Taylor Parsons pulls no punches in evaluating offerings from Jay-Z sparkling to a Drew Barrymore chardonnay — just don't bother with the 'Game of Thrones' swill.
Sommelier Taylor Parsons isn't shy about telling powerful people which wines to drink: The Whole Cluster consultancy founder has overseen the wine programs of L.A. hotspots Campanile; Spago; the Mozza compound; and Republique, where he has won accolades for his selections.
As he advises on restaurant projects and winery overhauls, Parsons takes time out to sip and tell about wines made by everyone from Hollywood stalwart Francis Ford Coppola to newbie vintner 50 Cent.
Watch out, Game of Thrones vintage, it's time for in vino veritas!
TASTING NOTES: An over-the-top package, but more in the style of a swanky Vegas nightclub than a Donald Trump fever dream. Everything about Jay-Z's Armand de Brignac Brut Rosé Ace of Spades screams luxury: the lacquered box, the insane metallic-pink bottle and the opulence of the wine itself. Made by Cattier, a very credible Champagne house in Chigny-les-Roses, this bottling is built on a base of pinot noir and pinot meunier, with a bit of chardonnay thrown in for lift. It's damn good wine, intensely fruity and meaty, with a surprising mineral intensity, and plenty of what wine writers are fond of calling "vinosity." I’m not sure I’d pay $400 for it (actually, I am sure — I wouldn’t), but if money is no object and you booked a suite at the Bellagio for the weekend, you won’t be sorry to have a couple of these in the fridge. … Where to begin with 50 Cent's Champagne Castelnau, Brut Rosé Le Chemin du Roi? Let’s start with the fact that the price tag is an outrageous $350. And what does that buy you? An utterly hilarious package, for starters: a huge, plastic king chess piece dominates the face of the bottle, protruding about a half-inch from the glass. It’s too bad, really, because the insane packaging obscures what is ultimately the best part of this wine: its beautiful copper-tinged hue. And the color is, indeed, the very best part. In the glass, I was struck by how huge the bubbles were … a foreboding sign of what was to come, for instead of the fine mousse and opulent creaminess I expect from good champagne (and certainly from one in this price range), Le Chemin du Roi calls to mind the prickly, overtly carbonated mouthfeel of a mediocre club soda.
If you have $350 burning a hole in your pocket and a hankering for pink Champagne, track down a bottle of Selosse Rosé (or the much-easier-to-find Dom Perignon Rosé) and use the extra thirty bucks to buy some Brillat-Savarin to go with it.
TASTING NOTES: Wowowow. The fact that this Game of Thrones 2016 Chardonnay is made at all is astonishing. I’m a fan of George R.R. Martin, but the tie-in packaging motifs — Baratheons, Khaleesi, dragons, the HBO logo — are turned up to 11. It’s all a little much. The $19.99 wine is, frankly, atrocious: some pear, some apple, an odd floral character that I couldn’t pin down until I found out that there’s 10 percent riesling blended in, all backed by an incredibly off-putting yogurty quality. Not recommended. … This $35 East Bend 2015 from Drew Barrymore’s Carmel Road project falls between a nicely restrained chardonnay and one that's been subjected to sadistic winemaking techniques to enhance opulence. There’s a real wine lurking in here, with orchard fruit and citrus flavors — but you have to dig below the distracting vanillin woodsmoke and oak, which sits on top like a layer of fog in a valley.
WINNER: Drew Barrymore
TASTING NOTES: The label of producer Nigel Lythgoe's $24 Villa San-Juliette Rosé Reserve 2017 promises a crisp, refreshing, fruity, bright, flavorful, vibrant, luscious, delicate offering. That's a lot for any wine to live up to! I'll give them fruity and luscious, but this is a big, blowsy wine, based on Grenache and its spicy intensity. Competent, but in a broad, powerful style suited much more for red wine drinkers. And maybe that’s what they’re going for — after all, it’s designated a "Reserve" wine, which makes little sense to me in the context of a rosé. But who am I to judge? … I wanted to be snarky about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's Miraval Cotes de Provence Rosé 2017, ne plus ultra of celebrity wine, sold for $20, but it's really pretty solid, made by the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel. They nailed the gorgeous, pale salmon-pink color, and the summer aromas of red berries and melon. It's a bit broad and weighty for me, but ice it down, take it to the beach, be happy. My only misgiving? The awkward orb-shaped bottle, which is hard to shove in a beach bag.
WINNER: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
TASTING NOTES: The Coppolas have been in the wine game since the 1970s. Given its ubiquity in grocery stores, I was prepared to hate the 2015 Director's Cabernet. I was pleasantly surprised: It's absolutely fine, easy to drink and totally inoffensive, made to appeal to a broad spectrum of drinkers. It’s really quite pretty in the glass, more on the red end of the continuum than the purple/black, appealingly looking a lot more like claret than ink. Good balance of fruit and earth both on the nose and in the mouth, with cassis, oak spice and dusty earth — and, at (only) 13.5 percent, a reasonably restrained example of California winemaking. For $20, I'm not mad at it. … From screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen and his very talented winemaker, Mark Herold, this Moon Mountain District 2014 is a genuine "cult" cab. It fully looks the part, bearing all the superficial hallmarks of fancy California wine: estate-grown mountain fruit, understated label on nice paper, a bottle so heavy that it feels full even when it’s empty, relatively limited production. A behemoth of a wine, it delivers on its $75 tag with inky darkness, brooding aromas of blue and black fruits, a dollop of new oak, robust tannins and plenty of weight. Not my style, but inarguably well made. If I were an assistant for a high-powered agent, I’d probably give this to my boss for Christmas.
WINNER: Robert Mark Kamen
Editor’s note: We attempted to ship a rival pinot to Parsons before he left for a trip to Italy, but we failed to get it to him in time. Below are his tasting notes for THR's sole pinot pick, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2016.
TASTING NOTES: Even the packaging of this wine sets it apart from the rest: it looks like quality wine, neither too generic nor too over-the-top. And indeed, this is a real-deal, very solid Pinot Noir. It’s made by Sam Neill on his home New Zealand turf, farmed organically, harvested by hand from estate-grown fruit and made with restraint. These are all very good decisions, and the wine is all the better for them. It’s beautiful in the glass, a clear, bright ruby red, and the aromatics hit all the right notes for a high-quality New Zealand pinot: fresh red and black fruits with some warm spice and woodsy herbal tones underneath. It’s very elegant in the mouth, fresh and not too broad but very friendly and drinkable. Absolutely on the level. I’m impressed.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.