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The Social Swirl

Chef Marc Murphy and Pamela Schein Murphy of New York City's Landmarc invite their friends to a delicious dinner party with a perk: The guests will all learn how to recognize aromas in wines, from caramel to blueberries.

You know it's not a regular wine tasting when someone holds up a glass and says, "Hmm, smells like grapefruit"—and the glass has grapefruit segments in it. But that's the idea behind the wine-tasting party that chef Marc Murphy of Manhattan's new Landmarc and his wife, Pamela Schein Murphy, are throwing to teach people the vocabulary to describe aromas in wine. On a long table in their apartment, the Murphys set out nine bottles of wine along with glasses holding an ingredient that matches a prominent aroma in each—blueberries, say, for an Argentinean Malbec. One guest sniffs from a glass containing honeycomb, then sips from a glass of Labouré-Roi St. Armand Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay. Another takes a whiff from a glass with a wedge of green pepper, then tries a Bordeaux and says, "Whoa, definitely green pepper."

Marc is the perfect person to host a component tasting party, because he thinks about wine even more than most chefs do. Landmarc has gotten attention not only for its refined comfort food, but also for its well-priced wine list; customers pay roughly retail prices for bottles rather than the usual 200 to 300 percent restaurant markup. Diners can order a half-bottle for the same amount they would pay for a glass elsewhere. Or they can try a bottle of one of Napa Valley's most famous Cabernet blends, the 2000 Joseph Phelps Insignia, for only $120—about $10 more than the price at a wine shop (assuming you could even find it there) and about half what it would cost in most restaurants.

Landmarc keeps its prices low because the Murphys want it to be a neighborhood restaurant. "I had all this high-end experience at places like Le Miraville in Paris and Cellar in the Sky and Le Cirque in New York City. I wanted to open a place my friends could go to every night," Marc says. And he's succeeded: "There's not a night where there aren't four or five tables of people Pam and I know really well," he says.

The party this afternoon includes some of those Landmarc regulars, including Bruce Bozzi, a childhood friend of Pamela's whose family co-owns the Palm restaurant group, and filmmaker-actor Edward Burns and his wife, model Christy Turlington Burns, who live a block away. (The Murphys live two blocks from Landmarc; you can even see the restaurant from their window.) Although Marc has cooked dishes to match the wines at the party, he has enlisted his wine and beverage director, David Lombardo, to run the tasting itself. "We give Dave a hard time by telling him, 'Don't turn into a cork dork! We're talking about grape juice here!'" Marc says. But that risk seems low: David, who once worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, is completely down-to-earth.

It's not necessary to buy expensive wines for this kind of tasting: None of the bottles that Marc and David picked would cost more than $15 retail. They also suggest focusing on the most familiar aroma pairings: green pepper and Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, or grass and Chenin Blanc. "What I encourage people to do is taste different grape varietals," David says, pouring a glass of Paul Jaboulet Aîné Parallèle 45, a Rhône blend of Grenache and Syrah, next to a glass of cherries.

"The truth is that there are so many different components in one glass of wine," he adds. "You might smell ten different things that I don't smell. But then you'll mention one of them, and I'll say, 'Oh, yeah—I smell that.' Wine isn't limited to just one aroma—unless you want to buy Boone's Farm strawberry-flavored wine."

As the party progresses, everyone gets into the game. There's general agreement that a Pascal Jolivet Attitude Sauvignon Blanc from France's Loire Valley smells more like grapefruit than grapefruit itself. "That's because you're not swirling your grapefruit segments," David says with a laugh. Marc asks Christy Turlington Burns to sniff the honeycomb, then pours her a little of the Labouré-Roi St. Armand Mâcon-Villages and says, "If you're used to oaky California Chardonnays, this is different," noting the wine's honey-and-lemon-curd scent. After she takes a wary sip, she smiles. "Wow—I really like this, and I don't usually like Chardonnays."

A little later, after everyone has finished the tasting, Marc serves dishes paired with the wines. Guests sample his four-cheese baked spaghetti alongside a glass of the Mâcon-Villages, the acidity of the wine balancing the pasta's creaminess. A warm bacon-studded frisée salad is delicious with a smoky 2002 Santa Julia Malbec from Argentina. And the cream-biscuit-topped chicken potpie—an ideal match for the caramel-oak scent and rich black cherry flavors of the 2000 Terrilogio Toscana, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot—has people going back for seconds and even thirds.

As the sun starts going down, everyone is still eating, the wine's still flowing, and nobody shows any sign of leaving. David, for one, isn't surprised. After all, this is what learning about wine should be: a little education and a lot of enjoyment. "The truth is you can read everything you want about wine, but that's not going to make much difference unless you taste it," he says, before taking a bite of creamy chocolate mousse. "I can tell you over and over how great Marc's dessert is, but unless you try it for yourself, you'll never really know what it's like."

Landmarc restaurant, 179 West Broadway, New York City (212-343-3883 or landmarc-restaurant.com).

Published April 2005
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