I've been to many tastings where winemakers put their wines up against the top wines of France—Cabernet versus first growth Bordeaux, sparkling wine versus tête de cuvée Champagne and Pinot Noir versus Grand Cru Burgundy. It's always a good exercise, and as predicted, the California versions usually fare pretty well against the greats of Europe. There's always an element of hubris in the act, though, as implicit in the exercise is the assertion that "my wines that I've been making for 20 years are as good as this French property that's been making wines for 200."
Yesterday I went to another such tasting. All the usual sommelier suspects were gathered up from Jardinere's Eugenio Jardim to A16's Shelley Lindgren to Paul Einbund of Coi, Tony Cha of Michael Mina, Nicole Burke of Epic Roasthouse (soon to open), Jonathan Waters of Chez Panisse, Emily Wines of the Fifth Floor, Larry Stone, etc.
This tasting was a little bit different. The wines were Parr Selections—wines either made (or selected or made to his specifications) by Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Michael Mina group. We tasted four of his wines—2005 Chardonnay, 2004/2005 Syrah and 2004 Pinot Noirs. In each case he lined up his wine with a lineup of a high-end California version of the same grape in the same vintage as well as a couple of greats from France, same grape same vintage. And he didn't stint one bit. With the Parr Selection Chardonnay he poured 2005 Coche-Dury Meursault and 2005 Ravaneau Montée de Tonnerre, as well as Brewer Clifton Mt. Carmel. With the Syrah, he poured Copain, as well as Yves Cuilleron Cote Rotie and Sorrel Hermitage "Le Greal," as well as an epic bottle of Jamet Côte Brune 2004 next to Parr's Purisima Mountain. In the Pinot category, he offered Rousseau Clos St. Jacques and Roumier Bonnes Mares and Calera Mills next to his own.
Unlike the other tastings against Europe's greats that I have done, Raj didn't ask us to taste blind. We knew what was in each individual glass. And in that sense, it wasn't a competition. Raj is proud of what he's accomplished but way too full of humility to ever try to compete against the wines he reveres most in the world. It was an exploration. It was a map of the thoughts Raj has while tasting—the benchmarks he consistently thinks about when he tastes wine. And he is one of the best tasters ever. It was audacious, but also humbling, to put his wines in the same group as those others, saying, in a way, "these are my heroes, these are what inspire me day to day." He admitted that he was emulating the techniques used to make the French wines, just to see what would happen. And yesterday, he let his friends in on the results of his experiment.
So, how did the Parr Selections come out of the line up? Overall, very well I'd say. As far as alcohol levels—something very important to Raj, since above all he sees wine as meant for the dinner table. He could proudly say that his Syrahs were actually lower in alcohol than the French ones, something that almost never happens. Parr's Syrahs showed some amazing potential; they were complex, supple, exact and delicious. His Chardonnay was good—tight, lean and mineral, though naturally more simple and less flamboyant than the Coche Dury or Ravaneau (but so is every other wine in the world). And the Pinot Noir had a lot of stuffing. It's true self won't be revealed for a few more years. Overall, it was a very good showing. I look forward to tasting Parr Selections—these vintages and the ones to come—for many years. They are available at Michael Mina and soon at some other venues around town.