Finally, We Made  a Choice: Here's What We're Having for OTBN

Every year in February, John and I embark on a task both excruciatingly difficult and deliriously fun. And, ahem, I’m not talking about anything in 50 Shades of Grey. Focus. Focus.

We decamp to the rec room, where the good wine cellar is, and try to decide what to enjoy on Open That Bottle Night. Always the last Saturday in February, it’s Feb. 28 this year.

We have signed bottles of Barolo from Aldo Conterno, who was kind enough to receive us at his winery in Monforte d’Alba in Piemonte without an appointment. Tucked away on a low shelf is a 1990 Gristina Vineyards Pinot Noir from Long Island signed by several people, including the tasting room server, because the winery’s owner at that time had ordered its winemaker never to make it again and we thought it was delicious. We have a 1999 Peter Jakob Kühn Pur Pur Rotwein Rheingau Trocken that we purchased at the winery on our first visit to Germany.

We’re heavy on French stuff and wines from California. Among our special bottles from the Golden State are two bottles of 2005 Huber Cellars Dornfelder. The Dornfelder grape is a native of Germany, but Norman and Traudl Huber, themselves German transplants, have been growing it in the Santa Rita Hills region of Santa Barbara County with great success. One Dornfelder is a regular bottling and the other is a Charlotte’s Reserve, named for their beloved dog, who died in 2007. We had a lovely visit with Norman at their home winery in Lompoc several years ago and bought the wines intending to drink them side by side. Because I love strawberries, we also purchased a jar of Traudle’s strawberry jam, which was amazing.

There’s also among our prized bottles from California a 1996 Gallo of Sonoma Northern Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon that winemaker Gina Gallo, the granddaughter of Julio and grand-niece of Ernest, gave us when we met her at an OTBN for vintners in Napa. The Wall Street Journal’s Advertising Department threw that bash in 2000. Gallo signed the bottle this way:  “Dottie & John,

Thanks for passing on your passion and love for wine to all!! Cheers…Gina Gallo.” 

These wines are dear, bound to us by wonderful memories. That makes them perfect candidates for Open That Bottle Night, our invention and excuse to open those bottles that have always seemed too special to open. This year we’re celebrating at a sweet and welcoming neighborhood BYOB restaurant, A Café, 973 Columbus Avenue between 107th and 108th streets in Manhattan. John and I will be there from 7 until around 9:15 for dinner, sharing our wine and stories. The restaurant’s prix fixe dinner is $25 plus tip and tax. When you call A Café for reservations, 212-222-2033, tell Al you’re reserving for Open That Bottle Night or email him at [email protected].  He’s also the guy who will take your payment.

As I write this, looking at the snow on the deck of our country cabin, I’m happy about our decision to open a 1997 Pugliese Vineyards Sangiovese from Cutchogue in Long Island’s North Fork.  In the early 1990s, years before we began writing about wine, we’d visit the North Fork in the summertime, with the girls. Like Napa and Sonoma in the 1970s, you could drop in and more likely than not find winemakers pouring their wines. There was no need for people directing traffic and boorish people were few.

One day we turned into a driveway off Main Road, saw some ducks that would help entertain the girls, and entered the modest building that housed the winery. Ralph Pugliese Sr., whose big heart shone through his broad smile and soft eyes, welcomed us.

He’d been a labor official with a plasterers’ union and had lived in Brooklyn before moving to the North Fork, he told us. His father had taught him to make wine from grapes that he bought at a farmer’s market in Brooklyn. Ralph’s wife, Patricia, who co-owned the family winery they founded in 1980, hand- painted the bottles of their fabulous Blanc de Blanc with fingernail polish. Even though she could speak knowledgably about the wines, she had never tasted them, she told us. When she was a young woman she and her sister had had too much to drink one night and she’d never had a drop since.

Ralph, appreciating that we were interested in the pioneering nature of what he was doing, told us on one visit that he had made a Zinfandel. He’d ordered the vines from California and trucked in soil that was more suitable for it and had made Zinfandel. It was still in the barrel and he offered us a taste of the rich and peppery wine. Months later, we returned and purchased a bottle, which we opened in 2006 for OTBN 7. He’d made 60 cases of it. While it lacked the power of youth then, it was filled with fruit, earth, pepper and a wisp of cinnamon. Yummy.

When we told Mrs. Pugliese that we had finally opened it, she said, “Oh, good Lord. We haven’t had a bottle of that in years.” She said that when people learned that a Zinfandel had been made in the North Fork, it quickly sold out. She added, “I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.” Ralph Sr. died in 2011. One of his daughters-in-law, Lorelle, told me a few days ago that they still grow some Zinfandel, but blend it into other wines.

This brings us to Ralph Sr.’s Sangiovese.  After telling us about the lengths to which he went to grow and make Zinfandel, he told us that a bolt of lightening had hit a row of Merlot and that he had interpreted that as a sign that he should grow a grape type from his native Italy: Sangiovese.

 And so he did. Pugliese Vineyard was then, and is now, Lorelle confirmed, the only maker of Sangiovese on the North Fork.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as at The Journal.