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Drinking Blackberry Farm

Blackberry Farm was originally buit as a retirement home but became an inn when the owners began to take in guests to help financially. It was still a small inn when the Beall family (who made their fortune with the Ruby Tuesday restaurant empire) bought it in 1976. Sandy and Kreis Beall made major investments in the property, turning it into a high end resort. But it wasn't until son Sam began to take over management that the wine program turned from good into one of America's best. That excellence was documented recently with the 2014 James Beard Award for America's top wine program.

The wine cellar is large--in the neighborhood of 200,000 bottles, which I believe makes it America's second largest (next to Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa). But it's not just quantity that makes this list extraordinary. It's quality. The wine list was 222 pages. At least it was 222 pages the nights I looked at it--I suspect with additions it changes over time. And there were very, very few uninteresting wines anywhere in those pages. You may have to be a wine geek to really enjoy spending time with a wine list the thickness of the DC phone book. Guilty, I guess, because I did. But for those who want to make their own wine selections, I highly recommend perusing the list on line before your trip to Blackberry Farm. What is on line is not completely current, but it's close enough for you to get a good idea of sections you may want to focus on...if you're starting from scratch, 222 pages may be too much to digest in time to make an informed order.

When I first perused the list on line, I was pretty excited. I was about 20 pages into the list and thought the prices were fabulous--barely over retail! Then I got to page 27, and realized I'd been looking at half-bottles. So much for that. In general, the prices are about what you'd expect at a top restaurant (which is to say pretty expensive). But it did highlight the fact that they have the best selection of half-bottles I've ever seen. And that can be very valuable. Particularly if you're there as a couple, it gives you the flexibility to explore several great wines.

But the greatest value of the list is the extraordinary range of great wines--some of them quite rare. Every wine list has its areas of strength--normally reflecting the preferences of the buyer or buyers--and while this list has excellent wines in virtually every category, it is extremely strong in the Burgundian grapes (chardonnay and pinot noir), syrah and riesling. There are many, many pages of choices from top producers. And, of course, there is lots of high end west coast cabernet sauvignon. There is less emphasis on Bordeaux, althought the selection is respectable.

Because the expansion of the wine program has taken place over the last ~15 years, it is stronger in vintages that have been available in that period than in older wines. There are certainly some great wines on the list from the 1980s--for example, the 1989 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, which is the best wine I've had this year--but Blackberry Farm is not the place to look for the 1961s or the 1947s (if counterfeiting hasn't scared you away from dreaming of those). Among other things, Tennessee laws make it difficult for Blackberry Farm to buy older wines at auctions (the primary place great old wines can be found).

For those who have special bottles you'd like to bring, corkage is permitted. The charge is $50 per bottle and there is a two bottle limit. As a matter of courtesy, I would try not to bring a bottle that is on their list...but there is no written policy prohibiting it. We brought one bottle--a 2009 Cedric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Les Ursules Blanc de Noirs. I really, really like the wine (at least the little I've had of it) and did not see many champagnes on the list that I considered both compelling and affordable (the selection of Salon was fabulous--but out of my range). Our sommelier seemed pleased to open it for us. He had not had the wine, so I insisted he take a glass. I think he liked it. I know I loved it. Too often, people think of champagne simply as bubbles. And the energy of the bubbles does add uniqueness. But at the end of the day, it is wine. And what I loved about this was that it was great wine. Rich, intense, penetrating, minerally...each sip seemed to last two or three minutes in my head.

The champagne went well with the mix of starters from the a la carte menu. Sometimes people forget that champagne is an excellent food wine--not just an apertif or celebratory wine. The next two courses called for the versatility of pinot noir. The 2008 Peay Scallop Shelf seemed like it would offer the energy and elegance to pair well with the chicken and pork dishes. And it did. Really good...plenty of fruit, but well balanced, without the jammy ripeness that can make some California pinots hard to recognize.

For those who choose the tasting menu--which we did the second night--there is an option to include wine pairings for an additional $150 per person. We did not. The wines looked pleasant. But $150 per person seemed a lot for what they were pouring. It might make some sense if there were only two of you...allowing you to taste many different wines matched with the food, which is harder to do with just two people. But even then, I think you might do better with three great half-bottles for that amount of money.

In our case (for nine of us), working with the sommelier, we chose the 2004 Dauvissat La Forest Premier Cru Chablis, the 2004 Whetstone Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2005 Tyrus Evans Del Rio Vineyard Syrah (two bottles each). Each one outstanding. And at a little over $100 per bottle (a little under for the syrah), solid value. We enjoyed the Dauvissat so much we added another bottle--and to see how terroir might affect it, we chose the Dauviassat Vaillons from the same vintage as the La Forest (the Vaillons was a little rounder and perhaps a little less penetrating).

I love great chablis. And the selections of both Ravenau and Dauvissat were outstanding. But the Ravenaus were priced out of my range. Some of that is market value. But some of it is philosophical. If Ravenau was a bargain, they'd sell out quickly. They hope to be able to maintain enough that they are able to offer older vintages for many years to come. They appear to use that kind of "protective pricing" with some other rare and highly desireable wines, as well. And I don't have a problem with that.

The sommelier support was excellent. Andy Chabot heads the wine program. Owner Sam Beall plays an active role. Logan (Griffin, I believe) was our sommelier both nights. He was knowledgeable, friendly and gracious. And he never tried to upsell us expensive wines. In fact, in one or two cases, he pointed out wines similar to ones I highlighted at a more affordable price.

While I haven't done a scientific comparison, I think this is the best wine list I've ever seen. If your passion is for the classic old French wines, perhaps you might prefer the list at La Tour D'Argent. But the breadth and quality of this wine list is very impressive. And the wine service is excellent.

If I were to go back to Blackberry Farm (a distinct possibility, limited only by the cost), I might bring a little more wine with me. There are some absolutely lovely spots all around the farm where you could open and share a bottle. And I might bring a bottle to The Barn with me each night. But I wouldn't miss the chance to order a bottle or two off their list. Especially something that I might not see anywhere else.

Drinking Blackberry Farm. It's oustanding!

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