another Petrus. So a bit of education and fun turned a six or so bottles of Pahlmeyer Merlot plus four extra bottles of very expensive Bordeaux. Cheap by todays standards but in 1999, $1800 for Chateau Cheval Blanc and $2200 for Petrus was quite a serious amount to add to an already fairly large wine bill.

But that event pales in comparison to some of the dinners that happened during my time there.