“Chug, chug, chug”, I screamed at the top of my lungs at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida. “You got this Miller, finish the job man”! With a water bottle full of red wine inverted to his head, Chris Miller raised his hand to appease the chants. Holding up a finger for victory before slamming the empty bottle to the ground as we all cheered! The effort was legendary, but what else would you expect from a Master Sommelier? Especially one surrounded by a group of the best wine talent in the world!
We’d been summoned to the Naples Wine Festival for the yearly charity wine auction. But this is no ordinary auction. Each January, a handful of the world greatest Chefs, sommeliers and winemakers are invited to throw the world’s most lavish party. The weekend involves private dinners at multi-million-dollar mansions on the beach and outrageous wine tastings with the rarest bottles and winemakers in the world. The showstopper, a final auction held under a tent covering the 18th fairway at the Ritz Carlton golf resort. In five years of attending I’d seen up to 20 million dollars raised in under four hours, and over 80 million total. These auction lots include private yacht tours around the world. Customized one time only cars like Bentley's and Lamborghini's, cooking lessons with Thomas Keller in his home. Golf with Tiger Woods and tennis with Roger Federer. Basically anything your heart desires as long as you outbid the other 300 millionaires and billionaires in the tent.
This was my fourth year being invited and things had changed a lot. When I first started working the gig it was a serene, long weekend escape from life and working in the resort world. But times had changed. Movies, books and TV shows were coming out about sommeliers and wine geeks of the world. Everyone wanted to crown the next Master Sommelier or young winemaker as the coolest wine geek around. The new superstars of food and beverage were the people that used to annoy the hell out of everyone in the dining room.
As part of the weekend’s events the sommelier team would work individually on private dinners, have team tastings and work in groups as well. The first morning started with a tasting of five vintages of Krug (the greatest Champagne in the world), the owner and winemaker flown in from France for the gig. After, the sommelier team would be responsible for putting together one of the greatest tastings I have ever been privy to. The owner of Chateau Haut Brion and neighboring property Chateau La Mission Haut Brion was invited to host a tasting for 100 VIP guests. What makes these 100 guests VIPS? The tasting of the twelve wines cost $10,000 to attend. Granted, the money was all going to charity as the entire weekend does, but twelve ounces of wine for 10K did not seem “value oriented”.
Chateau Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion are two of the most storied Chateaux in Bordeaux, France and all the world. Certainly the gold standard of many wine minds from the novice oenophile to the savviest collector. Our job was to decant, organize, pour and taste through all of the bottles. Certainly good work if you can get it, but intense and harried all the same. As we all arrived to the cellar we noticed something a bit different. There was a team of “heavies” from the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) checking our credentials and unlocking the door to allow us entrance and exit. Sure the twelve wines from the best vintages of the last sixty years was impressive, but armed guards were a bit overboard don’t you think? We looked over the stash and began our game plan until were interrupted by the head of the “heavies.” Mr. ATF started with apologies for the scrutiny of the lock down and proceeded to let us know when we were in the room the door would remain locked. When we started service we would be escorted to and from the cellar by his team.
As we came to find out there had been several high end “wine crimes” that involved fake bottles, stolen labels and corks. A gentleman named Mr. Rudy Kurniawan had been sentenced to ten years in prison for knowingly selling fake bottles to big name auction houses and private collectors. Literally making over 30 million dollars on the scams. Therefore, all bottles and corks we touched that day would be commandeered. As this team was a highly regarded group of professionals, it seemed surreal that they would be treated with such indignity. Who was the ATF to question this group about their whereabouts when the 1961 La Mission cork went missing?
With a case (12 bottles) of each wine we had work to do. In ninety minutes, we were to decant (remove sediment) each bottle, taste to ensure the wine has no faults, pour back into the bottle and serve at 55 degrees. With 100 place settings, twelve glasses at each seat and under thirty minutes to pour things could get complicated. Our orders were to open every bottle of each case and pour every setting in the room. It was quickly apparent to each of us there would be a surplus of open wine. Even more apparent was some of the greatest, most expensive wine in the world from great vintages 1961, 1982, 1985, 2000 were about to get flushed by the ATF heavies.
As a team we made quick, diligent work getting the juice ready for prime time. In every team situation there is always trash talk and believe it or not the sommelier world is the same. In a room with some of the greatest wine minds and palates in the world I have never heard so many “yo momma” jokes with wine innuendo. These were wine directors of the most revered restaurants, resorts and food and beverage groups in the world. The French Laundry, Spago, Eleven Madison Park, Alinea and on and on. No matter the profession there will always be friendly fire in the trenches. Even if your trenches are full of fine crystal, $10,000 bottles, $500 corkscrews and bow ties!
As the tasting finished, we headed back to the cellar to clean, organize bottles and corks for the final pat down. With doom in our eyes, we knew we could not let this wine escape us. It was immoral, uncouth and down right against the creed we had taken as professional drinkers. We had to save the fermented grapes! We scanned the room, but there was nowhere to stash the goods for later. We were locked in the cellar with our wine keys, 144 bottles and two cases of bottled water. Like an Acme cartoon the light bulb in our heads flipped on. We formed an assembly line, marking and emptying bottles. Every man and woman in the room knew their assignment and crushed it! With only fifteen minutes to clean, we would be escorted out of the cellar in unison. As we finalized our plan a knock came on the door and the “evil empire” appeared. “You wine sammalays ready”? Said the man. “Yes sir," we said in unison. As we proceeded out one of the ladies on the team asked, “Excuse me sir, can we take this water, we don’t have any in our rooms?” Occupied by the bottles and corks we were waved off with a “yeah sure, is everyone out of the cellar?” We assured him that we were and grabbed the cases of water as we waved goodbye!
Without a word, or a bat of the eye the team flowed to the pool deck where we had a table waiting. When the server appeared one of the group mumbled “Today feels like a cheeseburger and fries day”! Nary a menu touched a hand as the entire group agreed. Startled, the young lady asked, “So twelve cheeseburgers and fries”? As she retreated from the table someone chipped in “and extra bacon”! And with that we were left alone. That’s right, twelve wine geeks poolside and two cases of water bottles (700ml each), filled with some of the greatest juice in the world.
As I popped the first case and started calling out vintage’s hands hit the air. “Yo, over here with that ‘82”! “Hit me with that 1961 Haut Brion my man”! On and on the palates percolated. I started tossing bottles the length of the table and sliding others across to my fellow wine-o’s. For the next hour time stood still for this group of cork dorks. We sipped and savored some of the greatest vintages the wine world will ever know. These elegant and powerful wines were full of velvety textures and heavenly aromas that only the greatest wines in the world could carry after forty years. Leather, spice and everything nice flowed from the glass like Alicia Keys holding a final note for an encore. All paired with perfectly medium rare burgers, crispy fries and double layers of smoky pork love.
While we finished lunch in a world of perfection Mr. Christopher Miller looked up from his phone. “Damn it, the CEO of our group wants to call me in 5 minutes, this can’t be good!” United, we started taunting him about his pending call and I slung the last wine-filled water bottle across the table to Chris. Mockingly, he started to sip the wine from the water bottle, as if he would take the whole thing down. Like a room full of prepubescent girls and boys the group urged him to pound the bottle to his head. Chants of “chug, chug, chug” echoed from the group. Mr. Miller, not one to shy away from a challenge killed the entire bottle of one of the greatest wines of all time (La Mission Haut Brion 2000). As he spiked the bottle on the pool deck, his phone rang. Pushing away from table to answer the call our hero spotted a server. With a slight hiccup he mumbled his famous last words, “Excuse me, can I get a bottle of water?”