What does a champagne-drinking, ‘wildcard’ sommelier like to drink when not drinking champagne? Current holder of Best Sommelier title in the US Alex LaPratt says that he is really loving Bordeaux Blanc at the moment – especially those blending Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and a touch of oak – delighting in its hints of Creme Soda, grapefruit, lemon “and a ton of gravel minerality. It’s sick for sunshine in the summer”, he waxes alliteratively, “and definitely under-appreciated.”
It is not, however, his favourite variety: that honour goes to Chardonnay. (Sauvignon Bland in his view is “too brash and forward”.) The common reaction, when he tells people this, is surprise : Chardonnay is not exactly perceived as the coolest style around, certainly in the face of the obscure grape varieties increasingly the rage. “Well that’s all fine and good”, says Alex, “but don’t forget that most Champagne is based on it – and you also have White Burgundy too. Those two together are a 1,2 combo for a sommelier knockout!”
Alex’s general level of enthusiasm is almost contagious. Lately his favourite red wine, he confides, is Zinfandel. “That’s right people: BAM! Zinfandel for the win. If it has acid (think cooler climate Zin) then it’s pretty awesome!” He is a big fan of Storybook.
Well, we can assume his favourite white is Champagne and indeed it is – although “if you exclude bubbles it’s Meursault”. As for regions, he is careful to make distinctions. “For the wine”, he tells me, “Champagne without any hesitation. For the weather : Napa Valley. For the people : Burgundy if you can get in to see anyone. They are basically just farmers and I can really connect with them, having been raised on a farm. No ego, just hardworking and humble…”
Alex has been opening some fairly impressive wines with his beloved Code38. Most recently it was an 1863 bottle of Barbieto Bual Madiera and by all accounts it was fantastic, both for the occasion – a party of 20 celebrating a birthday – and for the fact it was the oldest bottle he has ever opened. Nearly as exciting as the 1969 Comte de Vogue Musigny– “with an uncomfortably low fill level. I removed the capsule like a surgeon with a scalpel, wiped away all the mould with my damp fine-grade cotton serviette and inserted the slick worm of the Code38. It was a long cork and was in terrible shape so I was thankful not only for the length of the worm but also the small amount of resistance its tapered point and slick coating provided. As I pulled it out it just crumbled and the wine was oxidised just enough to justify not saving it. What a heart-breaker.”
He still remembers his first taste of quality wine. Under-age, he was employed at the time at one of Michigan’s best restaurants when a fellow server gave him a taste of Penfolds Bin 389, Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz. “It was tasty!”, he says. “I thought to myself that there might be something there…”
The wine, however, he would like other Code38 members to try is a Bordeaux Blanc – ideally from a good-quality producer like Chateau Carbonnieux (available from most fine wine shops, including his favourite Jean-Luc Le Du’s in NYC.) Alex would accompany this wine with a salad of mango chutney, Bibb lettuce and Dungenous crabmeat “served cold with a squeeze of lemon and minced tarragon.”
It is the weight and the feel of his Code38 which he loves. “It was really designed with the sommelier in mind”, he continues. “In the business of opening fine wine this wine key has no parallel. It’s razor-sharp for a clean cut, long worm that has almost zero friction and is tapered, great shape that lets your fingers align along the body as you turn the corkscrew, superior materials so that it doesn’t break (ahem: think about how many Laguiole worms we’ve lost) and comes with a lifetime warranty. If a sommelier can’t see this as a great long-term investment then you shouldn’t trust their recommendation of any wine more than three years old because they are clearly short-sighted.”