An evening at a restaurant usually doesn't go like this for me, but my wife and I are just two glasses of bubbly into dinner and have already added $48 to our wine bill. Then again, this is an once-in-a-lifetime dinner, as we're at the French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller's original masterpiece, and to suddenly get too cheap when you're already $270 a person in for dinner (nine courses plus) and service makes you seem like the guy who doesn't get pot odds at the poker game. If you want to win big, at a certain point you've got nothing to lose. So you order that Schramsberg, "Cuvée French Laundry," Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs, California 2008. It's creamy, bright, an evening's kick in the tuxedoed pants even if you're not that dressed up yourself.
It helps that the service at the French Laundry is like stumbling upon that moment when robots discovered feelings. Everyone is professional, smooth, knowledgeable, friendly, but never over-friendly: you learn people's names casually, not like on a speed date when people instantly announce, "I'm ____, and I'm your server;" instead, your waiter says, "I'll get Aubrey to help you with the wines." And Aubrey does. With an iPad. This might seem cold and calculating, but captures the restaurant's spirit -- deep in tradition yet realizing forward is the way we all go if we want to get anywhere.
Aubrey suggests that half bottles are a wiser route than glasses -- a better selection, and the menu is designed to work from lighter dishes pairing with white to richer pairing with red, even the "Tasting of Vegetables" my wife opts for. I want to be led, as it's the menu she knows, even if it's created new each day, and I want to be surprised. Of course she asks what kind of whites we like, and it seems coy and glib to say, "Any one that's good," even if it's close to the truth. So I say, "Rhone whites," as I've had some lascivious dreams about Roussanne. Aubrey begins to suggest a 2010 Yves Cuilleron, "Les Chaillets," Condrieu, and if you're going to have Viognier, why not have it from one of the best, but that's $160 a half bottle, and we're hoping to do our two wines for about $200 total. If you go, do give them a target figure, or you can end up like our neighbors, who honeymooned there, let the restaurant suggest, and spent $1400 on wine only.
Next Aubrey suggested a 2011 Do Ferreiro, Albariño, Rías Baixas, and as fans of this slowly coming into hipness Spanish grape, we didn't take long to be convinced. It's sort of fascinating that at the Laundry, bottles arrive tableside already uncorked. It makes sense, as the cork-pulling drama can lead to all sorts of problems, from broken corks to unpleasant noises, and the staff at this magnificent machine makes no noise at all (how do they clear so silently?). It turns out to be a perfect food wine, hitting that sweet spot that's not sweet but mineral, rich in fruit but not too. Enough acid to go with the brilliant salad courses (some of the best of the evening) and dishes like roasted Holland white asparagus, which should barely pair with anything. Yes, it's $60 a half bottle for a wine that retails about $25 for a 750 ml, but you don't go to the French Laundry to save money.
We do chat a bit about the iPad, especially as you can hit a button that says "selection" that actually just holds all such choices so you can compare them, but worries us it means you've bought something auto-magically. Our waiter Andrew jokes there's a pneumatic tube that would whisk the wine to your table. Audrey is happier about how the iPad allows for quick updates of inventory. And we're happy it's less a tome -- that assignment for book club you never get through but then feel quizzed on afterward.
As we headed into the Liberty Farm Pekin Duck "Rilette" and the Mascarpone-Enriched Sunchoke Tortellini (and leaving off the sub-titles for the dishes denies them their distinctive richness and delight), we go with Aubrey's red choice, a 2010 Copain Syrah "Halcon," Yorkville Highlands. This wine comes from a tiny AVA at the warmer end of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, an area I've always been fond of, so it seems uncanny she suggests it and I immediately say yes. And while it's warmer for the area, it's still a relatively cool climate Syrah, as much about earth and stone as plum and other red fruits. Of course it too is a food wine -- while this list has its 1997 Screaming Eagle Cab show pieces (for eight grand a 750 bottle), it's mostly aimed at those whose palates are fuller than their wallets.
I cannot resist a glass of a superior sticky with the desserts, which keep coming like the meal might not end (you get heavenly shortbread cookies in a tin to take home, even). This time Aubrey suggests a 2000 Disznókõ, Tokaji Aszú, 6 Puttonyos, Tokaj, and knowing only enough about Hungarian dessert wine that I want to know more about it, I nod yes. We're talking grapes referred to in the country's national anthem as nectar, and indeed it's honeyed and deep, with caramel and smoke, too, a funkier cousin of France's Sauterne. It's $36 a glass (perhaps retails for $90 a bottle), but makes me feel richer, even as we spend away. That's what a crazy indulgence is for, after all.