25 Wines in 25 Years: 1996 – Giacomo Conterno

Compared to ’95, 1996 is an easy one. Larry Stone and Traci des Jardins gave me a bottle of the ‘85 Giacomo Conterno “Cascina Francia” Barolo for my birthday. Twenty years later it still wears a crown as one of my all time top wines.

Here’s a little back-story. Rubicon, which in its heyday was the best restaurant I ever went to in SF, opened in 1994.[1] The pastry chef, Elizabeth Falkner, was one of the first people I met when I moved to SF and she was an early supporter of the bar. She often came by after work with her colleagues and soon enough we became their watering hole.

That’s how I got to know Traci and Larry as well as Alison Richman, aka Squab, who became my roommate, Sara Floyd, who was Larry’s assistant, Christine Mullen, our first chef at CAV, Mary Frances Egan and Michelle Collins, all who have become old friends. More often than not, Saturday nights turned into a Hayes & Vine/ Rubicon post-closing drink fest, with bottles of Chave, Domaine de L’Arlot, Müller-Catoir and the like coming up from the cellar faster than you could have said, “President Clinton.” Larry, Sara and I were usually the last ones standing, often finding ourselves perched on a bar stool at the wee hours, listening to Hendrix or the Dead, and talking about politics and religion, the only subjects fit for 4 a.m. conversation.

When they gave me the Conterno in November 1995, I stashed it away in the cellar, thinking I’d open it on the perfect occasion. That came in the spring of 1996 when I celebrated my six-month anniversary with my girlfriend, which at the time seemed like a long-term relationship. We went to Woodward’s Garden, one of our favorite spots.

Though still super young, the wine was extraordinary. Giovanni Conterno’s face should be sculpted into Mount Rushmore. One of the most traditional producers of Barolo, Conterno never gave into the trend to make more fruit forward, younger drinking wines. Starting in the 80’s, the modern camp became all the rage but a few basically said, “fuck that,” and history has borne them out as the traditionally made wines have aged much better.

The only problem, which really was not a problem, was the food pairing. I ordered fish (my dirty not so little secret is that I stopped eating meat when I was a child) and while the combination wasn’t bad, it wasn’t ideal. Joanna Karlinsky, another talented chef/restaurateur from that period, once said that when you have a well-balanced wine and an equally balanced dish, it doesn’t matter that much if the two are perfectly suited. There is something to be said for this but even if the dish was awful, which it most definitely was not, nothing, not even a hellacious argument (hypothetically speaking, we did not have one) could have ruined the wine. Do I wish I held onto it longer? Maybe, but it was what I wanted to drink at the time, with someone who I knew would also appreciate as much as I did so no regrets. And six months…well, that was big! 


[1] With Traci as the Executive Chef, Elizabeth as the Pastry Chef and Larry as the Wine Director, it was the all-time, all-star line-up.

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