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DINING : 'The Simple Joys of Wines and Foods'

October 20, 1985|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER | Robert Lawrence Balzer is wine columnist for Los Angeles Times Magazine

As he slowly twirled the bowl of his wine glass, Robert, the 11th Marquis de Goulaine of Nantes, smiled. Our luncheon in his majestic medieval castle was nearly over; we had already enjoyed the 1984 Muscadet from his Loire Valley estate, a clean, fragrant, crisp-yet-round golden wine, along with freshly caught Atlantic bar that had been grilled to perfection. With succulent canard a l'orange , Robert had chosen to serve a mellow claret from Moulis-en-Medoc, Chateau Chasse-Spleen of the memorable 1975 vintage.

"Even with a fat checkbook," Robert said, measuring his words, "it is difficult to find simple joys of wines and foods."

He followed that observation with one perhaps even more startling, especially for a French wine maker. "I have 300 California wines in my cellar, and I believe, on a comparison-value scale, that your good, classic California red wine is the best wine in the world. I continue to taste it and my belief stays."

The ring of confidence heard in his words arose from his position as a member of the oldest wine-making family in the world, currently celebrating its 1,000th anniversary.

The truths contained in the reflections of the Marquis de Goulaine underscore the significance of good food and wine when traveling--locally or internationally. How many of your own excursions have been plotted around an itinerary involving lunches and / or dinners in famous restaurants? In Michelin's own terms, a three-star restaurant is "worth a special journey."

The sommelier's assignment of choosing wines for strangers is not an easy one. Not all linen-tablecloth restaurants can afford a sommelier; even some of the most famous restaurants in New York--such as the Four Seasons, Lutece and Le Cirque--handle the challenge of wine without a conspicuous wine steward.

At the Four Seasons, not only are all the waiters well versed in wines, but owners Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai also may be classed as articulate authorities, ever anxious to share their latest discoveries with their guests.

"If you put a sommelier in here," Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque said, "he'd get lost. I have five captains in the dining room who know their wines and our list. Every week we have a class just to taste and learn about these wines. It keeps their level of excitement high."

Bostonians in the know, especially wine mavens, never have qualms about wine selection when they go to Anthony's Pier 4 for a lobster or seafood dinner, because owner Tony Athanas is there to help in the selection. The list has 33 California chardonnays from which to choose. There is even a Louis Latour 1976 Corton Charlemagne for a bargain $35.

Fortunately, the days of intimidating sommeliers, who covered abysmal ignorance with insufferable snobbery, are over. Such individuals are of a dying species.

As Ted Balestreri, owner of the award-winning Sardine Factory in Monterey, said: "We're in the hospitality business. You must love your customers." With wine sales now approaching the $1 million mark and with many other dinner houses crying the blues, Balestreri's gospel creates friends who return again and again. But his is far from a one-man show. Eight years ago, a tall, slender pre-law student on vacation from Georgetown University applied for a clerical job with Balestreri. Now 32, Fred Dame is the only American-trained master sommelier to have passed the rigorous three-part examination of the London Guild of Sommeliers. That was big news not only in Monterey but for the whole wine world, because his was the highest score in the history of the academy. (The three top-scoring candidates today, by the way, are women).

Being the sommelier (or cellar master) at Windows on the World in New York was a springboard to a teaching career for Kevin Zraly, who buys the wines for that multimillion-dollar restaurant complex and is program director of the California Wine Experience in San Francisco.

Ray Wellington is now the friendly cellar master at Windows on the World, having learned his role as a wine steward under Zraly. No fear here, no stuffy, pretentious wine ritual. The Cellar in the Sky in Windows on the World is one of the most romantic, spectacular values for dining and wining in America.

Mark Esakoff, 29, sommelier for Sir Winston's, the Continental-cuisine restaurant on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, says: "When guests ask for my assistance, I never attempt to influence their taste or decision. If it's a large group, I suggest several wines so that many tastes can be satisfied."

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, vacationers are invariably shocked by the price of wines. A few wine lists have a footnote explaining that the prices reflect the local state tax, a hefty 20%. But on a holiday, what's a couple of dollars more on the tab for a memorable experience?

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